Copyright © 2002 John L. Esposito.
All rights reserved.
The Making of a Modern Terrorist
Osama bin Laden seems like the last person destined to be a global terrorist. His journey from a life of wealth and privilege, as the scion of a multibillionaire Saudi family with close ties to the king and royal family, to the caves and military training camps of Afghanistan sounds more like the stuff of fiction than reality. What happened to transform a quiet, shy, serious, and wealthy Saudi young man into the world community's most wanted criminal? How are we to understand a man who has been described as "an Islamic zealot, a military genius, a poet, and an impassioned enemy of the United States"?
Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1957, the seventeenth (the seventh son) of fifty-two children. His father, Muhammad bin Laden, had come to the Kingdom from South Yemen around 1930 as an illiterate laborer. He started a small construction business and went on to become one of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest construction magnates. He developed ties to the royal family and was awarded exclusive contracts. In the 1950s, Osama's father designed and built the al-Hada road, which permitted Muslims from Yemen to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), one of the five basic religious requirements of Islam, more easily. His company also received a multibillion dollar contract to restore and expand the Grand Mosques of Mecca and Medina, raising his company's prestige throughout the Muslim world and setting the stage for the company's expansion beyond Saudi Arabia. The bin Laden family established a large industrial and financial empire, the Bin Laden Group, which became one of the largest construction companies in the Middle East. Ironically, given Osama's recent outrage at the Saudi-American alliance and the presence of American forces in the Kingdom, the Bin Laden Group built many military support facilities in the Kingdom, including those used by U.S. forces during the Gulf War.
The relationship between the bin Laden clan and the royal family goes beyond business ties to include friendship and intermarriage. The bin Laden sons have attended the same schools as numerous princes of the royal family in Europe and America and have studied at and/or given money to some of the best universities, including Harvard, Oxford, and Tufts.
Osama's father was a strong, hard-working, dominating, pious man who insisted on keeping all of his children in one household and raised them according to a strict moral and religious code. The family home was open to many Muslims, especially during hajj, and Osama was able at an early age to meet Muslim scholars and leaders of Islamic movements from all over the Islamic world. Like many in the Arab world, bin Laden's father is said to have felt passionately about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This appears in an anecdote that has the elder bin Laden seeking to contribute to the liberation of Palestine. One day, as the story goes, he demanded that his company's engineers convert two hundred bulldozers into tanks for the purpose of attacking Israel. Told that the task was impossible, he decided instead to produce as many sons as possible and convert them into fighters. But out of all the bin Laden sons, Osama became the only fighter.
Information on Osama bin Laden's youth is limited and at times contradictory. Some maintain that he was a religiously committed young man protected from corruption by his early marriage to a Syrian girl. Other sources report that, like many wealthy youths of his time, he visited Beirut in the early 1970s, where he enjoyed the nightlife and women of this cosmopolitan city, known at that time as "the Paris of the Middle East." Like most young people, he would find or begin to define himself at university.
Bin Laden was educated in Medina and Jeddah, earning his degree in public administration in 1981 at Jeddah's King Abdulaziz University, where he studied management and economics. During his studies, he became more and more religiously oriented, influenced by his university experience and unfolding events in Saudi Arabia and the wider Muslim world. Osama's religious worldview was shaped both by Saudi Arabia's deeply conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and by the revolutionary Islam that began to spread in the 1970s. Each of these influences would be formative in the development of his jihadist vision, mission, and strategy.
The Islamic Vision
Islam emphasizes action, performing the will of God. It more closely resembles Judaism with its focus on following the law than Christianity with its emphasis on belief. Muslims are enjoined to act, to struggle (jihad) to implement their belief, to lead a good life, to defend religion, to contribute to the development of a just Islamic society throughout the world. The life and experience of the early community provide the model for the spread and defense of Islam through hijra and jihad. When Muhammad and his Companions suffered unremitting persecution in Mecca, they emigrated (hijra) to Yathrib, later renamed Medina, "the city" of the Prophet. Having regrouped, established, and strengthened the community at Medina, Muhammad then set about the struggle (jihad) to spread and defend God's Word and rule. This pattern of hijra and jihad in the face of adversity, coupled with the concept of the ummah (the worldwide Islamic community), which stresses a pan-Islamic unity, has guided Muslims throughout the ages, including bin Laden and many terrorists today.
