Death Comes for the Master Terrorist: Osama bin Laden (1957-2011)

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Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, in an April 1998 file photo

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Returning to Saudi Arabia, where he was received as a national hero for his exploits in Afghanistan, bin Laden began giving speeches in mosques calling for the continuation of jihad. He was summoned for questioning by the authorities. According to Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief, bin Laden assured his questioners that he had no intention of opposing the Saudi regime. Instead, according to Prince Turki, bin Laden began organizing Arab veterans of the Afghan war to fight against the Marxist regime of South Yemen next door. This was too close for the Saudi regime's comfort. It yanked his passport so that he could no longer travel abroad. "He felt humiliated," recalls Khashoggi. "He had become a legend in Afghanistan, a leader of Arab mujahedin, a big shot. Now in his own country, he's nobody. Any policeman can stop him from leaving the country. He was very upset. This was the first circumstance that kind of pushed him to the extreme."

There were more pushes to come. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden offered to organize for the Saudi government 100,000 Arab volunteers to defend the nation and repel Iraq. He was outraged when his proposal was spurned. Instead, for the first time, the government invited U.S. forces to establish a presence in Saudi Arabia. For bin Laden and many other Muslims, having infidel soldiers on the sacred land of the Prophet Muhammad's birth was heresy.

To escape the strictures his government had imposed on him, bin Laden persuaded the authorities to let him fly to Afghanistan, supposedly to mediate among the country's warlords. From there, he made his way to Sudan to participate in the experiment with Islamic rule that had started there in 1989, when supporters of the Sorbonne-educated cleric Hassan al-Turabi took power in a coup. With al-Turabi calling the shots, Sudan became a beacon for Islamic activists and revolutionaries, including hundreds of Arab Afghans who were no longer welcome in their native lands. Khartoum became to fundamentalism what Moscow had been to communism. The Sudanese capital became a haven for hard-line Palestinian outfits such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and for Egyptian groups such as al-Jihad and al-Jama'a al-Islamiya.

In Riyad, a wealthy suburb of Khartoum, bin Laden rented a chocolate-colored house of three stories, one for each of the wives he had by then acquired. Despite summer temperatures of more than 100°F (38°C), bin Laden refused to install air conditioning or otherwise use electricity in the house. Khashoggi, who visited him in Khartoum, remembers bin Laden's saying, "We don't need to iron our clothes. Just hang it in fresh air and wear it."

Having arrived in Sudan in a chartered plane full of secondhand construction equipment, bin Laden quickly won government contracts, including one to build a 250-mile (402 km) highway. He seemed to throw himself into business. He began importing pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies. He bought a tannery and exported leather, as well as sesame, cotton and sorghum. And on land in southeastern Sudan, he cultivated sunflowers.

Not all of bin Laden's ventures were successful. He planted acacia trees, which produce gum arabic, and tried to speed the trees' growth by pumping nitrogen and other fertilizers into the soil. But that made the weeds and grasses bloom out of control, and the project failed. Says a Sudanese intelligence official: "He did not use specialists. He brought people whom he trusted, who had fought with him in the Afghan war. He wanted to repay them with some favors."

Bin Laden kept a low profile in Sudan, but he did become friendly with al-Turabi's son Issam. Bin Laden, Issam recalls, loved watching nature videos. The two men shared a passion for horses. The younger al-Turabi sold his new friend nine thoroughbreds raised by his family. Bin Laden already had a stable of four horses imported from Saudi Arabia, three of them Arabs, the fourth a thoroughbred he claimed was Northern Peace, a descendant of the famous American racehorse Northern Dancer. Bin Laden and al-Turabi would ride twice a week for hours in the greenbelt surrounding Khartoum. "I think he was thinking of settling here," says al-Turabi, adding that bin Laden often wore the Sudanese-style white djellaba, or robe, and the 16-ft. (5 m) Sudanese turban rather than the simpler Saudi one. "He was very generous," al-Turabi recalls. "He would give people money: stable boys, drivers. He ate with them too. No one was below him. We Sudanese, when you are rich and famous and we find you humble, we really like you."

Not everyone fell under bin Laden's spell. In 1993 al-Turabi took him to the Khartoum racetrack, though as a strict Muslim, bin Laden would not gamble. When a military band struck up a marching beat, bin Laden was horrified and asked his friend to have it stop. "He considered music un-Islamic," says al-Turabi. The minister of sports and youth, also in attendance, ordered that the band continue. "Bin Laden was very mad," recalls racing-club member Abdin Mohammed Ali. "He left very quickly, like this," he says, waving his hands in imitation of bin Laden and prompting other club members to join in, shouting and gesticulating. "Why should we stop it?" asks Ali. "He is a guest in our country; he should not insult our sovereignty."

In truth, the Sudanese period was more than an idyll of rural rides and industrial enterprise. Bin Laden also stayed close to the violent groups that were coalescing in Sudan. Beginning with the killing of the speaker of the Egyptian parliament in 1990, Islamic militants indirectly supported by Khartoum began a terrorism spree that included attacks on tourists in Egypt and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

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