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OP-ED: How did Osama bin Laden rise through the ranks?

  • Published at 08:07 pm September 11th, 2021
9/11 laden
The hunt for bin Laden finally ended in 2011, nearly 10 years after the events of 9/11 REUTERS

A brief history of the career of a terrorist

It has been a great surprise to many researchers and investigators across the globe as to how Osama bin Muhammed bin Awad bin Laden, a Saudi-origin millionaire youth, and his al-Qaeda, gained the highest popularity around the globe, surpassing dozens of extremist groups including Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and Taliban within 10 years after he had joined jihad in Afghanistan.

One of his key strengths was money.

Bin Laden became a millionaire at the age of 11 when his Saudi billionaire father Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden died in 1968, despite the fact that his parents were divorced. 

He was the 17th child of his father’s 54 children, while his Syrian-origin mother was the 10th out of 22 wives of the industrialist. His mother had more children from her previous marriage. After his father’s death, bin Laden was brought up by his stepfather.

His father, the Saudi Binladin Group founder, had been engaged in major construction businesses with the royal family alongside having joint ventures with foreign companies.

Sheikh Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the company in 1996, said that about half of his father’s 54 children had studied abroad. “Those that remained in Saudi Arabia tend to have a more conservative outlook on life; Osama was one of those,” he added.

Bakr considered him to be a “simple thinker easily influenced by the ideas of others.” This made him susceptible to extremist religious ideas, which Bakr thought had been spread among the Saudi people by “foreign agents.”

A fundamentalist goes to university 

Bin Laden was attracted to the fundamentalist teachings of Islam in his school days, while being brought up by his stepfather, and was radicalized while studying at King Abdul Aziz University in late 70s. He studied economics, civil engineering, and business administration, but failed to obtain a degree.

He became a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Sunni groups under the influence of several professors at the university who had preached the importance of jihad, or the holy war, to defend Muslim lands from foreign invaders and foreign influences.

In 1979, bin Laden left the family business after a dispute over working with banks and went to Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen resistance.

The bin Laden family learned that he had been picking up unusual ideas while working in one of the family businesses. At that time, he protested to one of his brothers about Saudi Binladin Group’s dealings with banks, which he considered to be un-Islamic.

Ambitious and brutal 

After the Afghan leftists took over power through a coup in April 1978, they forged close ties with the then Soviet Union, and began extensive land and social reforms that irked the anti-communist population, in a country of dozens of tribes.

As insurgencies arose against the government among both tribal and urban groups -- collectively labelled as the Mujahideen (those who engage in jihad), they got extensive support from the Pakistan government, which had been worried over the leftists in power. They fought against their government forces and the Soviets.

Bin Laden joined the Mujahideen along with one of the Saudi professors, and co-founded Maktab al-Khidamat (bureau of services) that recruited foreign fighters and raised money for the Mujahideen. He used his money and contacts to provide material support for the fighters and to publicize their cause. Through MAK, he developed an extensive network of followers and agents throughout the Middle East as well as in South Asia, mainly Pakistan. 

However, MAK provided mostly logistical support for the rebels, and bin Laden increasingly sought a more radical, military role for MAK, based in Jalalabad.

Consequently, bin Laden formed his own company of fighters, who participated in several minor battles against the Soviets, in Peshawar of Pakistan, in 1984.

In 1988, bin Laden split from MAK and formed al-Qaeda (the base), a multi-national Muslim alliance devoted to Islamist jihad across the globe.

During his days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, bin Laden also got funds from his patrons. He financed dozens of Islamist groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and other Middle East countries, and supported the formation of al-Qaeda affiliates.

He preached that any action was justified in the defense of Islam, particularly against the Christians and the Jewish -- with focus on the US, liberal Muslims, and secularists.

Hundreds of radical Muslims travelled to Afghanistan to join his team, while others strengthened foot in their countries and launched attacks on the targets dictated by bin Laden.

New base in Sudan

After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, bin Laden became a hero among the elements of the Mujahideen, and received protection and support.

He returned to his motherland in 1989.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, bin Laden offered to defend the Kingdom with his own troops. However, the Saudi government rejected his proposal, as they had earlier asked the United States for military support, fearing Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia. 

This irked bin Laden, and he started criticizing the Kingdom and its ally, the US, vehemently.

As the royal family attempted to arrest bin Laden, he evaded capture and went to Afghanistan in April 1989 and then to Sudan. He lived in Sudan from 1991 to 1996 -- thanks to the National Islamic Front (NIF), which staged a military coup to take control of Sudan.

In Sudan, bin Laden started setting up legitimate businesses, including a tannery, two large farms, and a major road construction company. He even tried to obtain components of nuclear weapons and began working with the NIF to develop chemical arms.

Saudis wanted him

The Saudis were greatly upset by the spate of media interviews and articles that appeared after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996 and started staying in Jalalabad.

According to a conversation of top Saudi officials with US officials in May 1997, their first priority was to get the Taliban to hand over to them bin Laden. The second priority was to keep bin Laden from directing operations or having access to the international media and to other radical Islamists. 

The Saudis discussed bin Laden’s media access with the Taliban, and hoped that the Taliban would move bin Laden close to its headquarters in Kandahar.

To press the Taliban on various fronts -- politically, religiously, and legally -- on their dealings with bin Laden, the Saudis had sent a delegation of religious experts to discuss Islamic jurisprudence with the Taliban and, presumably, to offer them Islam-based justifications for turning bin Laden over to the Saudi government.

