It would be an act of extraordinary courage and wisdom if the United States was to pause for a moment and reflect upon its role in the world, the indifference of its government to the suffering of Arabs, the indolence of its current president.

Osama bin Laden:
The truth about the world's most wanted man

The truth about the prime suspect for the world's worst terrorist atrocity is shrouded in myth and misinformation. But Chris Blackhurst has gained unprecedented access to private dossiers, friends and family to reveal the real Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden has never received funding from the US Central Intelligence Agency and does not have a huge fortune, say sources close to the fugitive terrorist leader.

An Independent on Sunday investigation has gained unprecedented access to an exhaustive dossier on the life of the world's most wanted man. Including material supplied anonymously by a bin Laden relative and fellow Saudi dissidents, it paints a remarkable picture of the suspected instigator of last week's carnage, countering the widely accepted notion that he accepted aid from the CIA. It also suggests that far from being able to draw upon a $300m fortune, a claim made regularly in the Western press, his wealth amounts to no more than a few million dollars.

Mr bin Laden has survived numerous assassination and kidnap attempts, achieving almost mythical status among his militant Muslim supporters. They do not believe his mountain hideaway will be penetrated, and they point to a secret planned raid by US special forces in 1997 which had to be aborted. This and a series of other incidents have contributed towards Mr bin Laden being seen by his followers as a virtual superman.

It was not always so. Like other figures who went on to become monsters, much of his life was relatively carefree and mundane. Osama, or to give him his family spelling, Ussama, was born in 1957, the seventh son among 54 children (an incredible tally in Western eyes but not in the Muslim world where more than one wife is common). In all, his father had 30 wives. His mother was Syrian, his father a South Yemeni. Mohammed Awad, his father, emigrated to Saudi Arabia around 1930. He was poor and worked as a porter in Jeddah. By the time he died in 1970, he was the owner of the biggest construction company in the Saudi kingdom. Mohammed made his big break by tendering to build palaces for King Saud at much lower rates than his rivals. He became close to the royal family, especially Faisal. In the Saud-Faisal power struggle in the 1960s he persuaded Saud to stand down in favour of Faisal.

When Saud went, the government coffers were bare and Mr bin Laden paid the whole country's civil servants' wages for six months. Such support did not go unrewarded: he was made minister of public works and all projects were to go to Mohammed's firm. According to members of the bin Laden family, their father was a devoted Muslim; not crazily so, just a regular worshipper. He was also humble, despite his wealth, keeping his old bag from his days as a porter as a reminder of where he had come from. Bin Laden senior was a tough character, ordering his children to follow a special daily regime he had devised for them. From an early age, they were expected to behave confidently and politely. Several of the children, though not Osama, were educated in more Western Arab countries such as Egypt, and travelled widely.

Osama's father died when he was 13. Four years later he married a Syrian girl who was also a distant member of his family. Today he has four wives. He was religious but, like his father, not especially so. At school and university he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Again, this was not extraordinary: his interest, like many others of his age, was scholarly. Certainly, say those who knew him from that time he was not the zealot he is today.

Contrary to reports, claim Saudi sources, the only countries he has been to are those on the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan. Stories of trips to Switzerland, Philippines and London are all unfounded.

At university, Islam was compulsory, and he was taught by two renowned scholars: Abdulla Azzam, who later became a major figure in Afghanistan, and Mohammed Quttub, a writer and philosopher. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the young and well-off bin Laden went to Pakistan and was taken by his hosts, Jammat Islami, to meet the refugees and their leaders. When he returned he collected money and supplies for the Afghan resistance, the Mujahedin. He made another trip to deliver the aid, taking with him Afghan and Pakistani workers from the Bin Laden Company. In 1982, Mr bin Laden reinforced his links with the Mujahedin, sending them equipment and arms.

He spent more time in Afghanistan and became involved in gun battles with the Soviets. As a wealthy Saudi he stood out. Other Arabs followed him. Two years later, he opened a guesthouse in Peshawar, which became a stopping-off point for Arab Mujahedin fighters. At the same time, Abdullah Azzam, his old mentor, launched the Jihad Service Bureau, a Mujahedin press and publishing centre, in Peshawar. The town, with its guesthouse and media bureau, became a focus for Saudi and other Arab guerrillas. Numbers became so large that Mr bin Laden built camps for the Arab Mujahedin inside Afghanistan.He assumed command, although the legion had been joined by former officers from Egypt, Syria, Saudi and Algeria. This was remarkable.

Mr bin Laden is shy, says little and is studiously serious, none of the usual qualities attributed to a leader of soldiers. He deliberately set himself apart from the rest, preferring to read and think alone (or to be seen reading and thinking, thus adding to his allure). He does, though, have more of the attributes associated with mythical warriors than any son of a Saudi multi-millionaire. He is tall, lean and has high cheekbones. His fellow soldiers could not fail to be impressed by his dedication.

