In the first part of an in-depth article on the life of Osama bin Laden JASON BURKE, in Peshawar, sifts fact from rumour to provide the background to the early years of the world’s most wanted man. A t every corner in the darkened village, guards stood with their Kalashnikovs and rocket- launchers at the ready.
Sitting on rugs spread on the dirt floor of a mud-brick and wood house, two men ate a meal of rice, grilled mutton, and vegetables. High above, the warplanes of America could be heard growling in the night. The men, both in their mid-40s, bearded and dressed in the local traditional baggy long shirt and trousers, washed, ate, prayed, and then talked.
Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, and Mullah Muhammad Omar, supreme leader of the Taleban regime, had a lot to discuss. A few days earlier, at 8.45pm on September 30, US and British cruise missiles had started hitting targets across Afghanistan in retribution for the terrorist attacks that had killed 5000 people in New York and Washington nearly three weeks earlier.
Now death and destruction had come to villages, cities, and military camps throughout Afghanistan. Several missiles had landed near the village where the two men were meeting. Many more had landed on the southern city of Kandahar, the spiritual and administrative base of the Taleban.
The two men were there to decide their response to the war they had suddenly found themselves fighting. The meeting did not last long. That was partly due to security concerns: a well-placed Tomahawk cruise missile could have wiped out both of the Pentagon’s main targets. Partly it was because the two were in agreement on almost everything.
Mullah Omar reaffirmed his support, affection, and respect for his Saudi-born friend. Bin Laden replied in kind. The two swiftly reached a decision on tactics. They would jointly resist any aggression, they would work to create and exploit divisions in the coalition ranged against them, and they would exploit the humanitarian crisis — and any civilian casualties — to create global anger against the bombing campaign. Then the two embraced and went their separate ways. They are not thought to have met since.
In 1930, a powerfully built dockside labourer, 183cm tall and with one eye, decided there was more to life than loading ships in the ports of his poverty-stricken native province of Hadramaut, in Yemen. He packed a bag, bought a place on a camel caravan heading to the newly-created kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and set off on a 1600km trek to seek his fortune. The man, who would father a terrorist sought by the military might of the Western world, got his first job as a bricklayer with Aramco — the Arabian-American oil company — earning a single Saudi riyal, about 32c, a day.
He lived frugally, saved hard, invested well, and went into business himself. By the early 1950s Mohammad bin-Awad Binladin (the family spelling of the name) was employed building palaces for the House of Saud, in Riyadh. He won the contracts by heavily undercutting local firms. It was a gamble that paid off. Mohammad Binladin’s big break came when a foreign contractor withdrew from a deal to build the Medina-Jedda highway, and he took on the job. By the early ’60s he was a rich man — and an extraordinary one.
“He couldn’t read or write and signed his name with a cross all his life, but he had an extraordinary intelligence,” said a French engineer who worked with him in the ’60s. The former labourer never forgot his roots, always leaving home “with a wad of notes to give to the poor”.
Such alms-giving is one of the fundamentals of Islam. Mohammad Binladin was a devout man, raised in the strict and conservative Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam. Later he was to boast that, using his private helicopter, he could pray in the three holiest locations of Islam — Mecca, Medina, and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem — in a single day. Visiting the former two sites must have been especially satisfying, for it was the contract to restore and expand the facilities serving pilgrims and worshippers there that established the reputation of his company, confirmed
its status as the in-house builders of the Saudi ruling clan and made him stupendously wealthy.
Though at one stage he was rich enough to bail out the royal family when they fell on hard times, the tatty bag he had carried when he left the Yemen remained on display in the palatial family home. He was killed when his helicopter crashed in 1968 leaving behind a large clan.
Mohammad Binladin had, in the words of the French engineer, “changed wives like you or I change cars”. He had three Saudi wives, Wahhabis like their husband, who were more or less permanent. The fourth, however, was changed regularly. The magnate would send his private pilot all over the Middle East to pick up yet another bride. “Some were as young as 15, and were completely covered from head to toe,” the pilot’s widow recently recalled. “But they were all exceptionally beautiful.”
Osama Bin Laden’s mother, Hamida, was not a Saudi or a Wahhabi, but a stunningly beautiful, cosmopolitan, educated 22-year-old daughter of a Syrian trader. She shunned the traditional Saudi veil in favour of Chanel trouser suits and this, coupled with the fact that she was foreign,
diminished her status within the family. She was Mohammad Binladin’s 10th or 11th spouse, and was known as the “the slave wife”. Mohammad Binladin gave even his former wives a home at his palaces in Jedda and Hijaz. Hamida was still married to the millionaire when he died and so,
amid a huge family and the solid gold statues, the ancient tapestries and the Venetian chandeliers, this is where Osama bin Laden, Mohammad’s seventh son, “the son of the slave”, grew up.
Born in 1957 — the year 1377 of the Islamic calendar — he was 11 when his father died. He never saw much of him. A flavour of the household comes from a document provided to the American ABC TV network in 1998 by “an anonymous source close to bin Laden”. It offers unprecedented insights into Osama’s childhood. “The father had very dominating personality. He insisted to keep all his children in one premises,” it reads. “He had a tough discipline and observed all the children with strict religious and social code… At the same time, the father was entertaining with trips to the sea and desert,” the document goes on. “He dealt with his children as big men, and demanded them to show confidence at young age.”
