Osama bin Laden, labeled “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world,” has been linked to terrorist actions for years, and has been named the prime suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
The Saudi exile also is suspected of playing large roles in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000.
He has been a man on the run since a U.S.-led attack in late 2001 drove out Afghanistan's ruling Taliban party, which had refused an American demand to turn over bin Laden to U.S. custody.
Bin Laden had been living in Afghanistan, and the United States asserts that he ran his terrorist operations out of that country. Since late 2001, news organizations have received a series of pre-recorded statements purportedly from bin Laden, but the terrorist kingpin's whereabouts have never been definitively determined.
The capture of one of his deputies, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Pakistan, which was announced March 1, had raised hopes that the world's most-wanted man may finally be nabbed after an intense, high-profile manhunt.
It followed information allegedly supplied by Mohammed to his interrogators that weeks before his capture, Mohammed met bin Laden in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province or in the rugged mountain peaks that run along the border with Afghanistan.
Bin Laden's al Qaeda organization is a loose umbrella association of radical groups and people believed to operate in dozens of countries around the world.
Long before the embassy bombings in Africa, al Qaeda members were suspected of playing a role in several attacks against U.S. interests, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, failed plots to kill President Clinton and the pope, and attacks on U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
Bin Laden has also used his millions to bankroll terrorist training camps in Sudan, the Philippines and Afghanistan, sending holy warriors to foment revolution and fight with fundamentalist Muslim forces across North Africa, in Chechnya, Tajikistan and Bosnia.
Ordinary Young Man — Then He Joined Jihad
Born in 1957, bin Laden was the son of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest construction magnate. Saudi sources remember him as an ordinary young man whose intense religious nature began to emerge as he grew fascinated with the ancient, holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, which his family’s company was involved in rebuilding.
In the 1980s, bin Laden left his comfortable Saudi home for Afghanistan to participate in the Afghan jihad, or holy war, against the invading forces of the Soviet Union — a cause that, ironically, the United States funded, pouring $3 billion into the Afghan resistance via the CIA.
Bin Laden became a leader of Arabs living in Afghanistan and a regional hero, but was careful throughout to distance himself from U.S. influence. The war radicalized bin Laden’s politics.
Afterwards, he declared the Saudi ruling family “insufficiently Islamic” and increasingly advocated the use of violence to force movement toward extremism.
Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 for his alleged activities against the royal family, after he had left the country for Sudan. He later was expelled from Sudan under U.S., Egyptian and Saudi pressure. In 1996, he took refuge in Afghanistan.
Former mujahideen commanders close to the Taliban say that in Afghanistan, bin Laden bankrolled the hard-line Islamic regime’s capture of Kabul under the leadership of the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar. Bin Laden became one of Omar’s most trusted advisers.
Bin Laden is said to personally control about $300 million of his family’s $5 billion fortune. His role as a financier of terrorism is pivotal, experts say, because he has revolutionized the financing of extremist movements by forming and funding his own private terror network.
Bin Laden has devoted not only his own fortune, but his business acumen to the cause, and through a nebulous network he calls the Foundation for Islamic Salvation — which sources say runs money through companies in the United States, Europe and the Middle East — the powerful recluse has funneled money into the promotion of terrorist causes around the world.