Whatever he lacked in experience, Mr bin Laden made up with organisational skills, and was adept at managing the media. He was brave, unafraid to face enemy fire. Overall, he was bombed 40 times. He was wounded several times and hospitalised more than once. He was also extremely careful. Try as they might, the Soviets could not kill him.

Early on, he realised that any unknown package, any unexpected visitor could spell danger. While other commanders died, Mr bin Laden lived. From 1984 to 1989, he was a committed soldier, leading his foreign legionnaires in at least six major encounters with the Soviets. To many people in the Islamic world, he began to cut a romantic, T E Lawrence-type figure, a freedom fighter against the oppressive Soviet invader.

In 1988, he decided to put his affairs and those of his colleagues on a firmer footing. He gave the umbrella group for his guesthouse and camps a name: Al-Qa'edah, Arabic for "the base". Talk of the CIA funding him and assisting him at this time, say Mr bin Laden and his supporters, is unfounded. They even go further, to insist he has never had any contact with US officials. The CIA did back the Mujahedin, but these, they say, were different factions from Mr bin Laden's.

He was always a committed Muslim, believing his struggle was as much about defending his religion as defeating the Soviet Union. (It would be wrong, though, to suppose this automatically made him a religious fanatic because his views were shared by many Muslims.) From his Muslim Brotherhood days he had an anti-US streak again, not uncommon among young Muslims and had feared for US encroachment in Saudi.

The idea he needed US money, say his close associates, is not true, either. He was of independent means; he knew rich Saudis; many of his fundamentalist followers were themselves idealists from relatively wealthy families and the weapons they used were cheap. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Mr bin Laden returned home. Fired by his success in Afghanistan, he wanted to start a new front or jihad in South Yemen. The Saudis, alarmed at the prospect of his growing power, banned him from leaving. The restriction did not silence him. He denounced Saddam Hussein, claiming the Iraqi leader was about to invade Kuwait. In Saudi, such behaviour did not endear him to the authorities. He was told to shut up and refused, but all the time he was quietly advising the Saudi King Fahd of the danger coming from Iraq.

Today, Mr bin Laden is always described as a Saudi dissident. It was not always so. In those days he was loyal to the Saudi royal family. When he warned about Iraq they listened; all they asked was that he kept his strictures private. His contact with the Saudi rulers was via two of his brothers. They were close to two senior Saudi ministers who received his messages and passed them on to the king. He stayed distant from Saudi intelligence, which he saw as under the influence of the US.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait should have been Mr bin Laden's finest hour in Saudi: the putting to use of everything he had learned in the war against the Soviets for the benefit of his home country. In fact, it proved anything but. He sent a "told you so" letter to Fahd, setting out how the kingdom could defend itself with its own forces. All his Al-Qa'edah forces would relocate to Saudi Arabia, promised Mr bin Laden. There would be a huge surge in Arab Mujahedin, he claimed. Instead of grabbing his plan, Fahd was dismissive. Worse, Fahd sent for the Americans. This was a shattering blow, "the most shocking moment of my life" Mr bin Laden has called it.

Depressed and ignored, he cut himself off from the royal family and sought solace with religious scholars. At his request, they issued a fatwa that military training was a religious duty. He went into overdrive, circulating the edict throughout Saudi and persuading people to head for Afghanistan for their training. Around 4,000 made the trip. The Saudis moved against him. He was taken in for questioning, more to scare him than anything else. The die was cast: he had to leave the country. Claiming he needed to go overseas temporarily to sort out a business difficulty, Mr bin Laden went straight to Pakistan, from where he sent a letter to his brother saying he would not return and apologising for the deceit.

He could not stay in Pakistan he did not trust the Pakistani authorities to extradite him to Saudi so went straight to Afghanistan. There he tried to act as a peace broker between the rival factions. His own Mujahedin were ordered to stay out because, he said, it was not their place to get drawn into domestic politics. Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis and Pakistanis, both of whom were increasingly reliant on the US, saw him as a target. Attempts were made to kidnap or kill him. At the end of 1991, he fled to what he saw as a safer haven, in Sudan.

Contrary to reports, say his friends, his motivation was not to embark on another jihad in Africa. Sudan was under purist Muslim rulers, desperately poor and in urgent need of his engineering and construction expertise. The Sudanese government welcomed him, but they were also wary, refusing for a time to allow his Al-Qa'edah followers to go anywhere near the troubled south of the country. It was hard, though, for ministers not to embrace the new arrival. He threw himself into large-scale building projects.