Brian Fyfield-Shayler, 69, gave the then 13-year-old Osama bin Laden and 30 other privileged classmates attending al-Thagh school, an elite Western-style Saudi school in Jedda, four one-hour English lessons a week during 1968 and 1969.
He described bin Laden as a “shy, retiring, and courteous” boy who was unfailingly polite. “He was very courteous — more so than any of the others in his class. Physically, he was outstanding because he was taller, more handsome and fairer than most of the other boys. He also stood out as he was singularly gracious and polite, and had a great deal of inner confidence,” Mr Fyfield-Shayler said.
Bin Laden was “very neat, precise and conscientious” in his work. “He wasn’t pushy at all. Many students wanted to show you how clever they were. But if he knew the answer to something he wouldn’t parade the fact. He would only reveal it if you asked him.”
In bin Laden’s early teens there was little sign of the fanatic he would become. In 1971 the family went on holiday en masse to the small Swedish copper mining town of Falun. A smiling Osama — or “Sammy” as he sometimes called himself — was pictured, wearing a lime-green top and blue flares, leaning on a Cadillac.
Osama, then 14, and his older brother Salem, had first visited Falun a year before, driving from Copenhagen in a Rolls-Royce flown from Saudi Arabia. Oddly, they stayed at the cheap Astoria hotel, where the owner, Christina Akerblad, recalled them spending the days out “on business” and the evenings eating dinner in their rooms.
“I remember them as two beautiful boys — the girls in Falun were very fond of them,” she said. “Osama played with my two (young) sons.” Ms Akerblad remembered the wealth she found on display when cleaning the boys’ rooms. “At the weekends we saw they used the extra bed in their rooms to lay out their clothes. They had lots of white silk shirts packaged in cellophane. I think they had a new one for every day… I never saw the dirty ones. They also had a big bag for their jewellery. They had emeralds and rubies and diamond rings and tie-pins.”
Nor was there any sign of incipient fervour in a bucolic summer at an Oxford language school in the same year. Bin Laden and his brothers befriended a group of Spanish girls and went punting on the Thames. Last month one woman showed a Spanish newspaper photos of herself and girlfriends — one in hotpants — with three bin Laden boys. Bin Laden, wearing flares, a short-sleeved shirt and a bracelet, looks like any other awkward teenager. His two older brothers look more assured.
The young Saudi even once stayed on London’s Park Lane. He had forgotten the name of the hotel his Saudi parents had checked into, he told a reporter several years ago, but he recalled “the trees of the park and the red buses”.
Quite how much of a personal fortune bin Laden had inherited is uncertain. It may well be a lot less than the huge sums (up to $US250m) often cited. The young bin Laden was never interested in money for its own sake. In fact, the very things that had made the father huge riches had begun to trouble the son. The early ’70s were a time of huge cultural change in the Middle East. Oil revenue, the wars with Israel and, above all, increasing contact with the West, forced a profound re-examining of old certainties.
For most of Mohammad Binladin’s numerous progeny, the answer lay in greater Westernisation, and the elder members of the family set off for Victoria College in Alexandria, in Egypt, or for Harvard, London, or Miami. But not Osama bin Laden. Like tens of thousands of other young men in the region at the time, he had become increasingly drawn to the cool, clear, uncluttered certainties of extremist Islamist ideology.
After finishing high school in Jedda in 1974, Osama bin Laden decided against joining his siblings overseas for further education. Salim, the head of the clan, had been educated at Millfield, a Somerset boarding school. Another, Yeslam, went to university in Sweden and California. Osama entered the management and economics faculty at King Abdul Aziz University. There are some reports, again unconfirmed, that he married his first wife, a Syrian related to his mother, when he was 17.
Salim, the elder brother who had run the bin Laden corporation after their father’s death, hoped Osama would take up a useful role in the family business and ensured that a key element of his university course was civil engineering.
Osama preferred the Islamic Studies component of the course. Later, he was to combine the two in a radically effective way. At university, he heard tapes recorded by the fiery Palestine-born Jordanian academic Abdallah Azzam, and these had a powerful impact. Azzam’s recorded sermons — much like Osama’s videotapes today — brilliantly caught the mood of many disaffected young Muslims.
Jedda itself — and King Abdul Aziz University — was a centre for Islamic dissidents from all over the Muslim world. In its mosques and medressas (Islamic schools) they preached a severe
message: only an absolute return to the values of conservative Islam could protect the Muslim world from the dangers and decadence of the West.
One bin Laden brother, Abdelaziz, remembers Osama “reading and praying all the time” during this period. Osama certainly became deeply involved in religious activities at university, including theological debates and Koranic study. He also made useful contacts, striking up a crucial friendship with Prince Turki ibn Faisal, a young royal and the future chief of Saudi intelligence services. But events were to overtake him.
