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.
The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan took a heavy toll on bin Laden, decimating al-Qaeda’s ranks of fighters and destroying the movement’s camps. A last will and testament signed by bin Laden on Dec. 14, 2001, after he and his men had endured intense bombardment in the mountain redoubt of Tora Bora, conveyed exhaustion and despair. But he narrowly escaped capture and was generally thought to have taken refuge in the rugged tribal territories of northwestern Pakistan.
As the months passed, his confidence returned. Despite persistent rumors about his health, including unsubstantiated talk of a life-threatening kidney disorder, he remained vigorous enough to issue periodic declarations that sought to rally his followers and taunt his pursuers. The number of statements and recordings he released in hiding had totaled nearly 40 by 2010.
He was shown in these tapes clad in combat jacket or religious robes, an assault rifle by his side. His bearded face and willowy, 6-foot-plus frame became a familiar sight as he railed against the United States, chuckled about the devastation he wrought and sought to rally Muslims to what he believed to be a clash of civilizations.
Bin Laden declared that his overarching goal was to see the world community of Muslims united under a caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Spain. His bitter criticisms of the United States tapped into deep grievances among Muslims angry over such issues as Palestine and Iraq.
He also denounced the governments of the Middle East as corrupt and autocratic regimes and, seizing on symbols of Islam’s past greatness, promised to restore pride to the masses of people feeling victimized by successive foreign masters. He quoted often from the Koran and repeatedly called on followers to embrace martyrdom.
U.S. involvement in Iraq triggered some of bin Laden’s longest and most expansive writing in 2003 and 2004, but he went silent for nearly three years after Bush’s reelection in 2004.
Resurfacing in September 2007, bin Laden issued a 25-minute videotaped statement that included a lengthy tirade against Western capitalism and that was interspersed with references to recent news events and cultural and political figures, suggesting he had kept abreast of current affairs.
Later recordings in 2007 took aim at Pakistan and at European allies of the United States. Bin Laden’s rhetoric in defiance of the United States showed no letup after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed bin Laden, emigrated as a youth from the Hadramawt region of Yemen, arriving as a penniless laborer in 1925 in what would become the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Energetic and engaging, Mohammed bin Laden had a knack for engineering and found his way into the construction business.
By the late 1930s, he had established his own firm and was working on palaces for the royal family. In time, he became a favored contractor for the huge projects the kingdom undertook with its ever-growing oil riches.
Mohammed bin Laden had already taken multiple wives and had more than a dozen children when, in 1956, he married 14-year-old Alia al-Ghanem, who came from a Syrian family of citrus farmers. In 1957, Alia gave birth to a son, Osama, which means “young lion” in Arabic.
Mohammed divorced Alia when Osama was a young boy and arranged for her to remarry Mohammed al-Attas, who worked as a midlevel administrator in the bin Laden company. Attas and Alia had four other children.
All the available testimony about Osama’s early years from relatives and friends portrays him as a quiet and placid child whose favorite hobby was horseback riding. Despite the divorce and his life with a stepfamily, Osama bin Laden remained a fully recognized member of the bin Laden clan.
He visited his father’s kin on weekends, joined the bin Laden family on outings and attended school with some of his half-brothers. He mourned with them when, in 1967, Mohammed bin Laden died in a plane crash in Saudi Arabia.
Attending an elite private school in Jiddah — the al-Thager Model School — Osama bin Laden joined an after-school Islamic study group in eighth or ninth grade. In time, he adopted the beliefs and practices of an insistent piety, praying multiple times a day, letting his beard grow and arguing for a restoration of Islam in Arab politics.
Bin Laden continued this religious study after he entered Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University in 1976, where he participated in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization intent on imposing Koranic law throughout Muslim societies. But he remained quiet and deferential, focused on the search for a pure spiritual life. Only years later did his religiosity harden into a fanatical hatred.
He studied management and economics but never earned a university degree, leaving for a job with the bin Laden family business as a manager in Mecca. By that time, the bin Laden company, headed by Osama’s older brother Salem, had been handed the enormous task of renovating the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
At 17, bin Laden had married his first wife: Najwa, a 14-year-old first cousin whom he had gotten to know during sojourns to Syria to visit his mother’s family. After university, he took a second and then a third wife, women who were better educated than his first. He would marry two more known times and father at least 23 children.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 profoundly influenced bin Laden’s course. Muslims around the world rallied to the Afghan cause, volunteering to help the mujaheddin resistance against the Soviet army. In the first years of the war, bin Laden served essentially as a philanthropic activist, traveling back and forth between the war front and Saudi Arabia, carrying donations for the Afghan rebels.
During this period, he developed ties with a radical Palestinian professor of Islamic studies, Abdullah Azzam, who introduced him to the concept of transnational jihad. In 1984, bin Laden financed Azzam’s establishment in Peshawar, Pakistan, of a Services Office, which acted as a clearinghouse for information about the Afghan war and a vehicle for channeling recruits into Afghanistan.
In 1986, bin Laden moved his family to Peshawar and threw himself more actively into the war. He delivered his first known speech denouncing the United States because of its support for Israel. It was in Peshawar, too, that bin Laden met members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad — most notably, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a surgeon who had spent time in Cairo prisons on conspiracy charges. Zawahiri would become the senior deputy in bin Laden’s terrorist movement.
Dissatisfied with merely financing the struggle against the Soviets, bin Laden decided to build his own small Arab militia in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Near Jaji in eastern Afghanistan, he constructed a camp called the Lion’s Den.
Even more significant for the resistance effort was his construction work. Using equipment supplied by his family’s firm, he helped build roads north toward Tora Bora, a mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan, and a warren of caves to serve as shelters and arms depots.
When Soviet troops attacked bin Laden’s camp in the spring of 1987, he and his band of Arab volunteers battled back, earning him recognition as a fighter and not just a bankroller and proselytizer of jihad.
Even after Moscow announced plans in 1988 to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, bin Laden hoped to develop a larger Arab force and employ it in a broader jihad.
Giving this new Islamic entity a name, he and associates decided to call it al-Qaeda al-Askariya, or “the Military Base.”
But in late 1989, with ethnic Afghan factions fighting increasingly among themselves, bin Laden moved back to Saudi Arabia. His brother Bakr, who had taken over leadership of the bin Laden family holdings after the death of Salem in a plane accident in Texas the year before, was about to oversee a major corporate reorganization and inheritance distribution. By then, the family business had expanded into an international conglomerate, with projects around the world and interests in industrial and power contracts, oil exploration, mining and telecommunications.
As part of a one-time distribution to Mohammed bin Laden’s heirs, Osama reportedly received about $8 million in cash in 1989. He reinvested the rest of his inheritance in new partnerships set up by Bakr, acquiring shares valued at about $10 million.
Such wealth, while significant, amounted to far less than the huge fortune sometimes attributed to bin Laden. According to journalist Steve Coll in his book “The Bin Ladens,” the stream of regular dividends and salaries that flowed to Osama from the early 1970s to the early 1990s averaged slightly more than $1 million per year.
Although Osama bin Laden no doubt funded some of al-Qaeda’s development from his own pocket, a more significant portion of the financing probably came from the prodigious ability he had demonstrated during the Afghan war to raise funds through a complex web that consisted of charities, donors and proselytizing networks.
Bin Laden’s return to Saudi Arabia led to serious strains with government authorities; Saudi officials took issue with his support for Islamist rebels in Yemen. Bin Laden, in turn, grew deeply irritated with King Fahd’s willingness to accept U.S. troops on Saudi soil in the war ousting Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
In the middle of 1991, bin Laden left Saudi Arabia, settling in Sudan, whose ruler, Hassan al-Turabi, shared bin Laden’s dream of establishing a purist Islamic state and had courted his investment. Bin Laden proceeded to establish a number of legitimate businesses. At the same time, he began laying the groundwork for a global terrorist network.
During this period, al-Qaeda turned from being the anti-communist Islamic army that bin Laden conceived into a terrorist organization bent on attacking the United States. As the 9/11 Commission Report later recounted, bin Laden, while in Khartoum, enlisted groups from across the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. He provided equipment and training assistance to terrorists in the Philippines, aided insurrectionists in Kashmir, assisted Islamists in Tajikistan and maintained connections in the Bosnian conflict.
After trying unsuccessfully to persuade bin Laden to cease his militant activities and return to Saudi Arabia, his siblings publicly repudiated him in February 1994. His shares in the family businesses were sold, and he was cut off from all dividend and loan payments. Saudi Arabia revoked bin Laden’s citizenship.
Under pressure from the Saudis, Americans and others to do something about bin Laden, Sudanese authorities forced him out in May 1996 and seized a number of his personal assets. Relocating in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, bin Laden released a long document declaring war against the United States, the first document he published that formally endorsed a violent campaign aimed at Western interests.
In Afghanistan, bin Laden developed increasingly close ties with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who shielded him from U.S. and Saudi extradition requests and provided al-Qaeda with a critical sanctuary. Drawing on a rebuilt fundraising network, bin Laden again became the rich man of jihad, able to assist the Taliban as well in consolidating their power.
U.S. intelligence estimates put the total number of fighters who underwent instruction in bin Laden-supported camps in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 at 10,000 to 20,000.
Early in 1998, after a period of separation, bin Laden reunited with Zawahiri and together they announced a new coalition, the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jews.
The role of al-Qaeda in organizing operations was changing. Before, it had focused on providing funds, training and weapons for actions carried out by members of allied groups. Now, bin Laden and top aides would be planning and executing their own attacks.
In late 1998, suicide truck bombers affiliated with al-Qaeda struck U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding several thousand more. In retaliation, President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles fired at targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, but bin Laden was not hurt.
Afterward, U.S. officials considered taking other military or CIA action against bin Laden but were inhibited by concerns about potential collateral damage or uncertain intelligence on the terrorist leader’s location.
In October 2000, al-Qaeda struck again, when two Yemeni operatives rammed a skiff full of explosives into the hull of the destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors and injuring more than 30 others.
In planning for the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden was first presented with a scheme to hijack 10 planes and fly them into landmark targets.
He eventually settled on a scaled-back version and, in the spring of 1999, gave the green light to the plan’s mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, promising to provide the necessary funding.
In the aftermath of the attacks, bin Laden declared that he and his followers were engaged in a preordained war that would continue until the climax of earthly time, a war that was not a means to a political end but was rather an expression of God’s will — and as such could offer no peace to the enemies of God’s true religion.
As bin Laden told the broadcast network al-Jazeera, “The battle is between us and the enemies of Islam, and it will go until the Hour.”
U.S. authorities had never expected to take bin Laden alive. In congressional testimony in March 2010, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. predicted the terrorist leader would either “be killed by us or he will be killed by his own people so he can’t be captured by us.”
Graham is a former staff writer for The Washington Post.