His move to Sudan provoked suspicion in Saudi and the US. Sudan was one of the few countries to support Iraq in the Gulf War. Secretly, the Saudis outlawed him, freezing his assets in the kingdom. In Sudan, though, bin Laden and Al-Qa'edah became symbols of good, running aid programmes and attracting their wealthy Saudi contacts to invest in the country.

In 1994, the Saudis went public with their hostility and withdrew his citizenship. His response was to disavow his ties to the modern Saudi Arabia and to form, with other opponents, the Advice and Reform Committee or ARC. This was a political lobbying group, issuing plenty of hot air about the Saudi regime but not openly advocating violence. But terrorism did occur, and much of it laid at Mr bin Laden's door. A car bomb in Riyadh in 1995 was blamed on him, with the Saudis producing video "confessions" from four Afghans for the attack. It was possible they were acting on his orders. But it is worth remembering that thousands of would-be Muslim fighters went through his camps. As with the atrocities in the US, making a direct link with Mr bin Laden was difficult.

The Saudis and their American allies stepped up pressure on Sudan to expel Mr bin Laden. Seeing the writing on the wall, he went first, back to Afghanistan. His chief supporter was Yunis Khalis, who later became a key figure in the Taliban.

Another bomb, in Saudi, pointed to Mr bin Laden and his militia. At ease in Afghanistan where he was revered, he turned his attention to the source of what he saw as the harm being done to his homeland. He issued a "declaration of war" against the US. Twelve pages long, it called for America's removal from the Arabian peninsula. When the Taliban swept to power in late 1996, Mr bin Laden was unsure of his position. He need not have worried. The Taliban embraced him, admiring and thanking him for his struggle. They saw him as a rich Saudi who gave up everything for the jihad. He was a hero, someone they were honour bound to save. His protection was guaranteed. They respected him even more when he advised them against exploitation from Pakistani businessmen.

Two factors may weigh against Mr bin Laden with the Taliban. One is that the US does provide clear, irrefutable evidence of his involvement in last week's attacks. That will lie heavily with the Taliban who find themselves being persecuted for harbouring someone for starting a war they did not sanction.

They are men of principle: bombing without proof will not move them. The other is the thought that Mr bin Laden's power exceeds their own. Otherwise, and he is adept at keeping good relations with the Taliban, he is safe. Their attitude towards him was reinforced when his Arab Mujahedin fought to secure Kabul against Afghan rebels in the north. Towards the end of 1997, the Americans tried to capture Mr bin Laden, planning a special forces raid and rehearsing it in Pakistan. The mission was aborted as being too difficult.

Mr bin Laden's mood hardened. When religious scholars in Afghanistan issued a fatwa, possibly at his behest, calling for the expulsion of Americans by any means from the region, he saw it as giving him the licence he needed. To the worry of Saudi and Western security agencies, he embarked on an expansion drive. Previously, his followers had been drawn from the Arab world. Now he went pan-Islamic, seeking and attracting comrades from the former Soviet republics, Pakistan and India. He saw himself as infallible and went on a media offensive. For some time, a vicious spiral had been forming. Muslim terrorists were arrested in the West and said to be bin Laden followers. Bombs exploded at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Again, they were attributed to Mr bin Laden. They may well have been but the US vitriol served only to enhance his legend among militant Muslims. That status was enhanced even further when the US launched its missile strikes against what it said were his bases in Sudan and Afghanistan, and the Sudan target turned out to be a harmless factory.

The strike in Sudan was a disaster for the US. In the Arab world, Mr bin Laden became seen as the one man who could withstand the might of America. He has three sorts of supporter: those under his direct command who number a few hundred and are based in Afghanistan; a wider group of militants who are spread out across the world; and non-active admirers. It is the middle group that causes most worry. Probably trained in one of his camps, they have spread out, some to the West, where to all intents and purposes they lead normal lives. They do not need to be in contact with Mr bin Laden. Their struggle is his struggle; he has gone from being field commander to spiritual inspiration.

He is nowhere near as rich as reports suggest; "a few million at most" said one family member. His assets in Saudi were long frozen. The family firm still exists but he has cut himself off from his relatives. He was also forced to liquidate some smaller businesses when one of his followers made a rare defection to the Saudi side. In the early days, he did receive donations, especially from Saudi, but these are thought to have dried up.

On the other hand, why does he need a huge amount of money? He lives abstemiously. Many of his followers had access to their own money before joining him. He does not fight an expensive, hi-tech war. In the region he inhabits weapons are cheaper than staple foods. The hijackers last week carried small knives and boxes they said they were bombs. His finances would, though, stretch to some flying courses and some flight simulator software. If he was responsible.

Robert Fisk - The Independent, 12 September 2001


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