NOW IN HIS MID-FORTIES, a university graduate with computer skills, Osama bin Laden lives with his four wives and some fifteen children in a small cave in eastern Afghanistan. They have no running water and only a rudimentary heating system against the extreme cold of winter. Bin Laden is always on guard against assassins, commando raids, and air strikes. Had he followed the path chosen for him by his father, bin Laden could have been a respected building contractor in Saudi Arabia and a billionaire in his own right. Instead he freely elected to abandon the life of affluence and commit himself to waging a jihad under extremely harsh conditions.
Osama bin Laden is not the only Islamist who has abandoned a good career and comfortable lifestyle in order to wage a jihad. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri -- bin Laden's right-hand man -- now in his late forties, could have been one of Egypt's leading pediatricians but gave up a promising career and affluence to fight the Egyptian government. He then refused political asylum in Western Europe (with a generous stipend) and ended up living in eastern Afghanistan not far from bin Laden.
Although bin Laden and Zawahiri are the most notorious Islamist terrorists, there are hundreds like them. These dedicated commanders in turn lead thousands of terrorists in a relentless and uncompromising holy war against the United States and the West as a whole. The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 were the latest but by far not the last shots in this rapidly escalating war of terrorism. What makes these individuals -- the leaders and symbols of the new Islamist upsurge -- commit themselves to this kind of war?
The rise of the new radical Islamist elite is a recent phenomenon in the developing world. These leaders, from the affluent and privileged segment of society, are highly educated and relatively Westernized. They are not the underprivileged, impoverished, and embittered isolates who usually constitute the pool that breeds terrorists and radicals. These Islamist terrorist leaders are different from the typical European middle-class revolutionaries and terrorists -- from the anarchists of the nineteenth century to the Communist revolutionaries of the late twentieth century -- because the Islamists have become popular leaders of the underprivileged masses, while the European terrorists remained isolated from a generally hostile population. Only Ernesto "Che" Guevara -- the Argentinian doctor turned revolutionary fighter of the early 1960s -- came close to being the kind of populist leader these Islamists are.
To understand these Islamist leaders -- particularly Osama bin Laden -- one needs to understand their break with their past, their motivation, the fire in their veins, and the depth of their hatred of the United States and what it stands for.
OSAMA BIN LADEN, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their compatriots, mostly Saudis and Egyptians, are the product of the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s. Their entire lives, from their early years up until the time they rejected a luxurious lifestyle and embraced radicalism and militancy, were strongly influenced by key events unfolding in the Middle East -- most importantly, the Arab prosperity and identity crisis that accompanied the oil boom in the 1970s, the triumph of revolutionary Islam in Iran, and the rallying cry of the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden was born in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, probably in 1957. At the time his father, Muhammad bin Laden, was a small-time builder and contractor who had arrived from Yemen in search of employment. Osama was one of numerous siblings -- his father had more than fifty children from several wives. Muhammad bin Laden was conscientious about education and advancement in life and tried to provide his children with proper schooling. During the 1960s the family moved to the Hijaz, western Saudi Arabia, and ultimately settled in Al-Medina Al-Munawwara. Osama received most of his formal education in the schools of Medina and later Jedda, Saudi Arabia's main commercial port on the Red Sea.
The oil boom of the 1970s changed Muhammad bin Laden's fortunes. The development boom in the Hijaz brought him in direct contact with the Saudi elite, and he soon developed a special relationship with the upper-most echelons of the House of al-Saud as both a superior builder and the provider of discreet services, such as the laundering of payments to "causes." His contacts at the top enabled Muhammad bin Laden to expand his business into one of the biggest construction companies in the entire Middle East -- the Bin Laden Corporation. The special status of the bin Laden company was established when the House of al-Saud contracted with it to refurbish and rebuild the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. During the 1970s, the bin Laden company was involved in the construction of roads, buildings, mosques, airports, and the entire infrastructure of many of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
Osama was destined to follow in his father's footsteps. He went to high school in Jedda and then studied management and economics at King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, one of Saudi Arabia's best schools. His father promised him he would be put in charge of his own company, which would enjoy the bin Ladens' direct access to the Court to gain extremely profitable contracts.
