(Note: This was originally published at the Globe and Mail)
By now, everyone who has been following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has probably heard the name Osama bin Laden. President George W. Bush has said that he is a prime suspect in the terrorist attacks, just as he was a prime suspect in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and in dozens of other terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies, ships and other assets. Some viewers may even have seen Mr. bin Laden on television, a wiry man with a long beard, dressed in traditional Muslim robes, speaking into a microphone or walking out of a tent in the mountains surrounded by men carrying semi-automatic rifles. But just who is Osama bin Laden?
As far as anyone can tell, Osama (or Ussamah) bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia in 1957 to a prominent businessman from Yemen and his fourth wife. Mr. bin Laden has 22 half-brothers who control various branches of the family empire (the Syrian group, the Lebanese group, the Egyptian group, the Jordanian group, and so on) – a conglomerate that does business throughout the Middle East and is worth about $5-billion (U.S.). Mr. bin Laden’s father Mohammed was a close friend of Saudi King Abdul Aziz, and made his early fortune by being granted an exclusive contract to build all the religious structures in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and until 1967 in the city of Jerusalem as well. From this Mr. bin Laden expanded into road construction, farming, telecommunications, petrochemicals and a range of other businesses.
According to one account, the bin Laden sons went to the same schools as the various children of King Abdul Aziz – as well as other Middle Eastern luminaries such as King Hussein of Jordan, the Kashoggi brothers (whose father was one of the king’s doctors) and actor Omar Sharif. Like his half-brothers, Osama bin Laden worked for awhile for his father’s company, and reportedly had a reputation as a bit of a party boy who liked to stay out late and drink in Jeddah, the political hub of Saudi Arabia.
Those party days came to an end, however, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and a large number of Saudi men went to support their Muslim neighbours. Osama bin Laden used his family’s money and construction equipment to dig tunnels and trenches in the mountains and to create a network of training camps and rebel bases. Like most of the “mujahideen” rebel groups, he was financed and trained in part by the U.S. government, which spent $6-billion or so trying to defeat the Soviets.
After the Soviet troops finally pulled out of Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden went back to Saudi Arabia and continued building roads and other projects – but he would say later that his commitment to a radical and violent interpretation of Islam, to the idea of a holy war, started in Afghanistan. Even though he and his mujahideen fighters were working with (or for) the U.S. to repel the Soviets, Mr. bin Laden and others saw the U.S. as equally oppressive to Muslim peoples in the Middle East, and as soon as the Russian threat was gone, Mr. bin Laden turned his attention to the U.S. “crusaders,” who he blamed for helping Israel oppress the Muslims in Palestine and for corrupting the royal government of his home country of Saudi Arabia.
Through the 1980s, Mr. bin Laden continued working in construction, on projects that included an 800 kilometre road from Port Sudan to Khartoum in Sudan – a war-torn country controlled by a radical Islamic military regime. The bin Laden group also reportedly built a number of oil pipelines, which are now being used to transport oil from a field in the southern region of the country, a project that is partially owned by Talisman Energy of Calgary. Mr. bin Laden later moved to Sudan, and continued building his business empire, moving into agriculture and even pharmaceutical production.
Sudanese leader Omar el-Bashir has maintained that Mr. bin Laden was an ordinary businessman while he was in Sudan, helping to build roads and schools, but U.S. and international authorities became convinced he was engaged in financing terrorism and training Muslim terrorists. In 1998, in retaliation for attacks on two U.S. embassies, the U.S. destroyed what it said was a chemical weapons factory controlled by Mr. bin Laden – a plant Mr. bin Laden said was a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility.
Although he was known to the U.S. government already, his first real appearance on the international scene was when he granted an interview to British journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent in 1993. At the time, he was building the Port Sudan road, using the same bulldozers he had used to build a network of guerrilla trails in Afghanistan – but already, some of his fellow mujahideen had gone to fight in Bosnia and Mr. bin Laden was suspected of helping to finance that battle between Christian Serbs and Muslim Croats. In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed, and the world started to become familiar with the name Osama bin Laden.
The following year, the rest of Mr. bin Laden’s family distanced themselves from their half-brother: Bakr Mohammed bin Laden, the leader of the family group, expressed the family’s “regret, denunciation and condemnation of all acts that Osama bin Laden may have committed” (one of Mr. bin Laden’s uncles denounced him again this week in comments to Associated Press, and sent the family’s condolences to the victims in the U.S.). The U.S., meanwhile, was putting pressure on the Sudanese government to distance itself from Mr. bin Laden and his ilk, and finally the country pressured Mr. bin Laden to leave. He decided to return to Afghanistan, where he helped the radical Islamic group known as the Taliban to take control of the country, and in return was offered the protection of the government.
From most reports, Mr. bin Laden has helped to set up a network of training camps and supply depots in the hills of Afghanistan, and moves from camp to camp at random to avoid potential attacks. He has a heavily fortified family compound in Kandahar, but rarely spends much time there – preferring to stay in a network of caves and tents in the hills, guarded by a group of devoted followers including his 16-year-old son Mohammed. He reportedly has satellite phones in the caves, which he uses to keep in touch with various radical Muslim groups, as well as other electronic equipment including fax machines and computers that are powered by electric generators. Mr. bin Laden’s group is known in Arabic as al-Qaeda, or “the base.”
The United States has tried to pressure the Taliban to hand over Mr. bin Laden, but they have refused, denying that he is involved with any terrorism. Several sources have reported that two years ago, his daughter (he has 20 children from four marriages) married Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban – and at the same time, Mr. bin Laden married the daughter of a highly-ranked leader in the Taliban government, the two marriages further cementing his ties with the ruling party in Afghanistan. Some foreign security experts believe that such ties make it unlikely that the Taliban will hand over Mr. bin Laden, no matter how much the U.S. threatens.
In a series of interviews he has given, including one with ABC News reporter John Miller in 1998, as well as in public statements – such as the death sentence or “fatwah” he issued in 1998 against the U.S. – Osama bin Laden has made it clear that he believes that virtually any action taken against any American, civilian or military, is justified by his holy war. He said “We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets, and this is what the fatwah says . . . . The fatwah is general (comprehensive) and it includes all those who participate in, or help the Jewish occupiers in killing Muslims.”
In the 1998 fatwah, Mr. bin Laden says that: “We – with God’s help – call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson. . . . 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.”
Asked by an interviewer if he is a terrorist, Mr. bin Laden says “Terrorism can be commendable and it can be reprehensible . . . terrorizing oppressors and criminals and thieves and robbers is necessary for the safety of people and for the protection of their property. There is no doubt in this. Every state and every civilization and culture has to resort to terrorism under certain circumstances for the purpose of abolishing tyranny and corruption.” The terrorism his group practices “is of the commendable kind for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah . . . terrorizing those and punishing them are necessary measures.”