The US and Saudi Arabia were his key targets

Guerilla commander bin Laden and his al-Qaeda had started publicizing against the US and the Saudi royal family since 1991.

The following year, al-Qaeda stated that they should put aside differences with Shia Muslim organizations, including Hezbollah, to cooperate against the perceived common enemy -- the US and its allies.

They also endorsed that the US forces stationed on the Saudi peninsula, including both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, should be attacked.

In December 1992, a bomb exploded in a hotel in Aden, Yemen, where US troops had been staying while en route to a humanitarian mission in Somalia. The bomb killed two Austrian tourists; the US soldiers had already left. 

Two Yemeni militants, trained in Afghanistan and injured in the blast, were later arrested. US intelligence agencies alleged that this was the first terrorist attack involving bin Laden and his associates.

His followers attacked the World Trade Centre on February 26, 1993, killing six people and wounding over 1,000 people in a car bomb explosion in the basement-parking garage below the north tower.

In October 1993, an attack by bin Laden’s followers killed 18 US troops in Mogadishu, Somalia.

His citizenship was revoked in 1994, and Sheikh Bakr bin Laden, head of the family, publicly sought to distance himself and his clan from the “family black sheep,” Osama bin Laden. In a newspaper article, engineer Bakr announced that the family had no control over and no responsibility for his actions.

While bin Laden was in Sudan, a faction of the Mujahideen resistance formed Taliban in Kandahar in September 1994. 

The mastermind of the World Trade Centre attack, Ramzi Yousef, was captured in Pakistan and extradited to the US in early 1995. He used to receive funds from bin Laden and had stayed at a bin Laden-financed guest-house while in Pakistan.

In August 1995, bin Laden wrote an open letter to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia calling for a campaign of guerrilla attacks in order to drive the US forces out of the Kingdom. Two months later, five Americans and two Indians were killed in a truck bombing at a US-operated Saudi National Guard training centre in Riyadh. Bin Laden, living in Sudan, denied his involvement but praised the attackers.

In May 1996, four Saudi men accused of bombing the training centre were beheaded in Riyadh’s main square. Before their execution, they confessed to have been inspired by bin Laden’s speech.

The same year, the Saudi government froze bin Laden’s family assets.

Yet, bin Laden and his al-Qaeda continued to enjoy clandestine support from a range of prominent like-minded Saudis, who provided the group with funding.

Sudan was forced to expel bin Laden in May 1996 under international pressure by the US and Saudi Arabia, nearly three years after the State Department placed Sudan on its list of countries that sponsor terrorist activities. Bin Laden went back to Afghanistan as Taliban took the helm.

President Clinton, meanwhile, signed a top secret order that authorized the CIA to use any and all means to destroy bin Laden’s network.

On August 23, 1996, bin Laden signed and issued a declaration of jihad (holy war) from Afghanistan which said: “Message from Osama Bin Laden to his Muslim brothers in the whole world, and especially in the Arabian peninsula: Declaration of jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two holy mosques; expel the heretics from the Arabian peninsula.”

At least in one instance, following a meeting with the Saudi officials, Taliban chief Mullah Omar in March 1997 asked bin Laden to refrain from criticizing the royal family while being in Afghanistan. 

In February 1998, bin Laden and his close associate Ayman Al-Zawahiri endorsed a fatwa under the banner of the “International Islamic Front for Fighting the Jews and Crusaders.”

This fatwa, published in the newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, on February 23, 1998, stated that Muslims should kill Americans -- including civilians -- anywhere in the world where they can be found. 

On or about May 7, 1998, bin Laden associate Mohammad Atef sent Khaled Al Fawwaz a letter discussing the endorsement by bin Laden of a fatwa issued by the Ulema Union of Afghanistan, which termed the US Army the “enemies of Islam” and declared jihad against the US and its followers. The fatwa was subsequently published in al-Quds al-Arabi.

On or about May 29, 1998, bin Laden issued a statement entitled “the nuclear bomb of Islam,” under the banner of the “International Islamic Front for Fighting the Jews and Crusaders,” in which he stated that it was the duty of Muslims to “prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God.”

On August 7, 1998, bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people, including 12 American citizens, and injuries to more than 4,000 individuals, among whom were Muslims.

The US government levelled criminal complaints against bin Laden and 16 of his associates for their involvement in the two bombings and other terrorist crimes. 

To try him in the US for the 1998 attacks, officials negotiated numerous times with the Taliban asking them to hand him over to them. However, it did not happen. The Taliban did not want to comply with the US demands, and continued to protect bin Laden. And publicly, they campaigned that no one had provided the Taliban with proof of bin Laden’s alleged crimes.

In April 2001, five months before the 9/11 attacks, US officials wanted to force the Taliban leaders, visiting Qatar for discussions, to try bin Laden in a third country under an Islamic tribunal. But, the efforts failed.

Bin Laden was finally hunted down by the US Navy SEAL members in a hideout of Abbottabad in Pakistan on May 2, 2011 -- nearly 10 years after President George W Bush launched an initiative to expel al-Qaeda from its bases in Afghanistan, kill and capture its operatives, and overthrow the Taliban regime.

Probir Kumar Sarker is a journalist and researcher. 

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