Osama bin Laden started the 1970s as did many other sons of the affluent and well-connected -- breaking the strict Muslim lifestyle in Saudi Arabia with sojourns in cosmopolitan Beirut. While in high school and college Osama visited Beirut often, frequenting flashy nightclubs, casinos, and bars. He was a drinker and womanizer, which often got him into bar brawls.
Ultimately, however, Osama bin Laden was not an ordinary Saudi youth having a good time in Beirut. In 1973 Muhammad bin Laden was deeply affected spiritually when he rebuilt and refurbished the two holy mosques, and these changes gradually affected Osama. Even while he was still taking brief trips to Beirut, he began showing interest in Islam. He started reading Islamic literature and soon began his interaction with local Islamists. In 1975 the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war prevented further visits to Beirut. The Saudi Islamists claimed that the agony of the Lebanese was a punishment from God for their sins and destructive influence on young Muslims. Osama bin Laden was strongly influenced by these arguments.
The drastic personal change in Osama bin Laden's life in the mid-1970s reflects the turmoil of the Arab Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, during the 1970s.
What began as a period of Arab self-respect and great expectations -- derived from the self-perceived restoration of "Arab honor" in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack against Israel that ended with an inconclusive Israeli military victory) and then the great affluence and influence resulting from the oil boom that followed the embargo of 1973-1974 (which the oil-producing states of the Arabian Peninsula declared in order to force the West into adopting anti-Israeli policies) -- quickly turned into an era of acute crisis and trauma due to the Arab world's inability to cope with the consequences of its actions. The sudden increase in wealth of the ruling elite and the upper and educated strata and exposure to the West led to confusion and a largely unresolved identity crisis resulting in radicalism and eruptions of violence. Improved media access and availability throughout the region brought home crises in other parts of the world. Be-cause of its conservative Islamic character and sudden wealth and influence, Saudi Arabia was uniquely influenced by these dynamics.
In Jedda, Osama bin Laden was constantly exposed to the often contradictory trends influencing Saudi society at the time. As Saudi Arabia's main port city on the Red Sea coast, Jedda was exposed to Western influence more than most other Saudi cities were. Sailors and experts came to Jedda, while the increasingly rich local elite, including the bin Laden family, visited the West. Coming from generally conservative and isolated Saudi Arabia, these visitors were shocked by their encounter with the West -- by the personal freedoms and affluence of the average citizen, by the promiscuity, and by the alcohol and drug use of Western youth. Many young Saudis could not resist experimenting with the forbidden. When they returned to Saudi Arabia, they brought with them the sense of individualism and personal freedoms they encountered in the West.
The wealth and worldly character of Jedda also transformed it into a shelter for Islamist intellectuals persecuted throughout the Muslim world. Several universities, primarily King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, which bin Laden attended from 1974 to 1978, became a hub of vibrant Islamist intellectual activity; the best experts and preachers were sheltered in the universities and mosques, providing an opportunity to study and share their knowledge. They addressed the growing doubts of the Saudi youth. Their message to the confused was simple and unequivocal -- only an absolute and unconditional return to the fold of conservative Islamism could protect the Muslim world from the inherent dangers and sins of the West.
In March 1975, in the midst of the oil boom and the Islamic intellectual backlash against it, Saudi Arabia's King Faisal was assassinated. The assassin, Prince Faisal ibn Musaid, was the king's deranged nephew. He was also thoroughly Westernized and had visited the United States and Western Europe frequently. Both Islamists and Court insiders expressed apprehension that exposure to Western ways had caused Faisal ibn Musaid to go insane. Although the succession process worked and the kingdom suffered no ensuing crisis, the seed of doubt and discontent was sown. The assassination was a turning point for Saudi Arabia. For both the Saudi establishment and the conscientious elite, the assassination of the beloved king served as proof that the Islamists' warning against the sinful and perilous influence of the West had been on target. The shock of the assassination brought home the real and communal ramifications of the Westernization of the country's educated and affluent youth, creating a grassroots backlash and sending many of these youth, including bin Laden, back into the fold of Islamism.
