Although bin Laden was able to elude an intense U.S. manhunt for years, al-Qaeda’s ranks were increasingly weakened by the capture or killing of senior operatives.
Further, his violent mission never came close to achieving its central aims of pushing U.S. troops out of the Middle East and replacing U.S.-backed Arab governments from Cairo to Riyadh with strict Islamic rule.
Little in bin Laden’s privileged upbringing as a scion of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family suggested he would become the self-anointed champion of Islamist extremism and the world's most wanted man, with a $25 million bounty for his capture, dead or alive.
Though first exposed to fundamentalist religious teachings during his teenage years, he was as a youth much more pious than political — a tall, shy figure who aspired with his many siblings to join the giant bin Laden family construction business.
His experience in the 1980s leading an Arab contingent against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan engendered a fierce sense of militancy.
The subsequent arrival of U.S. troops in the Middle East, initially deployed in 1990 to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, served to focus bin Laden’s ire on a view of the United States as a domineering, corrosive threat to Islam.
A shrewd propagandist with an understated though commanding presence, he showed particular talent in bringing together terrorist elements under the umbrella of his loose movement.
His brazenness in taking on the United States struck a popular chord, and his ability to wrap himself in the imagery of the prophet Muhammad carried deep resonance in the Muslim world. His deft use of international media helped magnify his message of murderous defiance against Western influences and restoration of a long-ago Islamic order.
The U.S. government first identified bin Laden as a threat in the mid-1990s, linking him to several deadly attacks, including suicide missions against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
By then, his siblings had shunned him, formally revoking his shares in the family’s lucrative corporate enterprises. The Saudi government had stripped him of his citizenship, and he had gone into exile in Sudan and, later, Afghanistan.
It was his shaping and financing of the plot to crash hijacked U.S. airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, that finally galvanized U.S. forces against him in what President George W. Bush called the “first war of the 21st century.” Bin Laden made clear at the time that civilians would not be spared in his bloody campaign of indiscriminate killing.