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Profile: Osama bin Laden

Updated: September 2007

Who is Osama bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden is the founder and leader of the international terrorist network al-Qaeda, and the U.S. government's prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His precise whereabouts are unknown, but several audio and video tapes of bin Laden have surfaced since 2001, suggesting that he is still alive.

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What is bin Laden's ideology?

Bin Laden and other militant Islamist leaders issued a 1998 manifesto denouncing the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, U.S. support of Israel, and the economic sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. "To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country," the manifesto reads, "until their armies, shattered and broken-winged, depart from all the lands of Islam." Bin Laden regards Western institutions—coed schools, MTV, Rotary clubs, democracy itself—as depraved.

Has bin Laden declared war on the United States?

Yes, in 1996. "Due to the imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces," he wrote, "a suitable means of fighting must be adopted, i.e., using fast-moving, light forces that work under complete secrecy."

Does bin Laden have the authority to issue Muslim religious rulings?

Technically, no. While he often invokes God and quotes the Quran, bin Laden is not a certified expert on Islam; he holds degrees in civil engineering and public administration. He consults with militant clerics who promote a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, but most Muslims do not follow their rulings.

Where does bin Laden come from?

Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia in 1957 to a Syrian mother and Yemeni father. He is one of fifty-odd children of the multiple wives of Mohammed bin Laden, a construction magnate who made his fortune building palaces for the Saudi royal family.

Is bin Laden rich?

Yes. Estimates of his inheritance range from $30 million to $300 million, but it's hard to say how much is left, since he has used his fortune to fund al-Qaeda and he keeps his assets hidden. His family, which controls the Saudi Binladin Group, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, has distanced itself from Osama, but U.S. investigators suspect some family members continued to act as conduits to family accounts.

When did bin Laden first become radicalized?

As a student in Jeddah in the late 1970s, bin Laden fell in with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical group devoted to establishing a pan-Islamic state.

When did bin Laden become involved with Afghanistan?

During the 1979-89 war against the Soviets. Bin Laden raised money and supplied heavy machinery for the anticommunist mujahadeen, or holy warriors, fighting the Soviet invasion. He also provided financing for the so-called Services Office, which recruited and trained a brigade of foreign Muslim militants that fought alongside the Afghan mujahadeen.

How did bin Laden found al-Qaeda?

Once the Afghan resistance—financed by the Saudis and the United States—began to wear down the Soviet army, bin Laden looked to extend the holy war beyond Afghanistan. Bin Laden forged an alliance with radical Islamist groups in Egypt and elsewhere, organizing al-Qaeda in 1988.

Wasn’t bin Laden on America’s side in Afghanistan in the 1980s?

Yes and no. The United States and bin Laden supported the Afghan resistance, but for different reasons. Containing Communism was the U.S. government's top priority. It gave support to the mujahadeen through the Pakistani ISI military intelligence service, which decided how to apportion aid among resistance groups. Bin Laden wanted to expel the atheist Soviets and install a fundamentalist Islamic regime. While CIA case officers knew of bin Laden's existence, the U.S. had no direct ties to his operations.

When did bin Laden begin to consider the United States his enemy?

In the 1980s, bin Laden disdained America for its alliances with Israel and moderate Muslim states, but it was the Gulf crisis that crystallized his hatred. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden wanted Arab veterans of the Afghan war to help the Saudi army defend Saudi Arabia. He saw the arrival of American troops to confront Saddam—and the continued U.S. military presence in the Gulf after the war—as a violation of the sanctity of Muslim territory.

How has the Saudi government handled bin Laden?

When he returned from the Afghan war in 1989, bin Laden gave speeches accusing the Saudi monarchy of being corrupt, cruel, and un-Islamic. He was placed under virtual house arrest in 1991, and later that year went into exile. (Some accounts say his well-placed family helped him slip out of the country; others say the Saudi government wanted him to leave.) In 1994, the Saudi government stripped bin Laden of his citizenship and said it had frozen his assets.

How did bin Laden end up back in Afghanistan?

After he left Saudi Arabia in 1991, bin Laden settled in Sudan, where he established his own businesses and set up training camps for al-Qaeda. U.S. and Saudi pressure forced him to abandon Sudan in 1996; back then, the United States sought to keep bin Laden on the run, not to capture him. Bin Laden fled to Afghanistan, where the Taliban offered him a base in exchange for money to fund their fighters. Saudi Arabia attempted to pressure the Taliban into turning bin Laden over to them after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The Taliban's refusal to do so led to the recall of the Saudi ambassador and a break in diplomatic relations.

Before September 11, how did America pursue bin Laden?

In several ways, including military strikes, diplomacy, legal action, and intelligence work. The United States used diplomatic pressure and the threat of UN sanctions to get Sudan to expel bin Laden in 1996. For several years, the CIA paid agents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan to monitor bin Laden's movements; after the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, the United States used cruise missiles to hit his Afghan bases. Also in 1998, a federal grand jury indicted bin Laden and twenty-one other Qaeda members for conspiring to kill Americans abroad; four men were convicted in May of 2001.

Was bin Laden behind the September 11 attacks?

Many in the Arab world are dubious, but investigators have found financial records, communications among Qaeda members, and other evidence linking bin Laden to the September 11 attacks. Moreover, bin Laden and other Qaeda operatives have effectively claimed responsibility for the attacks. In a videotape recorded in Afghanistan in November 2001, bin Laden celebrated the strikes on the World Trade Center. "We had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day," he said. "We calculated in advance the number of casualties." In another tape released in April 2002, bin Laden and one of his top deputies were shown kneeling to praise their "great victory" on September 11.

What is bin Laden’s connection to Iraq?

The relationship between bin Laden's al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq is a murky one, and has been the subject of much debate. Saddam's regime, in fact, was precisely the kind of secular Arab government bin Laden abhorred. In making the case for the war against Iraq, the Bush administration argued there were ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, warning the dictator might supply the terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States—also known as the 9/11 Commission—however, concluded there was no U.S. intelligence supporting a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Peter Bergen, author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda's Leader, has noted tenuous links between Iraq and al-Qaeda and "may have played footsie in Sudan," but is quick to add "nothing came of it." Today, al-Qaeda does have a presence in Iraq. In February 2003, bin Laden stated in an audio tape that "Muslims in general and the Iraqis in particular must brace themselves for jihad against this unjust [U.S.] campaign and acquire ammunition and weapons." In another tape in December 2004, bin Laden referred to the Jordanian-born terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and in a tape aired in January 2006, he claimed "Iraq has become a point of attraction and recruitment of qualified resources." In this same tape, he threatened future attacks against the United States and offered a so-called truce based on a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Where is bin Laden?

We don't know. Bush administration officials have concluded that bin Laden was at the December 2001 battle of Tora Bora in southeastern Afghanistan but escaped. Bin Laden might have then hid in a cave complex in Afghanistan, slipped into semi-autonomous tribal regions in north Pakistan, or fled the area. Nearly a year passed after the battle of Tora Bora without any communication from bin Laden, and some U.S. officials, as well as Pakistan's leader General Pervez Musharraf, publicly stated they thought he might be dead. However, in November 2002, an audiotape surfaced that U.S. intelligence experts say was a recent recording of bin Laden, calling for new attacks against the United States and its allies. Since then, several other tapes have surfaced, including the January 2006 tape that experts authenticated, and a tape released in September 2007, apparently to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Intelligence and military officials believe bin Laden is somewhere in Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border. The FBI reward for information leading to his capture has increased from $25 million to $50 million.

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