Monday, May. 02, 2011
Death Comes for the Master Terrorist: Osama bin Laden (1957-2011)
By Lisa Beyer
Almost 10 years ago, Osama bin Laden ghosted away from the Afghan battlefields. Afterward, it was as if the doomsday sheik had slipped into a twilight zone in which the only proof that he was alive was the chilling voice on a spool of tape, the occasional video image — and the string of
terrorist outrages and wars around the globe that claimed inspiration from him and his cause. At 11:35 p.m. E.T. on May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama made a dramatic television appearance to announce that bin Laden, whose capture or killing was the top priority of CIA chief Leon Panetta, was dead. The leader of al-Qaeda, Obama said, had been tracked by way of intelligence sources in August 2010, and earlier on May 1, a team of U.S. operatives found him at a compound in Pakistan in the town of Abbottabad, 93 miles (150 km) north of Islamabad and the home of the Pakistani army's training academy. The location — not in the increasingly militant
heartland of Punjab and not too far from the unsettled frontier and tribal areas — was a peaceful,
quiet patch, and the perfect place to hide until May 1.
After a brief firefight, the fugitive leader of al-Qaeda was killed and his body retrieved. The long search for the man seen as the embodiment of evil in the U.S. and much of the West was over. Outside the White House, despite the late hour, a group of young people gathered to cheer. George W. Bush, under whose presidency the 9/11 attacks occurred, released a statement saying, "The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done."
Osama bin laden was not born to the role of terrorist ringleader. He wasn't brilliant. He didn't give great speeches. He lacked force of personality. Before he became notorious, he tended to make almost no impression at all on the people he met. He was not charismatic. He was far too regular for that. You might expect from a supreme mass murderer a volatile temper, an overinflated sense of self. He had neither of those traits. He had a diabolical mind, clearly, but not a diabolical temperament. By the accounts of those who knew him, bin Laden was serene and modest in his manner. "He was gentle and very genuine," says Issam al-Turabi, a former friend of bin Laden's in Sudan. "He was never nervous, never aggressive, always calm."
Bin Laden's seeming temperance made his manifest bloody-mindedness all the harder to fathom. Here was a man who was attentive to those around him, considerate of their needs and respectful of their views, yet who believed in and facilitated killing wholesale. The gap between demeanor and deed can be explained in part by the distinction bin Laden made in people. Fellow Muslims were the only ones who mattered; infidels were loathsome. Plenty of bigots, of course, get through life without murdering those they hate. So bin Laden's motivation had to go deeper than antipathy — deeper than ideology too, since many Muslims shared his beliefs without resorting to his brutal means.
Were the seeds of evil always present within bin Laden? His early history gives no hint of that. Instead, it would seem that bin Laden's life — and the strong personalities to which the
impressionable and fatherless young man was exposed — took him to the outermost extreme, one
graduated step at a time. At points in between, he might have returned to the fate to which he was born, that of a prosperous merchant, or perhaps more to his liking, that of a gentleman farmer. That his path led instead to repudiation, exile and, finally, death was his own doing, but he blamed his enemies for his alienation nonetheless. His grudge against Western and Arab powers, in that
sense, was personal. How ironic that a man who contained his ego so well in private company would wind up a megalomaniac on the world stage.
How, precisely, bin Laden's Syrian mother and Saudi father got together is a matter of dispute. According to a relative, the two met after Mohammed bin Laden, then a prosperous contractor in Saudi Arabia, visited the Syrian city of Lattakia in the mid-1950s. There, according to this account, Mohammed developed a friendship with Ibrahim Ghanem, whose fetching sister Alia he fell in love with, married and took home to Saudi Arabia. But Ahmad al-Sayed, the elderly mayor of Alia's home village, Jabaryoun, eight miles from Lattakia, says Alia was originally the bride of a Saudi prince; when he died, she wed bin Laden.
In any case, Mohammed and Alia had at least one thing in common: humble roots. The Ghanem clan was poor in those days — how poor, says al-Sayed, "you cannot imagine." As for
Mohammed, once a porter in coastal Aden, he had left his native Yemen as a destitute young man to make his fortune in Saudi Arabia. It was no small fortune. Having befriended the kingdom's founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, Mohammed won precious government contracts for highways, palaces and, most prestigious of all, renovations of religious sites in Mecca and Medina, the cities holiest to Islam. With his 22 wives — never more than four at a time, in accordance with
Muslim law — Mohammed had 54 children. Osama was born — in the capital of Riyadh in 1957
— somewhere in the middle; his sprawling family couldn't identify his ranking precisely. Even master terrorists start off small and helpless. A woman from Jabaryoun remembers holding bin Laden as an infant: "He cried a little, but he used to smile to anyone who bantered with him." As he grew, she says, he displayed "a distinguished intelligence." Until he was 18, bin Laden, locals say, spent summers with his mother in Jabaryoun, a remote, hardscrabble village of 500 people in a region blanketed with orange and olive trees. Villagers remember bin Laden as a mild-mannered boy who, according to one, "didn't like noise or light." Another neighbor, who like others refuses to be identified, says bin Laden was "quiet, humble and polite. When he spoke, he was convincing, though he spoke little." Even as a boy, bin Laden was particularly devout. A male relative says he liked to discuss religious matters with local clerics. "He carefully listened to and understood his debater before giving any answer. He never gave a swift answer. He used to take his time before uttering his reply."
