Bin Laden: From pious teen to the 'personification of evil'

Osama bin Laden's interests aligned with the US when he joined the Afghan war against Soviet troops in the 1980s, building a reputation as a resourceful commander. Photo / AFP
Osama bin Laden's interests aligned with the US when he joined the Afghan war against Soviet troops in the 1980s, building a reputation as a resourceful commander. Photo / AFP

The most intense manhunt in history finally caught up with Osama bin Laden, but his life's story will be told many different ways by different people.

Reviled in the West as the personification of evil, bin Laden was admired and even revered by some fellow Muslims who embraced his vision of unending jihad against the United States and Arab governments he deemed infidels.

Bin Laden's money and preaching inspired the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which killed almost 3000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and ripped apart the US's feeling of security in the world.

His actions set off a chain of events that led the US into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a clandestine war against extreme Islamic adherents that touched scores of countries.

Perhaps as significant was his ability - even from hiding - to inspire terrorists to murder in his name.

No links have been established between al-Qaeda and the March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid, Spain, that killed 191 people, nor the four British Muslim suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London on July 7, 2005.

Yet few believe the attacks would have taken place had bin Laden not aroused the passions of young Muslim radicals the world over.

Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia in 1957. He became known as the most pious of the sons among his wealthy father's 54 children.

Bin Laden's path to militant Islam began as a teenager in the 1970s when he was caught up in the fundamentalist movement sweeping Saudi Arabia. He was a voracious reader of Islamic literature and listened to weekly sermons in the holy city of Mecca.

Thin, bearded and more than 1.8m tall, bin Laden joined the Afghans' war against invading Soviet troops in the 1980s and gained a reputation as a courageous and resourceful commander.

At the time, bin Laden's interests converged with those of the US, which backed the "holy war" against Soviet occupation with money and arms.

But a seminal moment in bin Laden's life came in 1990, when US troops landed on Saudi soil to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Bin Laden tried to dissuade the government from allowing non-Muslim armies into the land, but the Saudi leadership turned to the US to protect its vast oil reserves. When bin Laden continued criticising the close alliance with Washington, he was stripped of Saudi citizenship.

"I saw radical changes in his personality as he changed from a calm, peaceful and gentle man interested in helping Muslims, into a person who believed that he would be able to amass and command an army to liberate Kuwait. It revealed his arrogance and his haughtiness," Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said in 2001.

Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based newspaper, spent 10 days with bin Laden in an Afghan cave in 1996. He said bin Laden "touched the root of the grievances of millions in the Arab world" when he presented himself as the alternative to Arab regimes that have been incapable of liberating Arab land from Israeli occupation.

He said bin Laden and his followers never feared death.

"Those guys spoke about death the way young men talk about going to the disco," Atwan said. "They envied those who fell in battle because they died as martyrs in God's cause."

Still, bin Laden had a knack for staying alive. After being kicked out of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden sought refuge in Sudan. The African country acceded to a US request and offered to turn bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia in 1996, but his native country declined, afraid a trial would destabilise the country.

Back in Afghanistan - allowed in by the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani - bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network prepared for the holy war that turned him into Washington's No1 enemy.

When the Taleban - who would eventually give him refuge - first took control of Kabul in September 1996, bin Laden and his Arab followers kept a low profile, uncertain of their place under the new regime. Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar called bin Laden to southern Kandahar from his headquarters in Tora Bora and eventually, through large and continual financial contributions to the isolated Taleban, bin Laden became dependent on the religious militia for his survival.

He closely monitored world affairs. Almost daily, he and his men - Egyptians, Yemenis, Saudis, among others - practised attacks, hurling explosives at targets and shooting at imaginary enemies. In Afghanistan, bin Laden was often accompanied by his four wives - the maximum Islam allows. Estimates on the number of his children range up to 23.

Al-Qaeda's first big strike after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan was on August 7, 1998, when explosions rocked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Most of the victims were African, but 12 Americans were killed.

Days later, bin Laden escaped a cruise missile strike on one of his training camps in Afghanistan launched by the US in retaliation. Bin Laden is believed to have been at the Zhawar Kili Al-Badr camp for a meeting with several of his top men, but left shortly before some 70 tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into the complex.

Since September 11, bin Laden stayed a step ahead of the dragnet - perhaps the largest in history for a single individual.

As the Taleban quickly fell under pressure of the US bombardment, bin Laden fled into the inhospitable mountains in the seam that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, keeping up a spotty stream of chatter - first in video tapes and then in scratchy audio recordings - to warn his Western pursuers of more bloodshed.

At several points in the years since the September 11 attacks, bin Laden's capture or death had appeared imminent. After the March 2003 arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, officials in Islamabad and Washington denied a stream of rumours that bin Laden had been captured.

Through it all, bin Laden vowed repeatedly that he was willing to die in his fight to drive the Israelis from Jerusalem and Americans from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

"America can't get me alive," bin Laden said shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan. "I can be eliminated, but not my mission."

- AP

- NZ Herald

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