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.
"He was not out there in combat, but his guidance and [financial] support and his most modest lifestyle won a great deal of support from his followers," Dr. Post says. "Then they vanquished the enemy--the Soviets."
Triumphant in their success, bin Laden and his brothers-in-arms returned to their home countries. This, says Post, was another turning point in his life.
Although the U.S. had helped him and his fellow warriors expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, bin Laden was furious with the U.S. when he returned home. King Fahd had invited American troops to deploy in Saudi Arabia--birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and home to the two holiest Muslim shrines--to protect the oil-rich kingdom from an Iraqi invasion. "It's very disruptive to lose your enemy," says Post. "The way [bin Laden] dealt with it--he replaced Soviets with the American enemy."
Anger over U.S. 'meddling'
Over the next few years, bin Laden became increasingly angry with U.S. meddling in the Mideast, especially with its support of Israel against the Palestinians. He also chafed at the U.S. role in conducting airstrikes and enforcing an embargo that reportedly resulted in the deaths of many Iraqi children.
In the early 1990s, he directed most of his efforts toward U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, calling for guerrilla attacks to drive them out.
By 1998, he had escalated the struggle, urging indiscriminate attacks on American civilians anywhere in the world.
To carry out his new holy war, intelligence officials say, he began to recall those Arab men who had fought with him in Afghanistan--men who had returned home to some 12 countries in the region.
The birth of Al-Qaeda
They began to reorganize, forming a group called Al-Qaeda, which in Arabic means The Base. According to an indictment filed in New York, Al-Qaeda is an international terror organization headed by bin Laden that provides training camps, financing, planning, recruitment, and other support services for fighters seeking to strike at the United States.
The loosely knit organization, intelligence officials say, is set up like a foundation. "In Western terms, this would be an organization where people would go to conduct research," says Peter Crooks, a retired FBI official who specialized in counterterrorism. "The research in this instance would be laying the groundwork for terrorist attacks."
Bin Laden could be considered the director, or inspirational leader, of the network. Under him is a board of directors, made up of trusted soldiers who fought with him in Afghanistan. These men, possibly numbering in the hundreds, would be important for recruitment and to supervise missions.
"The parallel to make is to the Mafia," Mr. Crooks says. "These individuals would be considered 'made' members of the organization--a totally trusted inner circle, probably with a strong emphasis on blood ties."
Below this level are the soldiers, the people who carry out assignments but who are not decisionmakers. At the bottom of the organization are what Crooks calls sympathizers or supporters--people throughout the world willing to help these men. The aid could be financial, such as contributions to a charity that funnels funds to Al-Qaeda. Or it could be providing a room for a relative or a recommendation for a job.
Soldiers involved in an active mission are typically organized into cells of three people. Each cell is responsible for one aspect of a job--surveillance of an intended target, for instance. Another cell would be responsible for making a bomb, another for placing it, and yet another would handle the clean-up.