Born in Saudi Arabia in 1957, Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was the 17th of 52 children and the only son of tenth wife Hamida al-Attas. His father, Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden, became a billionaire after building his company into the largest construction firm in the Saudi kingdom.
As a young man, bin Laden attended King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, studying business and economics. He was always interested in religion, but his spiritual journey refocused into a political quest for power after coming under the wing of Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam. Azzam founded an organization to help the mujahedeen fighting to repel the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In 1979, his protegee became the organization’s top financier. At 22, bin Laden volunteered to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan; in the second half of the war, he learned how to shoot and how to lead.
In 1988, bin Laden formed al Qaeda, an international organization that operates as a stateless army and a radical Sunni Muslim movement. The goal of al Qaeda is to advance Islamic revolutions throughout the Muslim world and to repel foreign intervention in the Middle East. This last goal was particularly important to bin Laden, who became incensed when the United States sent troops to Saudi Arabia for battle against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.
After the war ended and American troops did not leave Saudi Arabia, bin Laden issued a “fatwa,” or a religious order, entitled “Declaration of War Against the Americans Who Occupy the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” The presence of American forces in the Persian Gulf states “will provoke the people of the country and induces aggression on their religion, feelings, and prides and pushes them to take up armed struggle against the invaders occupying the land,” it said. In the late 1990s, bin Laden declared a “jihad,” or “holy war,” against the United States and issued a new fatwa against all Americans, including civilians.
Bin Laden didn’t just incite violence, though. He orchestrated it. According to the FBI, bin Laden was wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed over 200 people. He was implicated in a deadly firefight with U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993 and in the attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in 2000. Most importantly, he was suspected of planning the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington D.C. in 2001.
Although the U.S. offered a $25 million reward for information leading to the apprehension or conviction of bin Laden, he was able to elude authorities for nearly 10 years. The world’s most wanted man would occasionally release audio and video tapes to boost support for al Qaeda and to remind the world that he was still alive, albeit in hiding, but the U.S. eventually lost track of him. While many in the intelligence community believed he was hiding in the caves of Pakistan near the Afghan border, coalition troops never found a trace of the 6-foot-4 terror leader.
Bin Laden’s radicalism eventually cost him his Saudi citizenship. His brothers and sisters disowned him and cut off access to his inheritance. Yet his obsession with imposing Islamic rule throughout the region was all-consuming.
In his private life, bin Laden had a passion for poetry, farming and horses. He married four women and is believed to have fathered 25 or 26 children, though he lost all contact with his eldest son Abdullah when the teen swore allegiance to the Saudi regime.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden told his followers that his greatest hope was that if he died at the hands of the Americans, the Muslim world would rise up and defeat the nation that had killed him.
The U.S. assassinated bin Laden on May 1. He was 54.