Osama bin Laden
Part 1, Chapter 3
Osama was just like many of us who became part of the [Muslim] Brotherhood movement in Saudi Arabia. The only difference which set him apart from me and others, he was more religious, more literal, more fundamentalist. For example, he would not listen to music. He would not shake hands with a woman. He would not smoke. He would not watch television, unless it is news.
A good Muslim! 100 percent, you know?
—Sheikh Abdul Ghafar
I was ordered to fight all men until they say “there is no god but Allah.”
I was ordered to fight the people until they say there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad his prophet.
—Osama bin Laden
Elif Yavuz was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. She was already well-known in humanitarian circles for her energy and dedication to improving the lives of others. The Clinton Foundation, which had recently hired Yavuz to help with its programs in Africa, was very excited about this young Harvard graduate. With her due date just two short weeks away, she and boyfriend Ross Langdon went shopping at Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013. Yavuz and Langdon did not leave the shopping mall alive. They were among the first victims of a three-day attack by Islamist group Al-Shabaab that left 72 people dead and hundreds injured.
All Saints’ Church was built in 1883 in Peshawar, Pakistan as a place of worship for members of that country’s Christian minority. The interior walls are covered in biblical quotations elegantly painted in English, Hebrew, and Persian. A large congregation was filing out after Sunday services in All Saints on September 22, 2013 when two suicide bombers sent by the Taliban detonated explosive vests, one just outside and one inside the church. At least 80 were killed and over a hundred others injured. The Taliban group responsible for the attack has already said they will continue to target non-Muslims because they are enemies of Islam.
On April 15, 2013, a large crowd was gathered in Boston to watch the annual running of the Boston Marathon. It was about 2:50 in the afternoon, and families, friends, and well-wishers were cheering at the finish line as runners from the middle of the pack finished the grueling race. In a flash, the peaceful scene dissolved into smoke and confusion as two homemade pressure-cooker explosives went off, killing three and injuring more than two hundred others as bodies and limbs were sent flying. In the ensuing manhunt for what turned out to be two “self-radicalized” Muslim brothers, a fourth victim was killed and another seriously injured. The city of Boston was essentially shut down for a day while police struggled to locate one of the two men responsible for the chaos—a young college student whose family emigrated from Chechnya over a decade ago.
It is important to recognize the genetic similarity shared by these stories. In each story, a peaceful community comes under assault by barbarians who do not care whether they live or die. In each story, innocents are targeted without regard for the ordinary claims of human decency. In each story, life is disrupted and suffering inflicted in the name of Islam. Regardless of the country in which such acts take place, the story plays out the same. This should come as no surprise—the acts were all carried out by the same family. The shopping mall victims in Nairobi, the Pakistani Christians in Peshawar, and the people of Boston were all visited by the disciples of Osama bin Laden.
A MODEL MUSLIM
Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, the 17th of more than four dozen children (the exact number is hard to determine) of an illiterate Yemeni billionaire named Mohammad bin Awad bin Laden. Awad did not start out as a billionaire; instead, he emigrated to Saudi Arabia from his native Yemen and cultivated connections with the Saudi royal family. Through these connections, the one-time bricklayer became a construction company magnate with a family fortune estimated at $5 billion in 2001. Osama inherited a considerable chunk of that fortune when Awad was killed in a plane crash in 1967. Estimates of the exact amount of his fortune vary widely, but Osama was certainly a comfortable multi-millionaire.
For his early schooling, Osama bin Laden was educated in Jeddah. From a very early age he had shown an unusual degree of religious conviction, and this continued at Jeddah, where he joined an extracurricular group devoted to memorizing the oral tradition stories of Muhammad found in the hadith. Some investigators believe bin Laden may have served a “sort of apprenticeship” with the Muslim Brotherhood around this time as well. The motto of the Brotherhood is: “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an our law, the Prophet [Muhammad] is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”
Around the time Osama finished the equivalent of high school he married his 14-year-old first cousin, the first of what would become five wives over the course of his life. Cousin marriage is encouraged in Islam because Muhammad married his own cousin and declared it to be lawful for his followers to do so. Osama also showed himself to be “drawn to teachings that a righteous Muslim should imitate the dress and customs that prevailed” in the 7th century era of Muhammad. According to Osama’s own account, his early dedication to following the example of Muhammad extended to certain feelings of hatred toward Americans:
Every Muslim, from the moment they realize the distinction in their
hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians. This is a
part of our belief and our religion. For as long as I can remember,
I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity
Prior to entering college, Osama read two works by the influential Islamic author Sayyid Qutb: In the Shade of the Quran and Milestones. Qutb wrote these works while in prison for plotting to overthrow the government of Abdel Nassar (he was eventually hanged in 1966 for his role in arranging Nassar’s assassination). Both works are invectives against secularism and glorify the path of Islam as the only acceptable way of life not only for individuals but for all the governments of the world. Qutb gained considerable posthumous celebrity as an Islamic icon and martyr. After Osama enrolled at King Abdulaziz University in 1976, he attended religious lectures by a visiting professor named Mohammad Qutb—the younger brother of that same Sayyid Qutb.