By various accounts, the relationship between bin Laden and his mother was strong. "She loved Osama very much, as he was her only child," recalls Alia's brother Mohammed Ghanem. Bin Laden, according to friends, was devoted to his mother. During his exile in Afghanistan, he regularly phoned her in Saudi Arabia, calls that were bugged by the National Security Agency. In December 2001, as U.S. forces closed in on what was thought to be bin Laden's redoubt in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan, his half brother Abdullah Mohammed told London's Sunday
Telegraph that Alia was "devastated" by the developments. She was prescribed tranquilizers, he said, and had become a recluse in her apartment.
Eventually Mohammed bin Laden settled in Jidda, on the Red Sea coast, a cosmopolitan city by Saudi standards. He kept each of his wives and their children in a separate house within one compound. The boys were put to work early in the family business, the Saudi Binladin Group, today a billion-dollar concern with a global reach. "They don't spoil their sons as other merchant families in Jidda do," says Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist who knows the family. With great pride, Osama once told Hamid Mir, editor of the Daily Ausaf, an Urdu newspaper in
Islamabad, that he was the only child who traveled with his father on business. The young bin
Laden was especially interested in the company's renovations of the sacred Prophet's Mosque in Medina.
Bin Laden preferred getting his hands dirty to hanging around the Binladin Group boardroom. "He told me that he used to enjoy riding tractors himself, not as a big boss but as a laborer," says Khashoggi. Bin Laden was always earthy. His relatives in Jabaryoun recall that on his summer sojourns he loved to go hiking and mountain climbing, to hunt and ride horses. In Saudi Arabia, he would go camping with his school chums. "He was the type who likes the desert," says Khashoggi.
When bin Laden was 10, his father, whom he worshipped, died in a plane crash. "He was so sad," recalls a relative in Jabaryoun. "It took him so long to overcome this tragedy." Talking about it to Hamid Mir years later, bin Laden was stoic. "It was very tragic news for me," he told Mir, "but I heard it with a lot of patience."
So close were the bin Ladens to the Saudi royal family that upon Mohammed's death, King Faisal began supervising the rearing of the bin Laden children until the oldest son, Salem, could take over. Osama's mother married another Jidda businessman, with whom she had more children, and she and Osama moved out of the bin Laden compound. While many of his half brothers were educated in the West, Osama, the young traditionalist, stuck close to home, attending high school in Jidda. Some reports have suggested that as a young man he caroused the nightclubs of Beirut. Khashoggi dismisses those rumors: "He was not like that. He was very strict." The cosmopolitan world, it seemed, never interested bin Laden.
On one of his visits to Jabaryoun, "a love story developed" between bin Laden and his first cousin Najwa, according to the girl's brother Naji, now a schoolteacher. The couple wed when bin Laden was 19 and Najwa 13. Young brides and marriage between cousins are not uncommon in the Arab world. "They were so happy at that time," says Naji. The next year, their first child, Abdullah, was born.
In keeping with his piety, bin Laden kept his life basic, despite the small fortune he had inherited from his father. He bought a modest two-story house in north Jidda and used the bottom floor as an office and the top for family quarters. He had an eccentric attachment to simplicity. Friends recall that he once knocked a rough hole through a wall in order to connect two rooms together, then hung a curtain from two nails for a door. When friends suggested he get someone to smooth out the edges and install a real door, he took them by the hand and walked them from one room to the other to demonstrate that the hole served its purpose. "But it could be nicer," his friends said, to which bin Laden replied, "There is no need for that."
If the seeds of fanaticism were already present, they began to sprout when bin Laden attended college. He enrolled to study business administration at King Abdulaziz University in Jidda but was soon distracted. It was in Jidda where he apparently first encountered the man who would become his second father figure.
Abdullah Azzam, an Islamic scholar at the university who was bin Laden's senior by 16 years, was a Palestinian radical whose interest in the Palestinian cause had shifted because of its narrow, nationalistic focus. Azzam was a pan-Islamist, dedicated to uniting the entire Muslim world in a pure Islamic state through holy war. A follower of the mainstream fundamentalist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, Azzam had a magnetic personality, and his ideas, which were just coming into fashion at the time, inspired bin Laden.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Azzam sped to the front to help his fellow
Muslims — the rebel Afghans known as the mujahedin — confront the infidel invaders. In the
Pakistani border city of Peshawar, Azzam cut a distinctive figure in his flowing robes and checkered kaffiyeh headdress; his addresses at the Lajna Aldawat Mosque drew overflow crowds. Bin Laden dropped out of school and followed Azzam. In Peshawar, they ran an agency called the Maktab al-Khidmat (the Service Office), which provided assistance to the so-called Arab Afghans, Arab volunteers who showed up to help the mujahedin. Bin Laden, using his family connections
in Saudi Arabia, was the chief fundraiser.
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.
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." <