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

  • Share
  • Read Later

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

(3 of 6)

In those early days, bin Laden divided his time between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and kept a hand in the family business. He even made a trip on behalf of the firm to Chicago, according to the Saudi businessman who says he received him there, to seal a contract with an American company. It was bin Laden's only known visit to a Western country.

Eventually, Afghanistan would become a full-time gig for bin Laden. In addition to aiding the war effort, he helped provide relief to Afghan refugees. Haji Dost Mohammed, an Afghan, remembers watching a blue pickup truck enter Peshawar's Jallozai refugee camp in 1982, bearing a load of dried dates, a gift from bin Laden, who was trying to oversee their distribution as hungry residents clawed their way to the cargo. As the clamor rose, the Saudi, as if he were still a boy averse to noise, turned in disgust and walked away.

Bin Laden did not cut much of a swath back then. "He was too young to grow a full beard," Dost Mohammed recalls. "It lay wispy on his cheeks." Nancy Dupree, an American consultant at the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief's Resource Information Center in Peshawar, which runs development projects in Afghanistan, says bin Laden once came in asking for help to import 24 bulldozers to reinforce mujahedin positions. "He made no impression, other than bothering me for things I didn't want to do," she says. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., met bin Laden to coordinate Saudi government assistance to the mujahedin and told the New York Times in late 2001, "I thought he couldn't lead eight ducks across the street."

Eventually, bin Laden, who had taken to dressing in the Afghan shalwar kameez, a loose-fitting, long tunic and pants, would join the fighting in Afghanistan. Some war experts have questioned the tales of his heroics; years later he looked unconvincing whenever he handled the Kalashnikov rifle he claimed to have taken off a Soviet soldier in hand-to-hand combat. But comrades-in-arms confirm that bin Laden did fight in the second half of the war.

He first saw action near the border town of Jaji in 1986. There, over 10 days, bin Laden successfully led a unit of Arab Afghans in repelling a Soviet attack. According to Khashoggi, it was out of the Jaji victory that bin Laden evolved the idea of turning the Arab Afghan brigade into his own permanent mujahedin group. "What I heard from Osama was that he established it to guarantee a reserve of Islamists ready to fight if there is a need for jihad anywhere," says Khashoggi. Thus was born al-Qaeda.

Bin Laden fought again in a failed effort to liberate Jalalabad from Soviet-backed government forces. Haji din Mohammed, a former mujahedin commander, recalls defending one side of a ridge about 10 miles (16 km) south of the city while bin Laden and a few others defended a bunker on the other. The government forces turned their heavy weapons on bin Laden's position. "We thought there would be no one left alive," says din Mohammed. But when he and his men crept forward, they found that bin Laden had repelled the advance and survived. "He fought bravely," he said. "He refused to flee."

As bin Laden would later tell it, fighting in Afghanistan was a way to fulfill the dreams of his late father. Osama told Hamid Mir that Mohammed bin Laden once instructed his company's engineers to convert 200 bulldozers into tanks for an attack on Israel. He wanted to liberate Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine, which has been under Israeli control since the 1967 war. The elder bin Laden was disappointed to hear that the conversion was impossible. "My father instructed me," Osama told Mir, "if you get a chance to be a part of the liberation of al-Aqsa Mosque, you must do it."

Bin Laden's adventures in Afghanistan seemed to build his confidence. His supporters began calling him, admiringly, "the Sheik." Despite his privileged background, he had an egalitarian way with people. He slept with his men on floors, shared their simple meals, played soccer with them and looked after their smallest requirements, like new shoes. At the same time, he began to dabble in self-promotion, hiring an Egyptian journalist to join him in Afghanistan to film and write about his exploits. Much later he would prove to be an effective propagandist.

And then the mujahedin won in Afghanistan. The repulsion of a powerful infidel invader was a heady victory for many in the Muslim world. But the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 produced a tangle of disputes among the winners. As local warlords fought for power in Afghanistan, the Arab Afghans debated what to do next. Azzam, who had opposed the creation of al-Qaeda and the inclusion in it of even the most radical militants, argued that the fighters should go home. But bin Laden was drifting out of Azzam's orbit and into that of the more fanatical Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and a leader of al-Jihad, the group behind the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Unlike bin Laden, al-Zawahiri came from a family with impeccable Islamic credentials: his grandfather had been the sheik of Cairo's al-Azhar University, the most prestigious center of Muslim learning. Like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri believed Afghanistan should be made the base for holy war elsewhere in the world. In November 1989, Azzam was killed in Peshawar by a car bomb planted by unknown assailants. Al-Zawahiri was now bin Laden's unrivaled new mentor.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6