A lecturer at the university during this time was one Abdullah Yusef Azzam, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and fervent disciple of Sayyid Qutb. Although the two may not have met while at the same university together, Azzam would later become an important contact for Osama when he was directing aid to Afghani Muslims during their struggle with the Soviet Union. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 24, 1979 would lead to an important turning point in young Osama bin Laden’s life. He would soon turn his back on his family and fortune to live out the dream of Muslims who wish to follow the way of Muhammad—hunting and killing “infidels.” Although Soviets would be his first targets, they would by no means be his last.
OSAMA’S FIRST TRIP TO PAKISTAN/AFGHANISTAN
There is still disagreement about exactly when or where Osama went when he got involved in the Soviet-Afghanistan conflict. Forbes reports that he first went to Peshawar, Pakistan (near the Afghanistan border) in January, 1980, just weeks after the initial Soviet invasion. One of Osama’s Muslim Brotherhood cohorts, Jamal Koshoggi, says Osama went to Lahore, Pakistan in November, 1980 to connect with the Pakistani branch of the Brotherhood. Whatever the truth may be, Osama himself says it was the Saudi royal family who first sent him to the region:
To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their
representative in Afghanistan … I set up my first camp where
these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American
officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the
money by the Saudis.
During the early years of the war, Osama traveled back and forth between Saudi Arabia and Peshawar. He would later claim that the Saudis ordered him to stay out of Afghanistan and operate from Pakistan—a practice still in use among Afghani Islamist guerillas today. According to Small Wars Journal:
The United States and Saudi Arabia, amongst others, had given
around ten billion dollars of subsidies to the mujahedeen [local
Muslim fighters] in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
These funds were distributed with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-
Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI preferred the Pashtun tribes
around Peshawar. They were therefore systematically given
preferential treatment in the distribution of weapons and money
by the Americans.
The ISI, as we shall see later in this book, remain an important force in Pakistan today.
A key associate of bin Laden’s at this time was a former teacher from his school days in Jeddah, Saeed Badeeb. Badeeb was by this time working for the Saudi royal family under their chief of foreign intelligence. His role was to purchase weapons for the Afghani freedom fighters and ship them through Pakistan via the ISI. Bin Laden was both a source and a middleman for this trade in money and weapons. Although some news outlets have reported that bin Laden helped train Afghan freedom fighters at this time, his actual role was that of a recruiter, supplier, and financier—he had no military training.
For several years, bin Laden was a go-between for the Saudis and the mujahideen, developing contacts with the various networks involved in the Soviet-Afghanistan conflict. By January, 1984 he was living in Jeddah but making regular runs to Peshawar. During these years he was not active in actual combat, but made regular pilgrimages to mosques in Arab countries encouraging Muslims to go fight the atheist Soviets in Afghanistan.
THE MUJAHEDEEN AND THE “AFGHAN ARABS”
Mujahideen refers broadly to any Muslim engaged in jihad (holy war). In recent years, the word has come to refer more specifically to Muslims using terror and guerilla tactics to revive a 7th century Islamic theocracy, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1980s Afghanistan, the mujahideen were local boys—a rag-tag militia consisting primarily of impoverished, illiterate Afghani Muslims. Osama bin Laden was a rich kid from opulent Saudi Arabia, an “Afghan Arab” import supporting war against the Soviet infidel. Arab imports like bin Laden enjoyed a sort of celebrity status among Afghanis at the time, as one later recalled:
[When the villagers] hear that among the caravan there was an
Arab, all the village’s people come out of their home to see
this Arab, because they remember that the Arabs speak the
language of [Muhammad]; they come from the land of Mecca
Bin Laden was like a rock star to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan. Many of the mujahideen regarded him with awe as a model Muslim.
But bin Laden and the other Afghan Arabs weren’t there for praise from simple mountain folk: they were there for the sake of the Ummah, the international Islamic nation. Saudi Arabia wasn’t interested in gaining land; they were protecting their imperial interests against an invading army of communist atheists. The Afghan Arabs, the ISI agents from Pakistan, and the Saudi money were all there for the sake of the Islamic nation.
By his own account, Osama used his family business and personal fortune to send heavy construction equipment into Afghanistan to build roads, tunnels, and storage facilities for the mujahideen. He wasn’t doing this for an Afghani nation; he did it for Islam. Bin Laden didn’t even set foot in Afghanistan himself until 1984. In 1986 he left Saudi Arabia behind and moved his family to Peshawar.
