Who was Osama bin Laden, and how did a Palestinian persuade him to become the king of radical Islamist terrorism?
by Joel C. Rosenberg | September 11, 2022
Osama Bin Laden is seen gesturing during a videotaped statement broadcast November 3, 2001, in this still taken from the footage. (Photo: REUTERS/al-Jazeera TV)
On September 11, 2001, the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history took place.
Nineteen members of the al-Qaeda jihadist group – founded by the Saudi billionaire, Osama bin Laden – hijacked four commercial jetliners.
Two al-Qaeda teams flew the planes they seized into the Twin Towers in Manhattan, bringing both towers down and killing 2,750 people.
Another al-Qaeda team flew their plane into the Pentagon, killing 184 people.
The fourth terror team were heading for Washington, D.C., to fly a kamikaze attack into the White House or the Capitol Building. However, a group of passengers on the plane attacked the jihadists, trying to wrest control away from them. In the end, the plane went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 40 people on board.
The second tower of the World Trade Center bursts into flames after being hit by a hijacked airplane in New York in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photograph. (Photo credit: REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek/Files)
Twenty-one years later, memories are fading.
An entire generation has been born after 9/11 and have no personal memories of that dreadful day.
But we must never forget.
Moreover, we must teach young people what happened, why it matters, and why we must be resolved to never allow the forces of Radical Islamism to wreak such devastation again.
This week, ALL ARAB NEWS tells the story of “The Rise And Fall of Osama Bin Laden.”
WHO WAS OSAMA BIN LADEN?
In many ways, the story of al-Qaeda begins in 1979.
At the time, Osama bin Laden, the movement’s founder, was a shy, lanky, awkward, underachieving twenty-two-year-old management student in Saudi Arabia.
When the Ayatollah Khomeini established in Iran the first Islamic republic in history and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan — and began killing Muslims en masse — few who knew bin Laden could ever have imagined him emerging one day as the undisputed leader of Sunni Islamic jihadists, the architect of the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history, and the charismatic hero of Radicals around the globe, be they Sunnis or Shias.
But 1979 was most definitely the turning point.
Bin Laden quickly became obsessed with both Khomeini’s Iran and the Soviet invasion.
He examined their causes and their implications, and it was these two events that changed his destiny forever, leading him to conclude that Allah had chosen him for a very specific mission: to help destroy the Soviet Union and the United States and to re-establish a global Islamic caliphate on earth.
Born in late 1957 or early 1958 (the record is not entirely clear), Osama—which means “lion” in Arabic—was the 17th of at least 54 children born to Mohammed bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who was the founder of one of the largest construction companies in the Middle East.
Osama’s mother, Alia Ghanem, was a Syrian of Palestinian origin and met Mohammed in Jerusalem when he was doing renovations on the Dome of the Rock.
She was only 14 years old when she married Mohammed, becoming one of his 22 wives.
Osama was the only child Alia had with Mohammed, and the boy received little, if any, attention from his father.
When Osama was only four or five years old, Mohammed divorced Alia and forced the two to move out of his house—away from all of Osama’s brothers and sisters—into a small home a few blocks away.
It was a traumatic moment for the little boy, now effectively an only child, being raised by a single mother in the rigid, anti-woman, fundamentalist culture of Saudi Arabia.
But it was about to be terribly compounded.
Not long after the divorce, Osama learned that his father had died in a plane crash.
Later, Osama’s brother Salem would also die in a horrific plane crash.
Planes and death, it would seem, became inextricably intertwined in Osama’s psyche at a fairly young age.
Eventually, his mother married again, this time to an employee of the bin Laden construction empire named Attas, and bore him three sons and a daughter, giving Osama new brothers and a sister to grow up with.
But in June of 1967, as he approached his tenth birthday, Osama and the rest of the Arab world experienced another major trauma.
They watched the tiny State of Israel devastate the Soviet-funded, -trained, and -armed military forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in just six days.
Why? the emotionally devastated Osama and his friends asked themselves. What was going wrong? Why was Allah turning his back on the Arab forces?
They were not the only ones asking such questions, of course.
It seemed as if everyone in the Islamic world was asking what was going wrong.
Joining the Muslim Brotherhood
The first time Osama bin Laden heard an answer that made sense to him seems to have been around 1972, in his freshman year of high school.
It was then that he met a Syrian gym teacher who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic jihadist group founded in Egypt in 1928 by a charismatic radical Sunni cleric named Hassan al-Banna.
Applying the teachings of al-Banna to the disaster of the Six-Day War, the gym teacher explained to bin Laden that the Arabs had turned their back on Allah by embracing the godless Soviets, so Allah was turning his back on the Arabs. Apostasy was crippling the Arab people.
