Born 1957 for Syrian mother, Osama bin Laden was the seventh son among fifty
brothers and sisters.
His father Mohammed Awad bin Laden came to the kingdom from Hadramout (South
Yemen) sometime around 1930. The father started his life as a very poor laborer
(porter in Jeddah port), to end up as owner of the biggest construction company
in the kingdom. During the reign of King Saud, bin Laden the father became very
close to the royal family when he took the risk of building King Saud's palaces
much cheaper than the cheapest bid. He impressed King Saud with his performance
but he also built good relations with other members of the royal family,
especially Faisal. During the Saud-Faisal conflict in the early sixties, bin
Laden the father had a big role in convincing King Saud to step down in favor
of Faisal. After Saud's departure the treasury was empty and bin Laden was so
supportive to King Faisal that he literally paid the civil servants' wages of
the whole kingdom for six months. King Faisal then issued a decree that all
construction projects should go to bin Laden. Indeed, he was appointed for a
period as the minister of public works.
Note: This document is published here exactly as in the original translated document given to FRONTLINE. No changes have been made to grammar or punctuation.
In 1969 the father took the task of rebuilding Al-Aqsa mosque after the fire
incident. Interestingly the bin Laden family say that they have the credit of
building all the three mosques, because later on their company took over the
task of major extension in Mecca and Medina mosques.
The father was fairly devoted Moslem, very humble and generous. He was so proud
of the bag he used when he was a porter that he kept it as a trophy in the main
reception room in his palace. The father used to insist on his sons to go and
manage some projects themselves.
The father had very dominating personality. He insisted to keep all his
children in one premises. He had a tough discipline and observed all the
children with strict religious and social code. He maintained a special daily
program and obliged his children to follow. At the same time the father was
entertaining with trips to the sea and desert. He dealt with his children as
big men and demanded them to show confidence at young age. He was very keen not
to show any difference in the treatment of his children.
Osama was exposed very early on his age to this experience but he lost his
father when he was 13. He married at the age of 17 to a Syrian girl who was a
relative. He grew up as religiously committed boy and the early marriage was
another factor of protecting him from corruption.
Osama had his primary, secondary and even university education in Jeddah. He
had a degree in public administration 1981 from King Abdul-Aziz university in
Jeddah. Countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and
Sudan are the only countries he has been to. All stories of trips to
Switzerland, Philippines, and London are all unfounded.
In addition to the general Islamic commitment he started forming an Islamic
responsibility at early age. His father used to host hundreds of pilgrims
during Hajj season from al over the world. Some of those were senior Islamic
scholars or leaders of Muslim movements. This habit went on even after his
father's death through his elder brothers. He used to make good contacts and
relations through those gatherings.
At secondary school and university he adopted the main trend of many educated
Muslims at that time, Muslim Brotherhood. There was a collection of Muslim
scholars in Jeddah and Mecca at that period. There was nothing extraordinary in
his personality and that trend was rather very non-confrontational.
Interestingly, the 1980 raid in the Grand Mosque in Mecca was not appealing to
him, neither the theology or that group. He had two distinguished teachers in
Islamic studies, which was a compulsory subject in the university. First was
Abdullah Azzam who became later as one of the big names in Afghanistan and the
second was Mohammed Quttub, a famous Islamic writer and philosopher.
The first encounter with Afghanistan was as early as the first two weeks of
Soviet invasion. He went to Pakistan and was taken by his hosts Jamaat Islami
from Karachi to Peshawar to see the refugees and meet some leaders. Some of
those leaders like Rabbani and Sayyaf were common faces to him because he met
them during Hajj gatherings That trip which was [a] secret trip lasted for
almost a month and was an exploratory rather than action trip. He went back to
the kingdom and started lobbying with his brothers, relatives and friends at
the school to support the mujahedeen. He succeeded in collecting huge amount of
money and material as donations to jihad. He made another trip to take this
material. He took with him few Pakistanis and Afghanis who were working in bin
Laden company for more than ten years. Again, he did not stay more than a month
The trip was to Pakistan and the border only and was not to Afghanistan. He
went on collecting money and going in short trips once or twice a year until
In 1982 he decided to go inside Afghanistan. He brought with him plenty of the
construction machinery and put them at the disposal of the mujahedeen He
started spending more and more time in Afghanistan occasionally joining actual
battles but not in an organized manner. His presence was encouraging to more
Saudis to come but the numbers were still small at that period.
