by David Johnson and Beth Rowen
On May 2, 2011 (May 1 in the U.S.), U.S. troops and CIA operatives shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city of 500,000 people that houses a military base and a military academy. A gun battle broke out when the troops descended upon the building in which bin Laden was located, and bin Laden was shot in the head. News of bin Laden's death brought cheers and a sense of relief worldwide.
"For over two decades, Bin Laden has been Al Qaeda's leader and symbol," said President Barack Obama in a televised speech. "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat Al-Qaeda. But his death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that Al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad."
While Bin Laden's demise was greeted with triumph in the United States and around the world, analysts expressed concern that Al-Qaeda may seek retaliation. U.S. embassies throughout the world were put on high alert, and the U.S. State Department issued a warning for travelers visiting dangerous countries, instructing them "to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations." Some Afghan officials expressed concern that bin Laden's death might prompt the U.S. to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and said the U.S. should maintain a presence there because terrorism continues to plague the country and the region.
"The killing of Osama should not be seen as mission accomplished," former interior minister Hanif Atmar told the New York Times. "Al Qaeda is much more than just Osama bin Laden." Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is al-Qaeda's theological leader, will likely succeed bin Laden.
The fact that bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan in a compound located in close proximity to a military base will likely strain the already distrustful relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan has long denied that bin Laden was hiding within its borders, and the U.S. has provided Pakistan with about $1 billion each year to fight terrorism and to track down bin Laden.
Considered the world's foremost terrorist, Osama bin Laden was the leader of a terrorist organization known as Al-Qaeda, or "The Base." Bin Laden was the alleged perpetrator of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged part of the Pentagon, and resulted in a plane crash in Pennsylvania. At first he denied involvement in the attacks, referring to them, through an aid, as "punishment from Allah." In recent years he took responsibility for "inspiring" the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bin Laden has been implicated in a string of deadly attacks on the United States and its allies: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200; and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Bin Laden also claimed responsibility for a 1993 gunfight that killed 18 U.S. troops in Somalia and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar military complex in Saudi Arabia that left 19 U.S. soldiers dead.
Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia around 1957 to a father of Yemeni origins and a Syrian mother. His father, Mohammed bin Laden, founded a construction company and with royal patronage became a billionaire. The company's connections won it such important commissions as rebuilding mosques in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Mohammed bin Laden took numerous wives and fathered about 50 children. Osama was either the 17th son, or the 25th son, depending on various reports. Regardless, in a society where status within a family is highly important, bin Laden would have been of relatively low rank.
Bin Laden studied management and economics at King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, coming under the influence of religious teachers who introduced him to the wider world of Islamic politics.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan galvanized bin Laden. He supported the Afghan resistance, which became a jihad, or holy war. Ironically, the U.S. became a major supporter of the Afghan resistance, or mujahideen, working with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to set up Islamic schools in Pakistan for Afghan refugees. These schools later evolved into virtual training centers for Islamic radicals.
By the mid-1980s, bin Laden had moved to Afghanistan, where he established an organization, Maktab al-Khidimat (MAK), to recruit Islamic soldiers from around the world who later form the basis of an international network. The MAK maintained recruiting offices in Detroit and Brooklyn in the 1980s.
The Taliban, the former rulers of Afghanistan, arose from the religious schools set up during the mujahideen's war against the Soviet invasion. After the Soviet army withdrew in 1989, fighting erupted among mujahideen factions. In response to the chaos, the fundamentalist Taliban was formed and within two years it captured most of the country. The Taliban gave bin Laden sanctuary in 1996.
After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and worked in his family's construction business. He founded an organization to help veterans of the Afghan war, many of whom went on to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, and the Philippines. Scholars have suggested these loosely connected bands of seasoned soldiers, ready to fight for Islamic causes, form the basis of bin Laden's current support.
In 1990, in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi government allowed American troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was incensed that non-believers (American soldiers) were stationed in the birthplace of Islam. He also charged the Saudi regime with deviating from true Islam.
Bin Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991 because of his anti-government activities. He eventually wound up in Sudan, where he worked with Egyptian radical groups in exile.
In 1992 bin Laden claimed responsibility for attempting to bomb U.S. soldiers in Yemen and for attacking U.S. troops in Somalia the following year. In 1994 pressure from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia prompted Sudan to expel bin Laden, and he returned to Afghanistan.
In 1998 bin Laden called for all Americans and Jews, including children, to be killed. He has since been accused of increasing his terrorist activities, such as the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The date, Aug. 7, was the anniversary of the deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.
U.S. cruise missile attacks against targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan in Aug. 1998 are not believed to have seriously hampered bin Laden's network. Bin Laden continues to call for the destruction of the U.S., Israel, and the Saudi monarchy, stating that with these obstacles removed, Islam's three holiest sites, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, would then be liberated.
Yet, even as he is reviled in the West, bin Laden is a hero in parts of the Islamic world, according to intelligence reports. His organization is called al-Qaeda, "the Base," and has approximately 3,000 followers, which he funds with his estimated $250 million fortune. Experts have said that bin Laden could represent a new trend in terrorism—privatization. Until his emergence, most large-scale terrorist organizations are believed to have been connected to governments. With his money and disciplined followers, however, bin Laden is believed to have the ability to launch even more devastating terrorist attacks. He has not denied that he is seeking nuclear or chemical weapons, saying that it is a religious duty to defend Islam.
Bin Laden has been disowned by most of his family, including a brother, Sheik Bakr Mohammed bin Laden, who has established scholarship funds at Harvard Law School, and the Harvard School of Design. In 1991 his Saudi citizenship was revoked.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. issued an ultimatum to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to turn over bin Laden—this was just the last of several such demands made by the U.S. and the UN after bin Laden was implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa (the U.S. also responded then by launching retaliatory missile attacks on Sudan and an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan). Binding their fate to bin Laden's, the Taliban became the target of air strikes by the U.S. and Britain beginning in October 2002 that swiftly toppled the regime within two months. But Bin Laden, the object of the military campaign in Afghanistan, remained at large. He was believed to have fled to the mountainous region of Tora Bora, but the heavy U.S. bombing campaign that followed failed to vanquish him.
After the attacks, Bin Laden released several video tapes broadcast on Qatar's Al Jazeera network, the first of which praised the Sept. 11 hijackers, but stopped just short of claiming responsibility for them. In subsequent tapes, he threatened that more attacks against "the infidel" would occur and warned that "America will not live in peace."