Only if the Arabs purified themselves, turned wholly and completely to following the teachings of the Qur’an and engaged in holy war against the Jews and the Muslim apostates could they ever regain Allah’s favor and the glory that was once theirs.
The more bin Laden heard, the more he began to buy into the Radicals’ ideology.
As he did so, he experienced a religious and political awakening, concluded Lawrence Wright in his landmark and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
“Osama stopped watching cowboy shows,” Wright wrote. “Outside of school, he refused to wear Western dress. Sometimes he would sit in front of the television and weep over the news from Palestine. . . . He began fasting twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, in emulation of the Prophet. . . . In addition to the five prayers a day, he set his alarm for one in the morning and prayed alone every night.”
As he approached his 16th birthday in 1973—and underwent a massive growth spurt that left him 6’6″ tall and 160 pounds—bin Laden was again stunned and horrified to see the Jews of Israel defeat Egypt and the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War.
Now the Muslim Brotherhood argument made even more sense.
Arabs were getting slaughtered and utterly humiliated by Israelis and by the West because they had lost their way and forgotten the path of the prophets.
Islam was the answer, he concluded, and jihad was the way.
New York City covered in smoke from the attack on the World Trade Center Towers, Sept. 11, 2001 (Photo: 9/11 Photos/Flickr)
Bin Laden soon became a member of the Brotherhood himself.
He began reading the collected works of Sayyid Qutb, the radical Sunni theologian and Muslim Brotherhood activist who was executed by Egyptian authorities in 1966 but whose books became wildly popular among young jihadists, selling millions of copies after his death.
Bin Laden married for the first time in 1974 to a devout 14-year-old Muslim girl who was a cousin of his from Syria.
Following high school, he enrolled at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, ostensibly to study management and economics but also to find and make common cause with like-minded jihadists.
All the while, one geopolitical event after another kept forcing him to think more deeply about his worldview and how committed he was to it.
In 1975, for example, Saudi King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew.
The assassination rocked the kingdom and was widely perceived by Islamic Radicals as a judgment against the king’s love of the U.S. and Western Europe.
In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his dramatic visit to Jerusalem, and he began talking about making peace with the Israelis, horrifying young radicals who saw Sadat as an apostate worthy of assassination himself (something they accomplished four years later).
In early 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini led his Islamic Revolution to victory in Iran, electrifying radicals throughout the region, including Sunnis like bin Laden who disagreed with Khomeini’s theology but loved his tactics and envied his accomplishments.
On Nov. 20, 1979, more than 1,300 radical Islamic jihadists seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Their leader declared himself the Mahdi and called for the overthrow of the apostate House of Saud and the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate. Saudi police eventually stormed the sacred facility to expel the extremists, killing 250 people, wounding 600, and infuriating Muslims who had been sympathetic to the extremists’ cause.
And then the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan closed out 1979 with a bang.
Bin Laden found himself wrestling with hard questions.
How serious was he about his religious faith and his political views?
If he had to decide between following his steadily developing convictions and becoming obscenely wealthy, which would he choose?
Though he had been cast out of the bin Laden family at an early age, he still bore his father’s name. He was still entitled to tens of millions of dollars in inheritance. He still had the opportunity to be a key figure in a multi-billion-dollar family construction business.
Which path would he choose?
Finding a Mentor
Osama bin Laden went through his college years not only seeking education but searching for a father figure who would be willing to be his mentor and spiritual guide.
He wanted to sit at the feet of a man who would give him the personal attention he so desperately craved, teach him the ways of Allah, and model for him a life of jihad.
He wanted someone to help him choose the right direction for his life.
He believed deeply that Allah had chosen him for a special mission. But he was not sure he could find it on his own.
In 1981, bin Laden finally found a radical sheikh by the name of Abdullah Azzam who was all too happy to take the young and hungry student under his wing.
Azzam had been born in Jenin, a town in the West Bank, in 1941.
During the 1967 war, he fled to Jordan, then moved to Cairo, where he earned a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence from al-Azhar University.
Later, he took a job leading prayers at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he met bin Laden.
Bin Laden was attracted, in part, to the fact that Azzam was a fellow member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a Palestinian with an intense desire to liberate Jerusalem from the Jews.
He was also intrigued by the intense fervor with which Azzam preached his message and his absolute commitment to the use of violence.
“Jihad and the rifle alone” was the way to liberate the Holy Lands from the infidels, Azzam once insisted. “No negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues.”
Another time, Azzam argued, “Jihad must not be abandoned until Allah alone is worshiped. . . . Jihad is the way of everlasting glory.”