Some pundits still deny it—and it took the Soviet Union a while to come to terms with it—but the Soviets lost their war in Afghanistan on September 25, 1986. On that day, the first U.S. Stinger missile was fired in Afghanistan. The missile took out a Russian Mil Mi-24 gunship, the workhorse of the fleet of super choppers that had helped the Soviets hold military supremacy over the vast mountainous regions where tanks could not go.
Before that date, U.S. involvement in the conflict was mostly covert. No American-made armaments were directly supplied to Afghan rebels. As later chronicled in the Hollywood movie Charlie Wilson’s War, Congressman Charlie Wilson was instrumental in getting the CIA to supply the mujahideen with Stingers. After September 25 (as Wilson would later crow), the mujahideen did not lose a pitched battle with Soviet forces.
The first wave of the Soviet withdrawal began on May 15, 1988. Three months later, Osama bin Laden held a three-day meeting in Pakistan to discuss the formation of a new organization called al-Qaeda.
BIN LADEN’S HIJRA
Bin Laden used the connections he formed during the Afghanistan conflict to continue his fight on behalf of the Islamic Ummah. Being well aware of the role the deadly accurate Stinger missiles played in defeating the Soviets, he attempted to smuggle Stingers from Peshawar to a new base he had built in the Sudan. He also attempted (in November 1989) to buy a no-confidence vote in the Pakistan National Assembly against Benazir Bhutto, the country’s first female prime minister. Bhutto survived the vote, and when she discovered bin Laden’s role in financing it, she told the Saudis to get him out of her country or she would have him arrested. Bin Laden was soon on a plane back to Saudi Arabia. When he returne, he was relieved of his passport.
The Arabic word hijra refers to Muhammad’s “migration” from Mecca to Medina. Following the episode with Bhutto, Osama bin Laden went on a migration of his own. In 1990, while bin Laden was stuck in Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Hussein, a secularist, was nowhere near being a model Muslim in bin Laden’s eyes. Alarmed that Hussein might turn to Saudi Arabia next, he rushed to propose to the Saudi government that he, bin Laden, should leverage his Afghanistan celebrity to raise a jihad against Hussein. He claimed he could raise an army of 100,000 or more fighters if the royal family would let him off his chain. The Saudis said no.
Instead, the Saudi royal family backed an American invasion, and even allowed the Americans to establish bases in Saudi Arabia for easier access to the battle zone. Osama, who despised the Americans, was livid. Not long after being refused, he left Saudi Arabia for Pakistan. He never returned.
In Pakistan, bin Laden ramped up his efforts to create al-Qaeda. He tightened connections with an Egyptian group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri called Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He sent some of his new al-Qaeda “brothers in Islam” to Sudan to buy up land for use as a base. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri then met up in Sudan to launch a campaign of terror.
One of their earliest victims was a 15-year-old boy who had been persuaded by the Egyptian government to help them keep tabs on al-Zawahiri’s group of Egyptian jihadists. The boy wore a wire in the presence of al-Zawahiri and other members of his group. The ruse was discovered, and Zawahiri quickly assembled an ad hoc Sharia court. The boy was found guilty of treason, and according to Islamic law he was summarily executed in front of his own father.
In 1996, bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in his own imitation of Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. He and a group of like-minded Muslims formed the World Islamic Front with an aggressive declaration against all non-Muslim enemies and against all Muslims who accommodated those enemies. All of this was in keeping with Muhammad’s teaching that Muslims were “the best of peoples” and non-Muslims “the worst of creatures.” Bin Laden publicly excoriated the king of Saudi Arabia for what he called “atrocities,” and openly declared war on “the Crusaders” (a Muslim code word for Christians) and the Jews. Acting as a spokesman for the “one and only god” Osama declared war on the United States in the following terms [emphasis added]:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and
military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it
in any country in which it is possible to do it … We—with
Allah’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and
wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah’s order to kill
the Americans and plunder their money wherever and
whenever they find it.
The statement in which bin Laden makes this declaration identifies itself as a fatwa—that is, a religious edict binding on all Muslims. Bin Laden even identifies himself therein as a sheikh or religious leader.
Not long after issuing this order, bin Laden and the other good Muslims of al-Qaeda arranged for trucks full of explosives to be driven into the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The blast in Nairobi was devastating. Over 200 were killed and more than 4,000 injured. In comparison, the inhabitants of Dar es Salaam were lucky, with only 11 people killed and 85 others injured. Three years later, 19 more good Muslims flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people.
