From Millionaire's Son To Most-Wanted Terrorist: Osama Bin Laden Is Dead The mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was killed in an operation led by the United States, President Obama said Sunday in a late-night statement at the White House. Details are still emerging about Osama bin Laden's death. But his life ran a fascinating trajectory: from the pampered son of a Saudi millionaire to the world's most-wanted terrorist.
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Bin Laden: From Millionaire's Son To Most-Wanted

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Bin Laden: From Millionaire's Son To Most-Wanted

Bin Laden: From Millionaire's Son To Most-Wanted

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Let's report, next, on the pampered young son of a Saudi millionaire who became the world's most wanted terrorist. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reviews the life of Osama bin Laden.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: If you're telling the story of Osama bin Laden, a logical starting point is the day he must consider his greatest triumph - September 11th, 2001.

(Soundbite of NPR Special Coverage clip)

Unidentified Man: This is special coverage from NPR News.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Today the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan collapsed, after being hit by hijacked airliners...

KELLY: Within hours of the attacks, U.S. officials were pointing to bin Laden as the prime suspect. President Bush said he wanted bin Laden, dead or alive. Bin Laden at first denied responsibility for the attacks. But in December 2001, U.S. officials produced what they called a smoking gun: a video, showing bin Laden in his trademark camouflage jacket and white cap, lounging on a flowered sofa. According to the translation provided by the Pentagon, bin Laden makes clear he played a direct role in engineering the attacks.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. OSAMA BIN LADEN: (Through Translator) We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. Due to my experience in the field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.

KELLY: Bin Laden is believed to have been born in 1957. He was the seventeenth of 57 children, according to research by the 9/11 Commission. His father made a fortune in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden grew up playing soccer, riding horses, and running. The young bin Laden may have gotten his first taste of radical Islamist theory at university, in Jeddah. Peter Bergen has written extensively about al-Qaida. He says bin Laden's years at King Abdul-Aziz University exposed him to influential Islamist thinkers.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author): One of his teachers, Mohammed Quttb, was the brother of perhaps the kind of the Lenin of the whole Jihadist movement - Sayeed Quttb, who had died earlier in Egypt. Another was a guy called Abdullah Azzam - with whom Bin Laden would later go on to form a kind of prequel to Al Qaeda, a group called the Services Office that was instrumental in getting Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan to fight against the Soviets.

KELLY: The fight against the Soviets, following Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, was a defining struggle in bin Laden's life. He traveled to the region, raised money from other wealthy Muslims to finance the fight, and engaged in at least one battle himself. The war in Afghanistan lasted 10 years - basically the whole of the 1980s. John Parachini, an expert on terrorism at the Rand Corporation, says for bin Laden, and millions of other Muslims, those years created a movement.

Mr. JOHN PARACHINI (Expert on Terrorism, Rand Corporation): In this period, there is an awakening throughout the Islamic world, about fighting a great struggle, a struggle that's beyond the struggle that many fundamentalist Islamic groups were fighting in their own nations.

KELLY: For bin Laden, that struggle found expression within the Salafi movement. Salafis believe that over the centuries, the message of Islam has been corrupted. They want a return to the pure Islam practiced by the Prophet Muhammed and his immediate successors. Bin Laden presented himself as the embodiment of the Salafi movement - a spiritual leader, for whom war is a religious obligation, wherever Muslims are being oppressed. It's a powerful message. Millions of Muslims who don't support violent jihad, still saw Bin Laden as the most capable voice speaking out against corrupt national leaders and the West.

In 1989, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, bin Laden went home to Saudi Arabia. But his relations with the country's leaders soon soured. Bin Laden's passport was revoked, and eventually his citizenship. So he left, and spent the next five years in exile in Sudan. John Parachini says those years, from 1991 to '96, were a critical time.

Mr. PARACHINI: Here is where the modern day bin Laden really comes to the front. Because it's he, with his considerable wealth, operating in a weak state. So here you have this confluence of interest of a newly emerged Islamic state, and a newly emerged, subnational, loosely affiliated collection of people that we now know as Al Qaida.

KELLY: But as bin Laden's influence grew, the U.S., the United Nations, and Saudi Arabia all began pressuring Sudan's government to force him out. On May 19, 1996, he left. He found a home back in Afghanistan, and soon forged a relationship with the ruling Taliban. They needed his cash, and bin Laden needed a base where he could concentrate on building his terrorist network.

Peter Bergen met Bin Laden during those years in Afghanistan. He's now a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. Back in March 1997, he was a producer for CNN. He and two other CNN staffers were picked up at dusk, blindfolded, and driven through the night to meet bin Laden.

Mr. BERGEN: When he came out of the darkness, he's six-foot-five, he walks with the help of a cane. He seemed to me to be not psychotic, he was quite intelligent, obviously. And he seemed like a pretty serious sort of person. It puzzled me, however, how he was going to pull off attacks against the United States, given the fact that we're sitting in a mud hut in the middle of the night in Afghanistan.

KELLY: As it turned out, al-Qaida planning was already well underway for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Two hundred twenty-four people were killed. Two weeks later, the U.S. retaliated, launching Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. President Bill Clinton addressed the nation with this explanation.

President BILL CLINTON: Our target was terror. Our mission was clear: to strike at the network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Osama bin Laden, perhaps the preeminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today.

KELLY: Bin Laden, of course, did not die in the U.S. strikes. Instead, he spent the next three years preparing for what would be his most spectacular attack. September 11th was a triumph for al-Qaida, but it also provoked swift retribution. On October 7th, 2001, U.S. and British forces launched air strikes on Afghanistan. Bin Laden was forced to go on the run.

In the years that followed, bin Laden's ability to communicate with his followers was hampered. But bin Laden's message - his vision for jihad -remained ambitious.

Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (Terrorism point man for the State Department): Bin Laden and his followers genuinely do believe that what they are about is reformulating the global order.

KELLY: That's Daniel Benjamin, now the State Department's point man on terrorism issues.

Mr. BENJAMIN: They very much think of restoring Islam to the point of its greatest glory, and the, you know, 1300 years ago. And they want to have, once again, a single Muslim community stretching from the north Atlantic, or Spain, to Indonesia. They do think in these kinds of messianic terms, in the hope of simply recasting the globe.

KELLY: Benjamin believes that message resonated among Muslims around the world, because bin Laden cast his agenda as springing from religious - rather than political - motivations. Bin Laden's a deeply pious man, Benjamin says. And to top it off, he had the money and fund-raising skills to finance his ambitions.

Mr. BENJAMIN: So he really reshaped the struggle. He's managed to create both an authentic cause, an authentic ideology, and to find the means to carry this out. And I fear that the path that he hewed, he cut, is one that others are going to travel for some time to come.

KELLY: The question now will be - what happens to the movement that Osama bin Laden helped create.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's special coverage from NPR News.

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