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Bin Laden, Osama

Natana J. DeLong-Bas
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Bin Laden, Osama

Global jihadist, Saudi militant, and founder of al-Qaʿida, Osama bin Laden (1957–2011) remains an icon for Islamic extremism and violent opposition to both the United States and its allies and domestic authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world.

Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His father, Muḥammad bin Awad bin Laden, was the founder of the multi-billion dollar commercial construction company, The Saudi Binladin Group, which provided bin Laden with business and construction experience, access to heavy equipment, contacts with the Saudi royal family and business communities, and financial assets. Although bin Laden was only ten years old when his father was killed in a plane crash, he credits his father with inspiring him to religious service, particularly through jihād (struggle), hard work, and concern for the Palestinians.

Bin Laden began studying economics at King Abdulaziz University in Jiddah in 1976, but did not complete his degree. Although he did not receive any formal religious training at the university, he is known to have studied the ideas of the Egyptian scholar-activist Sayyid Quṭb, who developed a framework for jihād against jāhilī (ignorant, pre-Islamic) societies, particularly the West, and a vision of Islam as an alternative to capitalism and Marxism.

In 1979, bin Laden left the university to join the jihād against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As a result he met Abdullah al-Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar and ideologue of militant jihād against non-Muslims living in historically Muslim lands, who became bin Laden's mentor, and Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī, an Egyptian medical doctor and militant activist who also encouraged him to expand his vision of jihād beyond Afghanistan to include fighting against authoritarian, “un-Islamic” regimes in the Middle East.

During these early years, bin Laden supported the Afghan mujāhidīn by providing financial and logistical support, including the transfer of equipment and engineers from his construction company, which were used to build roads, arms depots, training facilities, a medical center, and a complex of tunnels that are believed to have facilitated his escape in 2001. Bin Laden's willingness to live a simple and austere life in the trenches, his personal piety, and generous support of the jihād earned him folk-hero status in Afghanistan.

Initially, bin Laden recruited Muslims from other countries via the co-foundation of the Services Office in 1984 with al-Azzam. In 1987, he sought to expand his own military role in the Afghan jihād through the foundation of his own exclusively Arab Afghan military base, al-Masada (The Lion's Den), to demonstrate Arab dedication to self-sacrifice and martyrdom in the conflict with the Soviets. His desire for military activity is attributed to his growing contact with Egyptian militants by 1986, most notably al-zawāhirī, Mohammed Atef (Abu Hafs al-Misri), and Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, all of whom became key members of al-Qaʿida when it was founded in 1988/89.

The 1989 defeat of the Soviet Union was interpreted as the ideological victory of Islam over atheistic communism, marking an important psychological victory for the mujāhidīn, inspiring jihād against other “infidel” regimes. Unable to reach a consensus about where to begin this global jihād, the Arab Afghans returned to their home countries, where many began to oppose their domestic regimes, and bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait shortly afterward, bin Laden offered the services of his Arab Afghans to protect Saudi Arabia. King Fahd's refusal in favor of American troops resulted in bin Laden declaring that the king and the religious establishment had abandoned their faith. Bin Laden went into exile in the Sudan in 1991/92, where he established the Advice and Reform Committee (ARC) to call for Saudi domestic political and religious reform. Stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 and having survived several assassination attempts, bin Laden called for the overthrow of the monarchy in 1997.

During his exile in Sudan, bin Laden founded several profitable construction and agricultural business ventures that are believed to have generated income and provided cover for bin Laden's vision of jihād, which expanded to include Palestine, Iraq, and American foreign policy in the Middle East. International pressure on Sudan resulted in bin Laden's departure for Afghanistan in 1995/96.

Bin Laden declared jihād against the United States on August 23, 1996, with the goal of removing American troops from Saudi Arabia. In 1998, he joined with other jihadist groups to form the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews, declaring attacks on American financial and military targets to be the most important duty for Muslims after belief in God. Since then, attacks have occurred against both the “near enemy” of domestic authoritarian regimes and the “far enemy” in the West, including attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, Washington, D.C., and New York City in September 2001 (9/11), nightclubs in Bali in 2002, a train in Madrid in 2004, the London transit system in 2005, and both government facilities and Westerners in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2005. Although bin Laden has consistently denied personal responsibility for planning the 9/11 attacks in particular, he has claimed responsibility for setting the political objectives and goals for terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, as well as provision of financial and logistical support.

Bin Laden’s whereabouts were unknown following his escape from Afghanistan in October 2001, although he was believed to be hiding somewhere along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From 2001 through 2011, periodic intelligence reports announced his death. Despite the reports, video appearances attributed to him continued to be released, allowing him to maintain figurative and symbolic status as the head of al-Qaʿida, although he was not necessarily directly involved in the logistical aspects of what has increasingly become an amorphous entity. Bin Laden was killed during a covert operation by US Navy SEALs on 2 May 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and was reportedly buried at sea. Although some conspiracy theorists continue to maintain that he is alive, Al-Qaʿeida officially confirmed his death on 6 May 2011.

Bin Laden's jihadist ideology has been rejected as a heretical violation of Islamic values and beliefs by the overwhelming majority of the global Muslim population, including Muslim scholars who point to the major differences between mainstream interpretations of jihād as defensive, geographically limited in scope, and seeking to end discord, and bin Laden's call for uncompromising, unending, and unrestricted global jihād that does not respect classical Islamic prohibitions of attacks against civilians and Qurʿānic provisions for cooperative, peaceful relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Nevertheless, he remains an influential figure because of the broad resonance of the political causes he engages—the suffering of the Palestinians, Iraqis, Chechens, and Kashmiris under occupation, and opposition to both U.S. foreign policy and domestic authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world.



  • Bergen, Peter L.The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader. New York: Free Press, 2006.
  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J.Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Fandy, Mamoun. Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent. London: Palgrave, 1999.
  • Kepel, Gilles, ed. Al-Qaʿida dans le Texte: Écrits d’Oussama ben Laden, Abdallah Azzam, Ayman al-Zawahiri et Abou Moussab al-Zarqawi. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2005.
  • Lawrence, Bruce, ed.Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden. London: Verso, 2005.
  • Scheuer, Michael. Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, revised ed. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006.
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