In the mid-1970s unfolding events in Egypt -- the undisputed leader of the Arab world and politics -- were also having a major impact on the Saudi educated elite. Jedda was the key entry port for printed material arriving from Egypt, and many of the Islamist intellectuals operating in the city's universities and mosques were Egyptian. They maintained close contacts with their colleagues still in Egypt and advocated their views, exposing the students of Jedda's universities, including bin Laden, to their works and opinions. Already attuned to and tilting toward Islamism, bin Laden was influenced by these Egyptian studies and the events that prompted them. In the mid-1970s Egyptian president Anwar Sadat courted the Americans to gain political and economic assistance in working out a series of interim agreements with Israel. In the process of courting the United States, Sadat's image changed from that of a traditional village leader to that of a thoroughly Westernized world leader. The personality cult that Sadat developed domestically only alienated the educated elite, whose knowledge of and firsthand experience with the West caused them to fear its adverse impact on the traditional values of Muslim society.
The Islamist fundamentalist movement in Egypt was rejuvenated in the mid-1970s by young activists with Western -- mainly secular and technical -- educations who gave up their attempt to define their communal place in a world dominated by the West and its values. Intellectually active and curious, they produced high-quality literature that was widely circulated among the young Arab elite. In 1975 Egyptian writer and engineer Wail Uthman, one of the early influential ideologues of the most militant branch of the Islamist movement, published The Party of God in Struggle with the Party of Satan. This book divided the world into two social entities -- the Party of God and the Party of Satan -- and urged believers to fight to restore the rule of the former. In the preface to the second edition of his book, Uthman emphasized that in writing about the unbelievers, the members of the Party of Satan, he was actually referring to Sadat's regime. "Many thought I meant the Communist party when I wrote the Devil's party," he admitted. But although according to Uthman the Communists are an "essential support" of the Party of Satan, to him they are not the source of evil. "The Party of Satan is that group of people who pretend to believe in Islam but in reality are Islam's first enemies," Uthman wrote. He considered exposure to Western everyday life the source of the mounting crisis of Islam and saw no solution but Islamic militancy.
The Arab world was jolted in 1977 when Sadat visited Jerusalem and began the process that would lead to signing a peace agreement with Israel. Sadat's recognition of Israel was the first overt breaking of the "taboo" the Jewish state constitutes -- the widest common denominator in the Arab world other than Islam. In his 1996 book Secret Channels, Egyptian journalist and commentator Mohamed Heikal stressed that the Arab world is motivated by "a blend of fury and revulsion" toward Israel that the present "peace process" has yet to breach. The combination of a dread of Westernization and the breaking of the "taboo" pushed many Arabs to extremes. The grassroots rejection of the president-turned-pharaoh mobilized scores of youth throughout all of Egyptian society -- from the affluent and educated to the poor villagers and slum dwellers, from members of the security services to outcasts in the desert -- to seek Islamist solutions to the profound crises afflicting Egypt.
Soon Islamist youth in Egypt and elsewhere had forceful proof of the righteousness of their cause. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, overthrew the shah, and established the Islamic Republic. Throughout the Muslim world the masses celebrated the success of Khomeini's Islamic Revolution as the triumph of Islam over the United States and the West. The Islamic Revolution became a source of pride and envy to all Muslims, as well as living proof that local rulers could be over-thrown by Islamist forces. The impact of Iran was strong in Egypt because Sadat invited the deposed shah to take shelter there, a flagrant affront to the sentiments of most of the population.
The radical Shiite movement was the force behind the Iranian Revolution, and its development in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq was almost simultaneous to and paralleled the evolution of Sunni revivalism in Egypt. By the late 1970s the philosophy of the revolutionary Shiite thinkers, as expressed in their writings, was very similar to that of the radical Sunni standard-bearers. Their approach to the diagnosis and cure of contemporary problems and their emphasis on the singular importance of confrontation and struggle were virtually identical. Saudi Arabia, in the middle, was exposed to the mounting Islamist fervor.
