The Mesmerizer

Born to wealth, bin Laden studied business administration, then turned to terror

Newsweek/September 24, 2001
By Rod Nordland and Jeffrey Bartholet

Osama bin Laden likes to pose with an AK-47, yet he seems a bit awkward with a gun. He's a thin reed of a man roughly 6 feet 5 and just 160 pounds, according to FBI Wanted posters: soft-spoken, languid in his movements, almost effeminate. His eyes twinkle. His immense charisma, in fact, derives not simply from his capacity for violence, but for the gentle manner in which he comports himself. He enjoys poetry, of a sort. The muse hit him during the wedding of his son Mohammed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, early this year - four months after the suicide bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors:

The piece of the bodies of infidels were flying like dust particles/If you would have seen it with your own eyes, you would have been very pleased/And your heart would have been filled with joy.

That paean to the Cole bombers is now part of a bin Laden recruitment tape on sale around the Middle East and in other Islamic countries like Pakistan. The recitation is accompanied by video of an explosion - subtitled "Destruction of the Destroyer Cole followed by news footage of the damaged ship. The full 100 minutes of propaganda also features footage of bin Laden firing the AK-47, and a clip of him exhorting Muslims to further attacks. "With small means and great faith, we can defeat the mightiest military power of modern times,"he says. "America is much weaker than it seems."At one point, bin Laden seems to be grooming his followers for suicide missions: "You will not die needlessly,"he counsels them. "Your lives are in the hands of God."

Much to his own satisfaction, bin Laden has become the living symbol of global terror. This is partly related to his talent for orchestrating bombing operations. Yet his true genius is for building and buffing his own legend and rallying others to the cause. He's first among equals in a movement that includes some of the world's most ruthless - and ruthlessly ambitious - men. And he knows that every time America attacks him and fails, as it did with cruise missiles after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, his stature grows.

Bin Laden has spent much of his life preparing for an epic confrontation with what he calls the "Crusader-Zionist alliance."His family hails from the Hadramawt region of Yemen, but bin Laden was raised in Saudi Arabia, where his father had a fabulously successful construction company. Osama was the 17th of more than 50 children sired by his father. Some of the extended bin Laden brood apparently spent time in the United States and developed ties there, but Osama got his education in business administration at King Abdul Aziz University in Jidda, where he became attracted to fundamentalist ideology.

After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the budding rebel found his cause. At first he provided logistical help, including cash and construction equipment, making himself extremely useful to the threadbare fighters of the Afghan resistance. But eventually he moved to battlefield operations. Although bin Laden never had a direct relationship with American intelligence agents (as far as we know), the CIA certainly was pleased that a wealthy Saudi had appeared on the scene to help finance the anti-Soviet jihad. In 1986, bin Laden helped build the Khost tunnel complex, for instance, which the CIA was also funding as a major arms depot, training facility and medical center.

It was in Afghanistan that bin Laden began to cultivate his legend. He likes to tell the story of the Soviet mortar shell that landed beside him, and never blew up, and recalls bombs that cascaded on his headquarters but never exploded. Many of his comrades were impressed with the way the rich kid handled himself under fire. "He not only gave his money, but also gave himself,"Palestinian follower Hamza Mohammed told an interviewer. "He came down from his palace to live with the Afghan peasants and the Arab fighters. He cooked with them, ate with them, dug trenches with them. That was bin Laden's way."

Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia as a kind of cult hero in 1989. His speeches at mosques were often recorded and eagerly passed around the Middle East. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden argued for activating vets of the Afghan war to repulse the armies of secular Iraq. But the Saudi leadership opted for American help, infuriating bin Laden, who railed against the intrusion of "infidels" he believes are corrupting and oppressing Muslims around the world. When U.S. forces remained in Saudi Arabia after the war, bin Laden fled to Sudan. From there he nurtured his international network, which ran things ranging from soybean farms to terrorist operations.

Under U.S. pressure, Sudan forced bin Laden to leave the country in 1996, and he returned to Afghanistan as the "guest" of the Taliban militia. According to some reports, he sealed his tight relationships there by marrying off one of his daughters to the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. (In 1999 or early 2000, bin Laden himself married for the fourth time, to a 17-year-old Yemeni girl.)

Some suspect that bin Laden is now living in shelters dug out of caves, perhaps in the dry hills near Kandahar; others believe that he has moved to a new base in the Hindu Kush mountains in northwestern Afghanistan. Wherever he is, you can bet that he's pleased with himself. It's not hard to imagine the thin crescent of a smile on his face as he hears about the armies gathering against him.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.


Educational DVDs and Videos