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Afghanistan: Who Is Bin Laden and What Makes Him Tick?

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The U.S. says Saudi Arabian extremist leader Osama bin Laden is a leading suspect as the mastermind behind the horrific attacks in New York and Washington earlier this week in which more than 5,000 people are believed to have died. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines bin Laden's background and tries to find out what drives him.

Prague, 14 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Many terrorism experts say they are convinced that the man ultimately responsible for the terror attacks in New York and Washington earlier this week is Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is a Saudi Arabian millionaire and extremist who years ago declared a holy war against the United States and who is also blamed for a number of previous terrorist strikes.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also confirmed yesterday that the U.S. considers bin Laden to be one of the leading suspects behind the attacks.

Bin Laden has been quick to deny any connection to the 11 September attacks. Bin Laden also is blamed for the well-planned attacks against two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and an American warship, the "USS Cole," at a Yemeni port last year. There are also suspicions he was involved in the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

Bin Laden was born into a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia in 1957. His Yemeni father became a multi-millionaire through his construction business and has 50 children. Bin Laden is his seventh son and himself received a multimillion-dollar slice of the family fortune.

Ronnie Payne is a British journalist, former army officer and author of several books about terrorists. Payne says that bin Laden has a hunger for publicity and likes to portray himself as a great and important leader.

Bin Laden has made speeches, distributed in the form of thousands of audio and video cassettes, condemning America as the most evil force in the world and declaring war on the country. He has stated on many occasions that, in this war, his followers should not distinguish between people in uniforms and those not wearing them. He regards all American civilians, including women and children, as legitimate targets. Payne says:

"He's the son of a rich father, and he's the fils a papa [daddy's boy] who has set himself up as a great terrorist leader. So it's not surprising that whenever a terrorist event takes place in the West that they should take him at his own value and begin to believe that he is the number one in the field."

As a child and young man, bin Laden led a privileged life and seemed destined to himself become a rich businessman. But his life changed when he joined the Afghan Mujahedin resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Payne says:

"He did go off to fight, in some lowly capacity, as a guerrilla fighter in Afghanistan, to fight against the invading forces of the Soviet Union. It was, indeed, while he was fighting there that he first came in contact with the Americans who at that time were encouraging the Afghan resistance to the old Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The American CIA, indeed, subsidized the training of guerrillas to go in from Pakistan to fight against the Red Army."

Bin Laden was already very serious about his Muslim beliefs before he went to Afghanistan. But there, keeping company among fanatical Muslims, his faith was radicalized.

So what makes a person turn on his former allies and become known as the prime suspect behind such heinous terrorist acts?

Payne believes it is number of things. One is that -- after the Soviet Army pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 and the country degenerated into a civil war that is still going on -- many of the resistance fighters felt betrayed by America, which withdrew from the region and did little to halt the fighting.

Another important factor is that bin Laden, like many other fanatical Muslims, was outraged that American and other Western armies came to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. He regarded that as a desecration of the country that holds two of Islam's holiest shrines.

Since that war, bin Laden has viewed the American military remaining in the region, including in Saudi Arabia, as forces of occupation, although they are there at the request of governments which fear that Iraq's Saddam Hussein might otherwise invade.

Bin Laden, like all Islamic terrorist leaders, blames America for the plight of the Palestinians and accuses the U.S. of siding with Israel, of arming her military forces and propping up her economy. Payne says:

"He's a man full of indignation. He's a Saudi renegade who hates the government of his own country even though his father and family still live in Saudi Arabia. He regards Saudi Arabia as an occupied country, occupied by the alien forces of the United States, for example. He believes the West is in league with all the worst forces of reaction throughout the Middle East and has convinced himself that terrorism, on however grand a scale, is the best possible way of hitting back at the West."

Bin Laden returned to his native country in the 1990s but was expelled because of his anti-government activities. He was suspected of car bombings in Saudi Arabia that targeted American forces in 1995 and 1996, the year he issued a fatweh, or religious decree, allowing his followers to kill U.S. military personnel.

Bin Laden made Afghanistan his base after he allied himself with the fanatical Taliban movement, which has won control of most of the country. The Taliban regard bin Laden's help during the war against the Soviet Union and then for their movement as a sacred debt and have for years resisted American requests to extradite him for the crimes of which he is accused.

America tried to kill bin Laden in a cruise missile strike against his Afghan base in 1998. That, believes Payne, deepened bin Laden's hatred toward America.

Payne is convinced bin Laden is engaged in an all-out war against America, that any target is justifiable, and the more who die the better:

"His argument would be the West has nuclear weapons, which it has already used at the end of World War II. The West has immense air forces and missile forces, which it has not hesitated to use against Iraq, for example, and in the Balkans. Therefore, he believes that the terrorist weapon is ready-made for his side to destroy Western civilization and in such a monumental battle, such an Armageddon, casualties are of no importance."

Payne believes that bin Laden is overstating his own importance in a network of terrorist organizations of which bin Laden's is only one. Payne also suspects that this week's attacks were so well-prepared and financed that, ultimately, there is a government backing bin Laden:

"It's a staff operation of the kind that might be planned by the general staff of an army of a sizable state, and I believe that proves conclusively that behind the flamboyant public relations figure of bin Laden, there are the resources and power of a sizable Middle East power."

Payne is convinced that power is Iraq, and he believes that even if bin Laden is killed during the widely anticipated American retaliation, it will not diminish the terrorist threat, for other groups will take up the gauntlet.