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His destiny would change with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. The Afghan war prompted the billionaire's son to launch an ambitious plan to confront the Soviets with a small group of Arabs under his command. That group eventually provided the nucleus of al-Qaeda, which bin Laden founded in 1988 as the war against the Soviets began to wind down. The purpose of al-Qaeda was to take jihad to other parts of the globe and eventually to the U.S., the nation he believed was leading a Western conspiracy to destroy true Islam. In the 1990s bin Laden would often describe America as "the head of the snake."
Jamal Khalifa, his best friend at the university in Jidda and later also his brother-in-law, told me bin Laden was driven not only by a desire to implement what he saw as God's will but also by a fear of divine punishment if he failed to do so. So not defending Islam from what he came to believe was its most important enemy would be disobeying God, something he would never do.
In 1997, when I was a producer for CNN, I met with bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan to film his first television interview. He struck me as intelligent and well informed, someone who comported himself more like a cleric than like the revolutionary he was quickly becoming. His followers treated bin Laden with great deference, referring to him as "the sheik," and hung on his every pronouncement.
During the course of that interview, bin Laden laid out his rationale for his plan to attack the U.S., whose support for Israel and the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt made it, in his mind, the enemy of Islam. Bin Laden also explained that the U.S. was as weak as the Soviet Union had been, and he cited the American withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s as evidence for this view. He poured scorn on the notion that the U.S. thought of itself as a superpower "even after all these successive defeats."
That would turn out to be a dangerous delusion, which would culminate in bin Laden's death at the hands of the same U.S. soldiers he had long disparaged as weaklings. Now that he is gone, there will inevitably be some jockeying to succeed him. A U.S. counterterrorism official told me that there was "no succession plan in place" to replace bin Laden. While the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri had long been his deputy, he is not the natural, charismatic leader that bin Laden was. U.S. officials believe that al-Zawahiri is not popular with his colleagues, and they hope there will be disharmony and discord as the militants sort out the succession.
As they do so, the jihadists will be mindful that their world has passed them by. The al-Qaeda leadership, its foot soldiers and its ideology played no role in the series of protests and revolts that have rolled across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt and then on to Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Bin Laden must have watched these events unfold with a mixture of excitement and deep worry. Overthrowing the dictatorships and monarchies of the Middle East was long his central goal, but the Arab revolutions were not the kind he had envisioned. Protesters in the streets of Tunis and Cairo didn't carry placards with pictures of bin Laden's face, and the Facebook revolutionaries who launched the uprisings represent everything al-Qaeda hates: they are secular, liberal and antiauthoritarian, and their ranks include women. The eventual outcome of these revolts will not be to al-Qaeda's satisfaction either, because almost no one in the streets of Egypt, Libya or Yemen is clamoring for the imposition of a Taliban-style theocracy, al-Qaeda's preferred end for the states in the region.
Between the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden, it is hard to imagine greater blows to al-Qaeda's ideology and organization. President Obama has characterized al-Qaeda and its affiliates as "small men on the wrong side of history." For al-Qaeda, that history just sped up, as bin Laden's body floated down into the ocean deeps and its proper place in the unmarked grave of discarded lies.
Bergen is the director of the national-security-studies program at the New America Foundation. His latest book is The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda