In the West, it seems inexplicable that a man who openly and enthusiastically espouses the mass killing of American men, women, and children should be so revered in certain quarters of the world.
But for many dispossessed Muslims, Osama bin Laden need make no apologies for his beliefs. They cheer his defiant stance and don't question his world view, wrought in an absolute certainty that God has authorized him to defend Islam from Western encroachment--by any means necessary.
Now, as the Bush administration prepares for an all-out war on terrorism, a detailed understanding of the exiled Saudi millionaire and his network of dedicated Muslim warriors becomes increasingly important to America's national defense.
Experts' predictions that bin Laden may be preparing to use chemical or biological weapons in future attacks make an accurate portrait all the more urgent. Add to that an estimated $200 million to $300 million in financial resources and a capacity for careful, patient planning, and bin Laden becomes, in the eyes of Western intelligence analysts, a very dangerous man.
Although he is often portrayed in one-dimensional terms as a coward or a monster, bin Laden is far more complex--and his influence across the Islamic world represents a huge challenge for the U.S. government.
"He has inspired millions of people across the Islamic world," says Richard Hrair Dekmejian, an Islamic expert at the University of Southern California. "He has a tremendous charisma and a substantial following based on his extremist Islamic doctrine."
Bin Laden is already among the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives, with a $5 million bounty on his head following his indictment for alleged involvement in the 1998 truck-bomb attacks on two US embassies in East Africa.
Bin Laden denies any criminal involvement in such attacks. But in the past, he has acknowledged offering encouragement to those willing to carry out bombings, killings, and suicide operations. In a 1998 interview with Time, bin Laden was asked if he was responsible for the embassy bombings.
U.S. intelligence officers and federal agents are currently seeking hard evidence linking bin Laden to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The use of hijackers from Saudi Arabia, organized in small cells operating undercover in the US for months or years prior to the attacks, indicates to some analysts a level of sophistication that suggests a bin Laden connection.
He has never been shy about explaining his view of Islamic geopolitics. He opposes the US military presence in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Islamic world. To encourage a US withdrawal, terrorist operations against Americans--including civilians--were authorized by a religious decree, or "fatwa," he issued in February 1998.
"We--with God's help--call on every Muslim ... to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."
Experts say bin Laden's view of Islam is radical and extremist, and is not embraced by the vast majority of the world's Muslims.
The leader met his followers
Bin Laden's struggle has not always been against the US. His introduction to unconventional warfare came during the U.S.-backed holy war against Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in 1979. That's where he first connected with Muslim holy warriors.
"His major turning point was when he went to Afghanistan," says Jerrold Post, professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and a former CIA personality profiler. "The leader met his followers."
At first glance, bin Laden seems an unlikely character to fight on behalf of the dispossessed. He's hardly one of them. Born in 1957 to a Yemeni bricklayer, bin Laden grew up in Saudi Arabia, where his father founded a construction firm that ended up building much of the infrastructure in the desert kingdom.
By all accounts, he was an indulged child and had the best education available in Saudi Arabia. He graduated from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah in 1979 with a degree in civil engineering. After his father's death in 1968, he inherited millions.
That money, his education, and family business acumen helped in Afghanistan.