Obituary | Osama bin Laden, 1957-2011
The Most Wanted Face of Terrorism
By KATE ZERNIKE and MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN
Published: May 2, 2011
Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan on Monday, was a son of the Saudi elite whose radical, violent campaign to recreate a seventh-century Muslim empire redefined the threat of terrorism for the 21st century.
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With the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Bin Laden was elevated to the realm of evil in the American imagination once reserved for dictators like Hitler and Stalin. He was a new national enemy, his face on wanted posters. He gloated on videotapes, taunting the United States and Western civilization.
“Do you want Bin Laden dead?” a reporter asked President George W. Bush six days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I want him — I want justice,” the president answered. “And there’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ”
It took nearly a decade before that quest finally ended in Pakistan with the death of Bin Laden in a firefight with American forces who attacked a compound where officials said he had been hiding. He was generally believed to be 54.
The manhunt was punctuated in December 2001 by a battle at an Afghan mountain redoubt called Tora Bora, near the border with Pakistan, where Bin Laden and his allies were hiding. Despite days of pounding by American bombers, Bin Laden escaped. For more than nine years afterward, he remained an elusive, shadowy figure frustratingly beyond the grasp of his pursuers and thought to be holed up somewhere in Pakistan and plotting new attacks.
Long before, he had become a hero in much of the Islamic world, as much a myth as a man — what a longtime C.I.A. officer called “the North Star” of global terrorism. He had united disparate militant groups, from Egypt to the Philippines, under the banner of Al Qaeda and his ideal of a borderless brotherhood of radical Islam.
Terrorism before Bin Laden was often state-sponsored, but he was a terrorist who had sponsored a state. From 1996 to 2001 he bought the protection of the Taliban, then the rulers of Afghanistan, and used the time and freedom to make Al Qaeda — which means “the base” in Arabic — into a multinational enterprise for the export of terrorism.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the names Al Qaeda and Bin Laden spread to every corner of the globe. Groups calling themselves Al Qaeda, or acting in the name of its cause, attacked American troops in Iraq, bombed tourist spots in Bali and blew up passenger trains in Spain.
To this day, the precise reach of his power remains unknown: how many members Al Qaeda could truly count on, how many countries its cells had penetrated — and whether, as Bin Laden had boasted, he was seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
He waged holy war with modern methods. He sent fatwas — religious decrees — by fax and declared war on Americans in an e-mail beamed by satellite around the world. Qaeda members kept bomb-making manuals on CDs and communicated through encrypted memos on laptops, leading one American official to declare that Bin Laden possessed better communications technology than the United States. He railed against globalization, even as his agents in Europe and North America took advantage of a globalized world to carry out their attacks, insinuating themselves into the very Western culture he despised.
He styled himself a Muslim ascetic, a billionaire’s son who gave up a life of privilege for the cause. But he was media savvy and acutely image-conscious. Before a CNN crew that interviewed him in 1997 was allowed to leave, his media advisers insisted on editing out unflattering shots. He summoned reporters to a cave in Afghanistan when he needed to get his message out, but like the most controlling of C.E.O.’s he insisted on receiving written questions in advance.
His reedy voice seemed to belie the warrior image he cultivated, a man whose constant companion was a Kalashnikov rifle that he boasted he had taken from a Russian soldier he had killed. The world’s most threatening terrorist, he was also known to submit to dressings down by his mother. While he built his reputation on his combat experience against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even some of his supporters questioned whether he had actually fought.
And though he claimed to follow the purest form of Islam, many scholars insisted that he was glossing over the faith’s edicts against killing innocents and civilians. Islam draws boundaries on where and why holy war can be waged; Bin Laden declared the entire world as fair territory.
Yet it was the United States, Bin Laden insisted, that was guilty of a double standard.
“It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this,” he told CNN in the 1997 interview. “If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists. When Palestinian children throw stones against the Israeli occupation, the U.S. says they are terrorists. Whereas when Israel bombed the United Nations building in Lebanon while it was full of children and women, the U.S. stopped any plan to condemn Israel. At the same time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his rights, they receive the top official of the Irish Republican Army at the White House as a political leader. Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world.”