Saudi Arabia was the first of the traditionalist conservative states to erupt in Islamist violence. On November 20, 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by a well-organized group of 1,300 to 1,500 men under the leadership of Juhayman ibn-Muhammad ibn-Sayf al-Utaibi. A former captain in the White Guards (National Guard), he now declared himself a "mahdi" (messiah). In addition to the Saudis the group's core included well-trained mujahideen (Islamic holy warriors) from Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, North Yemen (the YAR), and South Yemen (the PDRY). Egyptian and Soviet sources estimated the total number of rebels to be 3,500. Although the assault was in the name of the return to the purity of Islam, most of the 500 leading attackers had been trained and equipped in Libya and especially South Yemen by instructors from East Germany, Cuba, and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). These attackers included Communists in command positions who demonstrated excel-lent organizational and tactical skills. Furthermore, fifty-nine of the participating Yemenis had been trained in Iran and received weapons via the Iranian Embassy in Sana.
During the preparations for the assault Juhayman's men had recruited several members of the elite White Guards and received active support in the smuggling of weapons and equipment into Saudi Arabia and the mosque itself. A White Guards colonel was among the senior instigators of the plot and organized the smuggling of the automatic weapons, provisions, and supplies into the mosque. The bulk of the weapons used had been brought from South Yemen over a lengthy period. The rebels also smuggled in huge quantities of food and drinking water to supply them-selves and their supporters for a long siege.
On November 20, after a brief firefight to secure control of the Qaaba (the center of the Grand Mosque complex, containing the holiest shrine of Islam), Juhayman addressed the crowd of trapped pilgrims and asked for their support. Sermons and discussions of corruption, wastefulness, and the pro-Western stance of the Saudi royal family quickly gained the rebels widespread support among the worshipers. Before long most of the 6,000 pilgrims taken hostage asked to be issued arms so that they could join the revolt. Juhayman's sermons gained sympathy even among the leftist and quasi-Marxist students. News of Juhayman's sermons incited militant mobs throughout Saudi Arabia to storm local mosques and government posts. Latent subversive elements came to life as almost simultaneously with the seizure of the Qaaba a series of bombs exploded in places sensitive to the royal family in Mecca, Medina, Jeddah, and Riyadh. Among these targets were palaces, personal and official offices, and businesses.
Initially the White Guards reacted chaotically to the attack and suffered a humiliating defeat. Moreover, growing discontent in the ranks of the Saudi elite units led the royal family to fear that even they might rebel. The Saudi security forces settled for a siege of the mosque that lasted about two weeks. In the end the rebellion was only subdued by a special detachment of French paramilitary special forces, antiterrorist experts who used stun grenades and chemical weapons.
The uprising in Mecca shook the world of accepted norms in Saudi Arabia. The grievances raised by Juhayman echoed throughout Saudi Arabia, being whispered about in closed meetings. In intellectual circles his arguments made people stop and think about Islam and the society they were living in. A thinking and well-read individual, Osama bin Laden was influenced by the social issues Juhayman raised. But although the crisis of November 1979 reinforced bin Laden's conviction that only an Islamic government could shield Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world from the evils of encroaching Westernization, he remained a loyal subject of King Fahd and the House of al-Saud.
OSAMA BIN LADEN' S WORLD, like that of most Muslims worldwide, was jolted in the last days of 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In the late 1970s Afghanistan -- a desolate and backward landlocked country -- was ruled by a Soviet-sponsored Communist government being challenged by Pakistani-sponsored Islamist subversion. With the Communist regime increasingly unstable, the Soviet armed forces marched into Afghanistan, occupied the country's strategic infrastructure, assassinated the president, and replaced him with a docile Soviet puppet. They also began a systematic campaign to suppress the Islamist subversion.
The Soviet invasion was the first time since World War II that non-Muslim forces had occupied a Muslim country -- and these were anti-Islamic Communists to boot. Little wonder that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the last days of 1979 shocked the entire Muslim world to its core. The occupation of a Muslim state by Communist forces insulted the most basic sensitivities of Islam. But however immense the shock and however great the condemnation by the Arab states, little was actually done.
Immediately after the Soviet invasion, outrage ran throughout the Muslim world. An extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers from thirty-five Islamic states convened in Islamabad on January 27, 1980. Those assembled strongly condemned "the Soviet military aggression against the Afghan people" and called for the "immediate and unconditional withdrawal" of all Soviet troops from Afghanistan. They also urged that no Muslim country recognize the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) -- the Soviet-installed government in the capital, Kabul -- or negotiate with Kabul.