In his book Defense of Muslim Lands, Azzam wrote, “Pay close attention to the hadith: ‘To stand one hour in the battle line in the cause of Allah is better than sixty years of night prayer.’”
But the charismatic cleric did not just talk jihad — he lived it, and this galvanized bin Laden all the more.
In 1981, Azzam went to Pakistan to teach the Qur’an at the International Islamic University in Islamabad.
There, he met leaders of the Afghan mujahadeen.
Entranced by the passion of these jihadists for death and for victory over the Soviets, Azzam visited Afghanistan.
When he returned to Saudi Arabia, he told bin Laden and his other students, “I reached Afghanistan, and I could not believe my eyes. I felt as if I had been reborn.”
Azzam was convinced it was in Afghanistan that Muslims should make a stand against the Communists, and he was eager to get his young Saudi protégé involved.
“Azzam returned to Jeddah frequently, staying in bin Laden’s guest flat on his trips to the Kingdom,” journalist Lawrence Wright has noted. “He held recruiting sessions in bin Laden’s apartment, where he magnetized young Saudis with his portraits of the suffering of the refugees and the courage of the mujahadeen. ‘You have to do this!’ he told them. ‘It is your duty! You have to leave everything and go!’”
By the early 1980s, there were 3,000 to 3,500 Arabs fighting in Afghanistan, a number that quickly grew to somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 by the mid-1980s.
”I Felt Closer to God than Ever”
Osama bin Laden was convinced.
His mentor wanted to take him on a journey to wage jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and he desperately wanted to say yes.
But bin Laden’s mother told him he could not go.
So did the Saudi government.
At first, bin Laden complied, promising his mother he would not travel into harm’s way.
But Azzam was relentless, part exhorting, part shaming his protégé into coming with him on his next trip into the battle zone.
By June 1984, Azzam’s strategies had succeeded.
He finally persuaded bin Laden to leave the family construction business behind, defy his family and many of his less devout friends, and join him in Afghanistan.
Upon arriving in the barren, rugged Afghan mountains, bin Laden was stunned by the squalor and the wretched state of affairs his fellow Muslims found themselves in.
“I was surprised by the sad state of the equipment and everything else—weapons, roads, and trenches,” he later recalled. “I asked forgiveness from God Almighty, feeling that I had sinned because I listened to those who advised me not to go. . . . I felt that this four-year delay could not be pardoned unless I became a martyr.”
Bin Laden had an epiphany in Afghanistan when he watched jihadists shoot down four Soviet aircraft.
The experience moved him deeply.
“I saw with my own eyes the remains of [one of] the pilots. Three fingers, a part of a nerve, the skin of one cheek, an ear, the neck, and the skin of the back. Some Afghan brothers came and took a photo of him as if he were a slaughtered sheep! We cheered. . . . I felt closer to God than ever.”
Bin Laden had found his calling.
True, he could not yet preach with the same intellect, experience, and charisma that Azzam possessed.
Indeed, he was still a very shy and reclusive man.
But he eagerly wanted to emulate his mentor.
Perhaps, he thought, he could help finance the revolution against the Soviets with his own money and with funds raised from kindred spirits back in Saudi Arabia.
He resolved to return to Jeddah and find willing financial allies.
By the end of the year, he had raised nearly $10 million for the mujahadeen.
At the same time, he did not want to simply write checks.
He wanted to help in practical, tangible ways.
He wanted to get his hands bloody.
Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks (Photo: Michael Foran/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons)
So, he continued making trips to Afghanistan to visit those to whom he was supplying weapons, ammunition, food, and medical supplies, and he soon put his family’s engineering experience to work, helping design, finance, and construct new roads, underground bunkers and various facilities for the mujahadeen.
And as he gained more in-country experience, he even began to try his hand at commanding small units of Arab jihadists in battles against the Soviets.
Views of bin Laden’s military skills, even by close associates, were mixed at best.
Bin Laden lost many men during his few clashes with the enemy.
But there was absolutely no question that he was building a deeply devoted following of both Arabs and Afghans who admired his commitment to their overall success and were grateful for his personal and financial support.
“He not only gave his money, but he also gave himself,” recalled Hamza Muhammad, a Palestinian who signed up to help the mujahadeen and along the way became enamored of bin Laden. “He came down from his palace [in Arabia] to live with the Afghan peasants and the Arab fighters. He cooked with them, ate with them, dug trenches with them. That was bin Laden’s way.”
[Tomorrow: How Osama Bin Laden Joined Forces With An Egyptian Jihadist To Create Al-Qaeda]
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