In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, overthrew the Shah, and established an Islamic republic. A shudder of excitement and fear ran through Muslims everywhere. In November — and Osama was later to refer to this as a crucial, formative event — Islamic radicals seized the grand mosque at Mecca and held it against Saudi government forces.
Osama, young, impressionable, increasingly devout but still unsure of himself and his vocation, was stunned. Eventually, after much bloodshed, the rebels were defeated. “He was inspired by them,” a close friend says. “He told me these men were true Muslims and had followed a true path.”
Sooner than anyone expected, Osama got his chance to follow them. In the last days of the year, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. It is just 50km from the Afghan border to the febrile Pakistani city of Peshawar. The road winds down through the Khyber Pass, through the bad lands ruled by the violent and unruly Pashtun tribes, past the relics of battles fought by men from a score of armies — Greek, Arab, Mongol, Sikh, and British — and then disappears into the choking mayhem of the city’s bazaars.
In the spring of 1980, with yet another army’s tanks parked up against the frontier, Peshawar was seething with soldiers, spies, gun-runners, drug dealers, Afghan refugees, exiles, journalists, and, of course, the thousands of sympathisers who had flocked from all over the Muslim world to fight the Soviet forces.
One of them, distinctive in his carefully tailored shalwar kameez and English handmade leather boots, was Osama bin Laden. “I was enraged and went there at once,” he has said. He was 23 and had found the cause he had been looking for.
Osama’s time fighting the Russians was critical. It was during this period that he changed from a contemplative, scholarly young man to a respected, battle-hardened leader of men. And though he had yet to fully develop his extremist ideas, the war in Afghanistan gave him crucial confidence and status.
According to Gulf intelligence sources, Osama’s first trip to Peshawar lasted little more than a month. He returned to Saudi Arabia and started lobbying his brothers, relatives, and old school friends to support the fight against the Soviet Union.
When he went back to Pakistan with the huge sum of money he had collected, he took with him several Pakistanis and Afghans who had been working in the Binladin company. They set about organising an office to support the Mujahideen and the Arab volunteers. Within weeks of his first arrival in Pakistan, Osama had been introduced to Abdullah Azzam, the charismatic preacher whose taped sermons had made such an impression at university.
The pair got on well. The energy, administrative talent, and contacts of the young Saudi complemented the profound Islamic knowledge and commitment of the older man.
Azzam, then 38, was a founder of the Hamas guerrilla group on the occupied West Bank and Gaza and thus had the experience to run a major organisation. For the next two years, Osama commuted between the Gulf and Pakistan. All the time his relationship with Azzam grew stronger. At first, Osama kept a low profile. Journalists in Pakistan at the beginning of the 80s remember hearing stories about the “Saudi sheikh” who would visit wounded fighters in the university town’s clinics, dispensing cashew nuts and chocolates. The man would note their names and addresses and soon a generous cheque would arrive at their family home. Such generosity — perhaps learnt from his father with his wad of notes for the poor — is something that almost all who have fought for or alongside Osama mention. Some — such as one former al-Qaeda member interviewed in Algeria — speak of $US1500 donations for marriages, and others talk of cash doled out for shoes or watches or needy relatives. His followers say that such gifts bind them to their emir as effectively as the bayat or oath that many of them swear. Sometimes his time was as valuable as his money.
One former Afghan Mujahideen remembered how he had befriended Osama because he wanted to learn Arabic. The young Saudi spent many hours tutoring him, in the language of the Koran. Despite his tough reputation, he was still the quiet and softly spoken young man his teachers had remembered.
By 1984, Osama bin Laden and Azzam had rented a house in the Peshawar suburb of University Town and established a logistics base for the thousands of Arab fighters arriving in the city. It was called Beit-al-Ansar (the House of the Faithful). “Bin Laden … would receive the Arab volunteers, vet them, and then send them on to the various Afghan factions,” said one former associate.
The venture was condoned by the CIA, the powerful Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and the Saudi agency, the Istakhbarat, soon to be headed by his old friend, Prince Turki. None, though, gave Osama any American aid. Beit-al-Ansar was on Syed Jalaluddin Afghani Road, a quiet backstreet full of bougainvillea and large houses built for the local elite. By the mid-80s, the area had become a centre for the Afghan resistance. All the leaders of the various groups had offices there. There were two newspapers — one published by Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden. There was even a “neutral” office where Mujahideen groups could thrash out their differences.
Conditions were spartan — almost deliberately so. The volunteers, and Osama too, used to sleep a dozen to a room on thin pallets laid out on the hard floor of their offices. Osama used to sit up late discussing Islam. The young Saudi was yet to develop his radical ideology. Instead, his views were a mixture of half-remembered history and heavily skewed, and often ill-informed, analyses of current affairs. Osama was particularly angry about what he called the betrayal of the Arabs by the British after World War 1. He also criticised the Saudi Royal family.
At other times, Osama would lead religious debates among the volunteers. Many centred on Sura Yasin, the key passage of the Koran, when Muhammad the prophet reveals the message and the task that God has entrusted him with. “He used to talk a lot about the warriors of Islamic history such as Salauddin (Saladin),” said one associate. “It was as if he was preparing himself.”