The Turning Point
For Bin Laden, as for the United States, the turning point came in 1989, with the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
To the United States, which had supported the Afghan resistance with billions of dollars in arms and ammunition, the Soviet retreat was the beginning of the end of the cold war and the birth of a new world order; to Bin Laden, who had supported the resistance with money, construction equipment and housing, it was an affirmation of Muslim power and an opportunity to recreate Islamic political power and topple infidel governments through jihad, or holy war.
He declared to an interviewer in 1998, “I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America.”
In its place he built his own legend, modeling himself after the Prophet Muhammad, who in the seventh century led the Muslim people to rout the infidels, or nonbelievers, from North Africa and the Middle East. Just as Muhammad saw the Koran revealed to him amid intense persecution, Bin Laden regarded his expulsions from Saudi Arabia and then Sudan in the 1990s as signs that he was a chosen one.
In his vision, he would be the “emir,” or prince, in a restoration of the khalifa, a political empire extending from Afghanistan across the globe. “These countries belong to Islam,” he told the same interviewer, “not the rulers.”
Al Qaeda became the infrastructure for his dream. Under it, he created a web of businesses — some legitimate, some less so — to obtain and move the weapons, chemicals and money he needed. He created training camps for his foot soldiers, a media office to spread his word and even “shuras,” or councils, to approve his military plans and his fatwas.
Through the 1990s, Al Qaeda evolved into a far-flung and loosely connected network of symbiotic relationships: Bin Laden gave affiliated terrorist groups money, training and expertise; they gave him operational cover and furthered his cause. Perhaps the most important alliance was with the Taliban, who rose to power in Afghanistan largely on the strength of Bin Laden’s aid, and in turn provided him refuge and a base for holy war.
Long before Sept. 11, though the evidence was often thin, Bin Laden was considered in part responsible for the killing of American soldiers in Somalia and Saudi Arabia; the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993; the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; and a foiled plot to hijack a dozen jets, crash a plane into the C.I.A. headquarters and kill President Bill Clinton.
In 1996, American officials described Bin Laden as “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremism in the world,” but he was not thought of as someone capable of orchestrating international terrorist plots. When the United States put out a list of the most wanted terrorists in 1997, neither Bin Laden nor Al Qaeda was on it.
Bin Laden, however, demanded to be noticed. In February 1998, he declared it the duty of every Muslim to “kill Americans wherever they are found.” After the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa in August 1998, President Clinton declared Bin Laden “Public Enemy No. 1.”
The C.I.A. spent much of the next three years hunting him. The goal was to capture Bin Laden using recruited Afghan agents or to kill him with a precision-guided missile, according to the 2004 report of the 9/11 Commission and the memoirs of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence from July 1997 to July 2004.
The intelligence was never good enough to pull the trigger. By the summer of 2001, the C.I.A. was convinced that Al Qaeda was on the verge of a spectacular attack. But no one knew where or when it would come.
The Early Life
Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was born in 1957, the seventh son and 17th child, among 50 or more, of his father, people close to the family say. Many experts believe he was born in March of that year, though Steve Coll, in his book “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century,” reported that Bin Laden himself said he was born in January 1958.
His father, Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden, had immigrated to what would soon become Saudi Arabia in 1931 from the family’s ancestral village in a conservative province of southern Yemen. He found work in Jidda as a porter to the pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Mecca; years later, when he owned the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia, he displayed his porter’s bag in the main reception room of his palace as a reminder of his humble origins.
The elder Bin Laden began his family’s rise by skillfully navigating the competing interests within and around the House of Saud in the 1950s. He first built palaces for the royal family and was then chosen to renovate holy sites, including those at Medina and Mecca. In 1958, when several Arab countries set about to renovate the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, on one of the holiest sites in Islam, he won the bid for the Saudis by offering to do the job at a loss. In interviews years later, Osama bin Laden would recall proudly that his father had sometimes prayed in all three holy places in one day.
By the 1960s, King Faisal decreed that all construction projects be awarded to the Bin Laden group.
All of the Bin Laden children were required to work for the family company, meaning that Osama spent summers working on road projects. Muhammad bin Laden died in a plane crash in 1967, when Osama was 10. The siblings each inherited millions — the precise amount was a matter of some debate — and led a life of near-royalty. Osama — the name means “young lion” — grew up playing with Saudi princes and had his own stable of horses by age 15.