The Soviet Union moved quickly to blunt the Islamic militant movement, pointing to the disunity of the Arab world and challenging its right to speak for the entire Muslim population. The Soviet Union countered by claiming that it was the genuine supporter of Islam. "Showing respect for the religious feelings of the masses, the USSR holds out the hand of solidarity and friendship to all Muslims who are struggling against imperialist forces and exploitation for the right to control their own destiny, for freedom, independence, and economic and social progress," wrote A. Vasiliev, a pseudonym used by the Kremlin to signal an authoritative message delivered by a senior official. The Soviets also warned the Muslim world against "the imperialist threat" now being concealed "behind the concern for Islam" and reminded the Arabs of its long-standing support during their military confrontations with Israel and the West. Moscow urged the Muslim world to examine its intervention in Afghanistan accordingly.
Even if Arab governments were not convinced by the Soviet propaganda, they were disinclined to confront the Soviet Union, mostly because of military realities. Soviet forces were poised on the Afghan border, over-looking the Persian Gulf and an Iran in turmoil. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence, observed in early 1980 that the ultimate Soviet objective was "our oil. . . . At this moment we do not expect an invasion, but we do expect the Soviets to use their power to maneuver themselves into a position to make arrangements for a guaranteed oil supply." Rhetoric notwithstanding, Riyadh's interest in Afghanistan was strategic -- the sanctity of Saudi Arabia's oil fields. Although the concern for Islamic solidarity expressed by the Saudis was genuine, it was not their primary concern. This distinction is important in understanding the role bin Laden would soon play in the escalating war in Afghanistan.
If the Arab world entertained any hopes after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that the United States would save it in case of further Soviet encroachment, these hopes were soon dispelled. The United States' aborted rescue attempt in Iran on the night of April 24 to 25, 1980, demonstrated Arab vulnerability. In November 1979, after the Iranian revolution, a group of Iran's unofficial intelligence service, with the support of the country's elite and the KGB, had seized the U.S. Embassy and taken sixty-three Americans hostage, demanding U.S. disengagement and withdrawal from the region and the return of frozen funds for the hostages' release. Elite U.S. forces attempted to rescue the American hostages, held by Iranian militants in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The mission failed due to a shortage of helicopters and a collision between a tanker aircraft and a helicopter during preparations for withdrawal. The specter of the burned hulks of U.S. air-craft and helicopters, the bodies of a few American servicemen, and the hastily abandoned helicopters provided by a jubilant Iranian TV brought home the American humiliation. For the Arab rulers in the shadow of Afghanistan, this demonstrated America's military incompetence and proved that Washington could not be relied on to save these regimes from the growing Soviet threat. The Soviets capitalized on the failed show of force, emphasizing that the U.S. rescue operation was actually intended "to return Iran to the zone of American influence." This opinion was shared by leaders in Persian Gulf capitals.
In the spring of 1980 fear and caution became the main characteristics of Arab policy toward the Soviet Union and the Afghan question. Arab governments could not ignore the fact that the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan cut in half the distance that Soviet forces, aircraft, and missiles would need to travel to reach the Persian Gulf. "The Soviet shadow over this area looms so large that many Muslim regimes cannot find the courage to challenge it; the more savagely the Russians deal with the Afghan resistance, the greater the dread which they strike into the heart of other Muslim countries," observed Professor Richard Pipes, director of East European and Soviet Affairs for the National Security Council during the first years of the Reagan administration. Changes in the Muslims' position were visible in the follow-up conference of Islamic states in May 1980. The denunciation of the Soviet Union that emerged was somewhat milder than it had been four months earlier. More important, the demand not to recognize or deal with the government in Kabul was removed from the resolution.
Osama bin Laden was one of the first Arabs to go to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. "I was enraged and went there at once," he said to an Arab journalist. In retrospect, bin Laden now considers the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a turning point in his life. "The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the mujahideen put out an international plea for help," he explained to another interviewer. He was inspired by the plight of Muslims "in a medieval society besieged by a twentieth-century superpower. . . . In our religion, there is a special place in the hereafter for those who participate in jihad," he added. "One day in Afghanistan was like one thousand days of praying in an ordinary mosque."
Excerpted from bin Laden by Yossef Bodansky. Copyright © 2001 by Yossef Bodansky. Excerpted by permission of Prima Lifestyles, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.