In 1984 he had one further step in strengthening his presence in Afghanistan by
establishing the guesthouse in Peshawar (Baitul'ansar). That house was supposed
to be the first station of Arab mujahedeen when they come to Afghanistan before
going to the front or start training. At that period Osama did not have his own
command or training camps. He used to send the newcomers to one of the Afghan
The guesthouse establishment was coinciding with the formation of Jihad Service
Bureau by Abdullah Azzam in Peshawar. The Bureau was very active in terms of
media, publications and charity work. The Bureau publications were important in
attracting more Saudis and Arabs to Afghanistan.
In 1986 Osama decided to have his own camps inside Afghanistan and within two
years he built more than six camps. Some were mobilized more than once. He
decided to have his own front and to run his own battles with his own command.
Among the Arab fighters he had, there were senior Arab ex-military men from
Syria and Egypt with good military experience. The story of the guesthouse and
the camps was very attractive for more Arab mujahedeen to come and there was a
significant surge in their numbers at that period.
In addition to many exchanges of fire and small operations, the first major
battle he had face to face with the Soviet army with pure Arab personnel was
the battle of Jaji in the province of Baktia 200 kilometers away from Khost.
From then until 1989 he had more than five major battles with hundreds of small
operations and exchanges of fire. During the period 1984-1989 he was staying
more in Afghanistan than Saudi Arabia. He would spend a total of eight months a
year or more in Afghanistan.
In 1988 he noticed that he was backward in his documentation and was not able
to give answers to some families asking about their loved ones gone missing in
Afghanistan. He decided to make the matter much more organized and arranged for
proper documentation. He made a tracking record of the visitors, be they
mujahedeen or charity or simple visitors. Their movement between the guesthouse
and the camps had to be recorded as well as their first arrival and final
departure. The whole complex was then termed Al-Qa'edah which is an Arabic word
meaning "The Base." Al-Qa'edah was very much public knowledge. It was funny to
see some people triumphing because they discovered it!
Late 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, he went to the kingdom
in an ordinary trip. There he was banned from travel and was trapped in the
kingdom. The Soviet withdrawal might have been a factor but the main reason for
the travel ban were his intentions to start a new "front" of jihad in South
Yemen. In addition, he embarrassed the regime by lectures and speeches warning
of impending invasion by Saddam. At that time the regime was at very good terms
with Saddam. He was instructed officially to keep low profile and not to give
public talks. Despite the travel ban he was not hostile to regime at this
stage. Indeed he presented a written advice in the form of a detailed,
personal, private and confidential letter to the king few weeks before the
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
He reacted swiftly to Iraqi invasion and saw it fulfilling his prophecy. He
immediately forwarded another letter to the king suggesting in detail how to
protect the country from potentially advancing Iraqi forces. In addition to
many military tactics suggested, he volunteered to bring all the Arab
mujahedeen to defend the kingdom. That letter was presented in the first few
days of the incident, and the regime response was of consideration!
While he was expecting some call to mobilize his men and equipment he heard the
news which transferred his life completely. The Americans are coming. He always
describes that moment as shocking moment. He felt depressed and thought that
maneuvers had to change. Instead of writing to the king or approaching other
members of the royal family, he started lobbying through religious scholars and
Muslim activists. He succeeded in extracting a fatwah from one of the senior
scholars that training and readiness is a religious duty. He immediately
circulated that fatwah and convinced people to have their training in
Afghanistan. It was estimated that 4000 went to Afghanistan in response to the
fatwah. The regime was not happy with his activities so they limited his
movement to Jeddah only. He was summoned for questioning twice for some of his
speeches and activities and was given warnings. To intimidate him, the regime
raided his farm in the suburb of Jeddah by the National Guard. He was not there
during the raid and was very angry when told. He wrote a letter of protest to
Prince Abdullah. Abdullah apologized and claimed he is not aware and promised
to punish who ever were responsible.
Osama was fed up with this almost house arrest situation and did not imagine
himself able to stay in the country with the American forces around. One of his
brothers was very close to King Fahad and also close to Prince Ahmed, deputy
minister of interior. He convinced his brother that he needed to leave the
country to sort out some business matters in Pakistan and come back. There was
a difficult obstacle, the stubborn Prince Nayef, minister of interior. His
brother waited until Nayef went in a trip outside the kingdom and extracted
lifting the ban from prince Ahmed. When he arrived in Pakistan around April
1991 he sent a letter to his brother telling him that he is not coming back and
apologized for letting him down with the royal family.