But some people close to the family paint a portrait of Bin Laden as a misfit. His mother, the last of his father’s four wives, was from Syria, and was the only one not from Saudi Arabia. The elder Bin Laden had met her on a vacation, and Osama was their only child. Within the family, she was said to be known as “the slave” and Osama “the slave child.”
Within the Saudi elite, it was rare to have both parents born outside the kingdom. In a profile of Osama bin Laden in The New Yorker, Mary Anne Weaver quoted a family friend who suggested that he had felt alienated in a culture so obsessed with lineage. “It must have been difficult for him,” the family friend said. “Osama was almost a double outsider. His paternal roots are in Yemen, and within the family his mother was a double outsider as well — she was neither Saudi nor Yemeni but Syrian.”
According to one of his brothers, Osama was the only Bin Laden child who never traveled abroad to study. A biography of Bin Laden provided to the PBS television program “Frontline” by an unidentified family friend asserted that Bin Laden had never traveled outside the Middle East.
That lack of exposure to Western culture would prove a crucial distinction; the other siblings went on to lead lives that would not be unfamiliar to most Americans. They took over the family business, estimated to be worth billions, distributing Snapple drinks, Volkswagens and Disney products across the Middle East. On Sept. 11, 2001, several Bin Laden siblings were living in the United States.
Bin Laden had been educated — and, indeed, steeped, as many Saudi children are — in Wahhabism, a puritanical, ardently anti-Western strain of Islam. Even years later, he so despised the Saudi ruling family’s coziness with Western nations that he refused to refer to Saudi Arabia by its modern name, instead calling it “the Country of the Two Holy Places.”
Newspapers have quoted anonymous sources — particularly an unidentified Lebanese barber — about a wild period of drinking and womanizing in Bin Laden’s life. But by most accounts he was devout and quiet, marrying a relative, the first of his four wives, at age 17.
Soon afterward, he began earning a degree at King Abdulaziz University in Jidda. It was there that he shaped his militancy. He became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group of Islamic radicals who believed that much of the Muslim world, including the leaders of Saudi Arabia, lived as infidels, in violation of the true meaning of the Koran.
And he fell under the influence of two Islamic scholars: Muhammad Quttub and Abdullah Azzam, whose ideas would underpin Al Qaeda. Mr. Azzam became a mentor to the young Bin Laden. Jihad was the responsibility of all Muslims, he taught, until the lands once held by Islam were reclaimed. His motto was, “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogue.”
The Middle East was becoming unsettled in 1979, when Bin Laden was at the university. In Iran, Shiite Muslims mounted an Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah and made the United States a target. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. And as the year ended, Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan.
Bin Laden arrived in Pakistan-Afghanistan border within two weeks of the occupation. He said later that he had been asked to go by Saudi officials, who were eager to support the resistance movement. In his book “Taliban,” the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid said that the Saudis had originally hoped that a member of the royal family might serve as an inspirational leader in Afghanistan, but that they settled on Bin Laden as the next closest thing when no princes volunteered.
He traveled more like a visiting diplomat than a soldier, meeting with leaders and observing refugees coming into Peshawar, Pakistan. As the family friend said, it “was an exploratory rather than an action trip.” He returned twice a year for the next few years, in between finishing his degree and lobbying family members to support the Afghan mujahedeen.
Bin Laden began traveling beyond the border into Afghanistan in 1982, bringing with him construction machinery and recruits. In 1984, he and Mr. Azzam began setting up guesthouses in Peshawar, which was the first stop for holy warriors on their way to Afghanistan. With the money they had raised in Saudi Arabia, they established the Office of Services, which branched out across the world to recruit young jihadists.
The recruits were known as the Afghan Arabs, though they came from all over the world, and their numbers were estimated as high as 20,000. By 1986, Bin Laden had begun setting up training camps for them as well, and he was paying roughly $25,000 a month to subsidize them.
To young would-be recruits across the Arab world, Bin Laden’s was an attractive story: the rich young man who had become a warrior. His own descriptions of the battles he had seen, how he had lost the fear of death and slept in the face of artillery fire, were brushstrokes of an almost divine figure.
But intelligence sources insist that Bin Laden actually saw combat only once, in a weeklong barrage by the Soviets at Jaji, where the Arab Afghans had dug themselves into caves using Bin Laden’s construction equipment.
“Afghanistan, the jihad, was one terrific photo op for a lot of people,” Milton Bearden, the C.I.A. officer who described Bin Laden as “the North Star,” said in an interview on “Frontline,” adding, “There’s a lot of fiction in there.”
