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Bin Laden, Osama

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Bin Laden, Osama

    1957 – Islamic militant

    To many people, Osama bin Laden is best known as the alleged mastermind of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. On that day terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, one into the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and one into a field in western Pennsylvania. High-ranking officials in the U.S. government accused bin Laden and his followers of committing these deadly acts. September 11, they claimed, marked the latest in a series of attempts to harm the United States and its interests. Bin Laden's actions appeared to be part of his declared war against what he saw as the enemies of Islam.

    Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was born in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, in 1957 . The son of a highly successful businessman, bin Laden inherited a large fortune, which he has used to finance his many activities.

    In 1979 , the year bin Laden graduated from university, the Soviet Union invaded the largely Muslim nation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden, like many other Muslims, went to Afghanistan to aid in the resistance against the Soviets. Throughout the ten-year struggle, bin Laden helped recruit Afghan soldiers and financed their training. According to some sources, he also served as a commander of the Afghan opposition forces, known as the mujahidin. With American support and assistance, the mujahidin eventually defeated the Soviets in 1989 .

    Bin Laden returned to his home in Saudi Arabia. In August 1990 , neighboring Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait, an independent state on the Persian Gulf coast. Iraq ignored a call from the United Nations Security Council to withdraw from the small, oil-rich country. The United States led a coalition of 32 nations, including Saudi Arabia, to liberate Kuwait. Bin Laden denounced the Saudi government for allowing the United States to use Saudi soil as a military base from which to operate. He considered the Americans infidels whose presence in the land of Mecca and Medina—Islam's most holy places—was unacceptable. Bin Laden's opposition so angered the Saudi government that they accused him of subversion, and revoked his citizenship. He fled the country in 1991 .

    Bin Laden then committed himself to the destruction of the United States and its allies. From his new location in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, he worked to expand an organization called al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the base”). Appealing to Muslims throughout the world, al-Qaeda's broad goal was to overthrow all moderate or “corrupt” Muslim governments, eliminate Western influence, erase state boundaries, and establish a single fundamentalist Muslim state. To support this effort, al-Qaeda used terrorism against its enemies. Throughout the 1990s, al-Qaeda built training camps and allegedly took part in a number of terrorist attacks. Bin Laden was suspected of involvement in two terrorist incidents in 1993 —the bombing of the World Trade Center that killed 6 people and injured more than 1,000 others, and the battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, in which 18 U.S. soldiers died.

    Under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia, Sudan expelled bin Laden in 1996 . He moved his operation to Afghanistan, set up at least two terrorist training camps, and issued statements encouraging Muslims to strike at American interests and citizens. He was believed to be responsible for the 1998 bombings at United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed over 200 people and injured more than 4,500. In response to these attacks, the United States bombed suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was believed to be producing chemical weapons for bin Laden. The plant was later shown to be producing products for civilian purposes.

    The attacks of September 11, 2001, were by far the deadliest ever experienced by the United States. Some 3,000 people were killed in the plane crashes and the resulting collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. Suspicion for the attacks immediately fell on Osama bin Laden , and the United States demanded that the Islamic fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan, known as the Taliban, cooperate with efforts to bring bin Laden to justice. When the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, the United States and 20 allied nations, among them the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Germany, launched a military campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001 .

    The American-led military action succeeded in removing the Taliban from power, but bin Laden escaped. In November 2002 , threatening and inflammatory audiotapes believed to have been made by bin Laden were released to the media, but his whereabouts were still unknown. Groups associated with bin Laden continue to train thousands of potential terrorists, who remain at large throughout the world. See also Afghanistan; Iraq; Jihad; Saudi Arabia; September 11, 2001; Somalia; Sudan; Taliban; Terrorism.

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