After his arrival to Pakistan he went straight to Afghanistan because he knew
the Pakistani intelligence would hand him back to the Saudis. There, he
attended the collapse of the communist regime and the consequent dispute
between the Afghan parties. He spent great effort to arbitrate between them but
with no success He ordered his followers to avoid any involvement in the
conflict and told them it was a sin to side with any faction. During his stay
the Saudis tried more than once to kidnap or kill him in collaboration with the
Pakistani intelligence. His friends in the Saudi and Pakistani establishments
would always leak the plan and make him ready for it. After his failure in
sorting the Afghani dispute, he decided to leave Afghanistan. The only
alternative country he had was Sudan. He left Afghanistan disguised in private
jet only few months after his arrival. That was late 1991.
His choice of Sudan had nothing to do with jihad or "terrorism." He was
attracted to Sudan because of what was at that time an Islamic banner raised by
the new regime in Sudan. He wanted to have good refuge as well as help the
government in its construction projects. There was no intention from his side
or from the Sudanese regime to have any military activity in Sudan. Indeed the
Sudanese government refused even sending some of his followers to the front in
the south. He was treated in Sudan as a special guest who wanted to help Sudan
when everybody was turning away. In Sudan he mobilized a lot of construction
equipment and enrolled himself in busy construction projects. He spent good
effort in convincing Saudi businessmen to invest in Sudan and had reasonable
success. Many of his brothers and Jeddah merchants had and still have
investment in real estate, farming and agricultural industry. In Sudan he had
again escaped an assassination attempt which turned out later to be the plan of
During his stay in Sudan anti-American incidents happened in Somalia and South
Yemen. Neither of the two incidents was performed by his group in the proper
sense of chain of command. Both were performed by people who had training in
Afghanistan and had enough anti-American drive. He might have given some
sanctioning to the operations but one thing was certain, the Sudanese were
completely unaware of either.
Between his arrival to Sudan and early 1994 he was not regarded publicly as
Saudi opposition and Saudi citizens were visiting him without too much
precautions. Only the well-informed people would know that he was classified as
enemy to the Saudi regime. His assets were frozen sometime between 1992 and
1994 but that was not published. The Saudis decided to announce their hostility
early 1994 when they publicized withdrawing his citizenship.
After long silence and tolerance, bin Laden replied by issuing a
communiqué condemning the Saudi decision and saying that he does not
need the "Saudi" reference to identify himself and it is not up to Al-Saud to
admit or expel people from Arabian Peninsula. He then formed together with
activists and scholars from the kingdom a group called "Advice and Reform
Committee" (ARC). The ARC was, according to its communiqués and
published agenda, a purely political group. The ARC published around 17
communiqués which might have contained harsh criticism of the Saudi
regime and plenty of religious rhetoric but never contained reference for
violence or incitment of violence.
The car bomb in spring 1995 in Riyadh was the first major anti-American action
in the kingdom. Bin Laden never claimed responsibility, but the Saudi
government tried to link the incident to bin Laden by showing video confessions
of four "Arab Afghans" involved in the bombing.
Sudan was exposed to huge international pressure for hosting bin Laden and his
followers, and bin Laden felt that he is becoming an embarrassment to the
Sudanese. Early in 1996 he started making contacts with his old friends in
Afghanistan to prepare for his reception. He fled Sudan in a very well planned
trip with many of his followers to go straight to Jalalabad in Eastern
When he arrived there, the situation in Afghanistan was very unsettled between
the many factions, but he had very good relations with all factions and all
would protect him. The area he arrived to was under control of Yunis Khalis, a
very influential warlord who later on joined Taliban.
June 1996, after his arrival in Afghanistan was the Khobar bombing. Nobody
claimed responsibility, but sources from inside the Saudi ministry of interior
confirmed involvement of Arab Afghans, with possible link to bin Laden The
Saudi government wanted to frame Shi'a, at the beginning but Americans were
very suspicious of the Saudi story. Bin Laden himself never claimed
responsibility but gave many hints that he might have been involved. The Saudi
government has acknowledged recently that bin Laden's men were behind the