BIN LADEN’S FINAL HOME
Contrary to popular belief, Osama bin Laden did not spend the last years of his life after the September 11 attacks on the run. He spent several of those years in relative comfort and safety in Pakistan. A key American “ally” in the so-called War on Terror either directly or indirectly provided a guarded compound complete with servants to a mastermind of one of the greatest attacks ever perpetrated on American soil.
Bin Laden did not spend his last years in obscurity, either. Since his days with the mujahideen, he was looked up to by millions of Muslims around the world. They admired him; they cheered him; they adored him. He was given romantic nicknames over the course of his life: “the Prince,” “the Sheikh,” “the jihadist Sheikh,” “the Lion Sheikh.” Millions felt—and doubtless still feel—that he represented true Islam, the best-of-the-best. He was a tall, commanding symbol of uncompromising obedience to the literal teaching of Islam and Muhammad. Alleged Islamic moderates can call him many things, but they cannot call him a “bad Muslim.” In 2013, Islamists in Pakistan held a rally to mark the second anniversary of bin Laden’s death. “We are observing death anniversary of an Islamic hero,” one attendee said.
Other Muslims may disagree with his tactics, but they find it hard to dispute with what he believed. When the American SEAL team brought treatment stimulants for erectile dysfunction in his medicine cabinet, they brought down an Islamic legend.
It remains to be seen whether bin Laden’s own children (there are between 20 and 26 of them all told, but it is hard to be certain) will follow in their father’s footsteps. Interestingly enough, bin Laden himself expressly wrote in his will that they should not do so. This doesn’t mean that bin Laden had ceased to believe in jihad, however; it means he wanted his own children to survive and let his spiritual children do the killing and dying instead. As an attendee at a rally in Pakistan in 2013 put it, “Bin Laden’s martyrdom gave a new impetus to jihad against forces inimical to Islam.”
THE CHILDREN OF BIN LADEN
Since September 11, 2001, there have been an estimated tens of thousands of terror attacks and attempted attacks worldwide. As the events in Nairobi, Peshawar, and Boston indicate, even after the death of bin Laden there are still Islamists across the globe willing to commit horrifying acts. Bin Laden the man is dead; bin Laden the idea is alive and well.
With all such attacks, it must be kept in mind that the strategy is not simply to kill or injure—or even just to “spread terror.” There is an economic component as well, which has been called a “war of a thousand cuts.” In a post-9/11 interview with Al Jazeera, bin Laden remarked at length on the financial impact of the attacks. He concluded that the total cost to America was “no less than $1 trillion,” in comparison with the approximately $500,000 al-Qaeda spent to make it happen. Even failed attempts such as the infamous “underwear bomber” Umar Abdulmutallab count as partial successes in this war, because there will always be money spent in responding to the attempt and in implementing new safety rules and regulations. This is even without factoring in the psychological toll.
According to the bin Laden “war of a thousand cuts” strategy, the Boston Marathon Bombing was an enormous success. At a cost of nearly nothing, two men inflicted what could end up being over $350 million dollars’ worth of damage in lost wages, sales, infrastructure damage, and medical costs. The costs facing Nairobi and Peshawar after the September, 2013 terror attacks there could easily reach the tens of millions (for countries which lack the enormous resources of the United States). So long as there remain children of bin Laden willing to carry out such attacks, the world will continue to face such costs—even if we should be so lucky as to foil every plot before it claims a life.
 Quoted in Bergen, “The Osama bin Laden I Know,” 21.
 Ibid, 133. [Note: Ghafar was the imam of a mosque in Khartoum where Osama worshipped while he lived there.]
 Sahih al-Bukhari 8:387.
 White House transcript, “Discussion of September 11 terrorist attacks.”
 Dobbs and Anderson, “Bin Ladens found fortune in building.”
 Beyer, “The Most Wanted Man in the World.”
 Coll, The Bin Ladens, 148.
 Qur’an 33:50 (and see also 33:21 on Muhammad as a pattern of conduct for Muslims).
 Coll, 203.
 Quoted in Coll, 204.
 Klebnikov, “Who is Osama Bin Laden?”
 Quoted in Coll, 248.
 Quoted in Rashid, Taliban. [need page number for this reference]
 Hanni and Hegi, “The Pakistani Godfather.”
 Coll, 249.
 Ibid, 8.
 Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know, 30.
 Qur’an 3:110, 98:6.
 World Islamic Front, “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.”
 Quoted in AFP, “Hundreds in Pakistan pay tribute to bin Laden.”
 Flock, “Osama Bin Laden Tells His Children Not to Fight Jihad in His Will.”
 Quoted in AFP, “Hundreds in Pakistan pay tribute to bin Laden.”
 Quoted in Gartenstein-Ross, “Bin Laden’s ‘War of a Thousand Cuts’ Will Live On.”
 Dedman and Schoen, “Adding up the financial costs of the Boston bombings.”