Jihad and the Creation of Saudi Arabia
Osama bin Laden's worldview was very much influenced by the religious heritage and political climate in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in the 1960s and 1970s. Key influences included the environment of Saudi Arabia, a self-styled Islamic state with a rigid, puritanical, Wahhabi brand of Islam, the militant jihad ideology of Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, whose disciples had found refuge and positions in the kingdom, and the devastating Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia from its earliest beginnings has relied on the blending of religion and political power. Its origins stretch back to the eighteenth century when an Islamic revivalist and theologian, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, formed an alliance with a local tribal chief, Muhammad ibn Saud of Dariyya (a town near modern-day Riyadh), to create a religiopolitical movement, Wahhabism. The movement swept across central Arabia, capturing Mecca and Medina and uniting its tribes in what its followers believed was a re-creation of Islam's seventh-century beginnings under the Prophet Muhammad. Athough the movement was crushed by the Ottoman Empire, a descendant of the House of Saud, Abdulaziz ibn Saud (1879-1953), reasserted the family's claims to Arabia and led a religious and political movement that resulted in the establishment of modern-day Saudi Arabia.
The Wahhabi religious vision or brand of Islam, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, has been a staple of the Saudi government, a source of their religious and political legitimation. It is a strict, puritanical faith that emphasizes literal interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah (example) of the Prophet Muhammad and the absolute oneness of God. The Wahhabis denounced other tribes and Muslim communities as polytheists or idolaters. Anything the Wahhabis perceived as un-Islamic behavior constituted unbelief (kufr) in their eyes, which must be countered by jihad. Thus jihad or holy war was not simply permissible: to fight the unbelievers and reestablish a true Islamic state was required.
Abdulaziz framed the development of Saudi Arabia using stories and symbols drawn from the life and struggles of Muhammad. He recruited Bedouin tribesmen to join the brotherhood of believers and, like Muhammad's community, engage in a process of hijra and jihad. Like Muhammad and the early community, they emigrated to new settlements where they could live a true Islamic life and be trained religiously and militarily. They combined missionary zeal, military might, and a desire for booty to once again spread Islamic rule in Arabia, waging holy wars approved by their religious leaders. Abdulaziz used the banner of the puritanical Wahhabi to legitimate fighting other Muslim tribal leaders and seizing Mecca and Medina. As in the Christian tradition, death in battle merited martyrdom and eternal bliss in paradise; likewise, as in the Christian Crusades, victory meant not only the triumph of virtue but also the rewards of plunder and booty. Wahhabi history and paradigms were an essential part of Osama bin Laden's religious faith and sense of history, a heritage he would turn to in later life for inspiration and guidance.
During the 1970s many Islamic activists, both Saudi-born and foreigners, were to be found in the Kingdom. Among Osama's teachers at King Abdulaziz University was Dr. Abdullah Azzam, who would later become prominent in Afghanistan. Azzam, a Jordanian member of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood and reportedly a founder of Hamas, had strong academic and Islamic activist credentials. Trained at Damascus University in theology, he earned a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence at Egypt's famed al-Azhar University. Azzam was an advocate of a militant global jihad ideology and culture, seeing it as a duty incumbent on all Muslims. Sometimes described as the Emir of Jihad or Godfather of global jihad, Azzam was a captivating speaker who preached a clear message of militant confrontation and conflict: "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues." Azzam's jihad was global in scope, aimed at recouping the glories and lands of Islam. "This duty will not end with victory in Afghanistan; jihad will remain an individual obligation until all other lands that were Muslim are returned to us so that Islam will reign again: before us lie Palestine, Bokhara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent and Andalusia [southern Spain]."
Dr. Muhammad Qutb, a famous scholar and activist, was another of Osama's teachers. He was a brother of Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed in 1966 when Gamal Abdel Nasser's government crushed and outlawed the Brotherhood. Sayyid Qutb is widely acknowledged as the father of militant jihad, a major influence on the worldview of radical movements across the Muslim world, and venerated as a martyr of contemporary Islamic revivalism. Qutb's writings and ideas provided the religious worldview and discourse for generations of activists, moderate and extremist. For those Muslims who, like bin Laden, were educated in schools and universities with Islamist teachers, Sayyid Qutb was a staple of their Islamic education.
Bin Laden was educated at a time when Islamic movements and religious extremist or jihad movements were on the rise in the broader Muslim world and within Saudi Arabia. The disastrous and humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli war, in which the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan were beaten within hours by "tiny little Israel," was a major turning point in the history of contemporary Islam. It generated deep soul-searching about what had gone wrong with Islam, the modern failure and impotence of a Muslim world that for centuries after its creation had experienced unparalleled success and power. What came to be called The Disaster was countered in 1973 by a jihad against Israel fought by Anwar Sadat. Its code name was Badr, symbolizing the first great and miraculous victory of the Prophet Muhammad over a superior Meccan army. This was followed by another significant event in the world of Osama bin Laden. The Arab oil embargo, with its crippling impact on the West, gave Muslims a new sense of pride. The Arab world and the heartland of Islam seemed to reemerge as a major economic power after centuries of subservience to European imperialism.
The 1970s also witnessed an increase in the power and visibility of internal Islamic opposition and reform movements. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood along with a series of radical groups reemerged as a major oppositional force. Iran's Islamic revolution came as an inspirational rallying cry for Islamic activists across the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia itself was rocked by the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by militants who called for the overthrow of the House of Saud. Many of these militants were well-educated, pious activists who denounced the wealth and corruption of the "infidel" regime and the corrosive impact of the West on religious and social values. They wanted to purify and return to traditional Islam, re-creating a true Islamic state and society. While bin Laden does not seem to have sided with Saudi extremists, he could not help but be strongly affected by the activist mood of the 1970s in Saudi Arabia and beyond.
Jihad in Afghanistan:
The Making of a Holy Warrior
A major turning point in Osama bin Laden's life, the beginning of his journey toward becoming a mujahid, or warrior for God, occurred with the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. As bin Laden would later say, "What I lived in two years there, I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere." By the 1970s Afghanistan had become overwhelmingly dependent on the Soviet Union's patronage for its survival. Marxist and Maoist parties thrived while Islamist parties and movements were repressed. In July 1973 Prince Muhammad Daud, a former prime minister and cousin of the Afghan King Zahir Shah, overthrew the government, abolished the monarchy, and proclaimed himself president of Afghanistan. Five years later the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan staged a coup and established a new communist government. This was followed by the direct intervention and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979. The occupation galvanized Afghanistan's diverse tribal and religious leaders and movements in a popular jihad. Afghanistan's tribal society had a fragile unity offset by the realities of its multiethnic tribal society comprising Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras divided religiously between a Sunni Muslim majority and a minority of Shii Muslims. Soviet occupation, however, provided a common enemy and mission. The call for a jihad offered a common, though transient as history would prove, Islamic religious identity and source of inspiration. The mujahidin holy war to liberate Islam and Afghanistan from Soviet (atheistic) communist occupation would eventually drive out the Soviet military, defeat the Afghan communists, and lead to the establishment of an Islamic state in 1992.
When the anti-Soviet jihad began, bin Laden was among the first to rush to the Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, to meet with mujahidin leaders, some of whom he had already come to know during hajj gatherings at his home in Saudi Arabia. From 1979 to 1982 he collected funds and materiel for the jihad and made intermittent visits from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. In 1982 he finally entered Afghanistan, bringing large quantities of construction machinery as well as funding, and becoming a full participant in the Afghan jihad. By 1984 increasing numbers of Arab mujahidin were arriving in Pakistan to join the holy war. Bin Laden responded by establishing a guesthouse in Peshawar for Arabs on their way to the front in Afghanistan. In 1986 Osama became more directly involved in the war, setting up his own camps and commanding Arab mujahidin forces who became known as Arab Afghans in battle. He subsequently created al-Qaeda (the base), to organize and track the channeling of fighters and funds for the Afghan resistance. Six-feet five-inches tall, with a long beard and piercing eyes, the wealthy and powerfully connected bin Laden was well on his way to becoming a poster-boy for the jihad, at first as a hero and later as a global terrorist.
Bin Laden's activities were applauded by the Saudi government, which, along with the United States, had made a heavy commitment to supporting the jihad against the Soviet Union. For America, this was a "good jihad." Ironically, although the United States had been threatened by Iran's revolutionary Islam and the violence and terrorism committed by jihad groups in Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere, our government was able to cheer and support Afghanistan's holy warriors, providing considerable funding as well as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) advisers. Everyone was in agreement. For Osama bin Laden, as for Saudi Arabia and indeed Muslims worldwide, the Afghan jihad to repel foreigners from Islamic territory was eminently in accord with Islamic doctrine.
Excerpted from UNHOLY WAR by John L. Esposito. Copyright © 2002 by John L. Esposito. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.