Still, Jaji became a kind of touchstone in the Bin Laden myth. Stories sent back from the battle to Arab newspaper readers, and photographs of Bin Laden in combat gear, burnished his image.
The flood of young men following him to Afghanistan prompted the founding of Al Qaeda. The genesis was essentially bureaucratic; Bin Laden wanted a way to track the men so he could tell their families what had happened to them. The documentation that Al Qaeda provided became a primitive database of young jihadists.
Afghanistan also brought Bin Laden into contact with leaders of other militant Islamic groups, including Ayman al-Zawahri, the bespectacled doctor who would later appear at Bin Laden’s side in televised messages from the caves of Afghanistan. Ultimately Dr. Zawahri’s group, Egyptian Jihad, and others would merge with Al Qaeda, making it an umbrella for terrorist groups.
Through the looking glass of Sept. 11, it seemed ironic that the Americans and Osama bin Laden had fought on the same side against the Soviets in Afghanistan — as if the Americans had somehow created the Bin Laden monster by providing arms and cash to the Arabs. The complex at Tora Bora where Qaeda members hid had been created with the help of the C.I.A. as a base for the Afghans fighting the Soviets.
Bin Laden himself described the fight in Afghanistan this way: “There I received volunteers who came from the Saudi kingdom and from all over the Arab and Muslim countries. I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.”
In truth, the Americans did not deal directly with Bin Laden; they worked through the middlemen of the Pakistani intelligence service.
In the revisionism of the Bin Laden myth, his defenders would say that he had not worked with the Americans but that he had only tolerated them as a means to his end. As proof, they insisted he had made anti-American statements as early as 1980.
Bin Laden would say in retrospect that he was always aware who his enemies were.
“For us, the idea was not to get involved more than necessary in the fight against the Russians, which was the business of the Americans, but rather to show our solidarity with our Islamist brothers,” he told a French journalist in 1995. “I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts against Communism or Western oppression. The urgent thing was Communism, but the next target was America.”
Afghanistan had infused the movement with confidence.
“Most of what we benefited from was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims,” Bin Laden told an interviewer. “Slumber and fatigue vanished, and so was the terror which the U.S. would use in its media by attributing itself superpower status, or which the Soviet Union used by attributing itself as a superpower.”
He returned to Saudi Arabia, welcomed as a hero, and took up the family business. But Saudi royals grew increasingly wary of him as he became more outspoken against the government.
The breaking point — for Bin Laden and for the Saudis — came when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Bin Laden volunteered to the Saudis that the men and equipment he had used in Afghanistan could defend the kingdom. He was “shocked,” a family friend said, to learn that the Americans — the enemy, in his mind — would defend it instead. To him, it was the height of American arrogance.
The United States, he told an interviewer later, “has started to look at itself as a master of this world and established what it calls the new world order.”
The Saudi government restricted him to Jidda, fearing that his outspokenness would offend the Americans. Bin Laden fled to Sudan, which was offering itself as a sort of haven for terrorists, and there he began setting up legitimate businesses that would help finance Al Qaeda. He also built his reserves, in 1992, paying for about 500 mujahedeen who had been expelled from Pakistan to come work for him.
It was during that time that it is believed he honed his resolve against the United States.
Within Al Qaeda, he argued that the organization should put aside its differences with Shiite terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the better to concentrate on the common enemy: the United States. He called for attacks against American forces in the Saudi peninsula and in the Horn of Africa.
On Dec. 29, 1992, a bomb exploded in a hotel in Aden, Yemen, where American troops had been staying while on their way to Somalia. The troops had already left, and the bomb killed two Austrian tourists. American intelligence officials came to believe that it was Bin Laden’s first attack.
On Feb. 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in a truck driven into the underground garage at the World Trade Center, killing six people. Bin Laden later praised Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the bombing. In October of that year, in Somalia, 18 American service members were killed — some of their bodies dragged through the streets — while on a peacekeeping mission; Bin Laden was almost giddy about the deaths.
After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle, thinking that the Americans were “like the Russians,” he told an interviewer.
“The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat,” he said. “And America forgot all the hoopla and media propaganda about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order, and after a few blows, they forgot about this title and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.”
By 1994, Bin Laden had established new training camps in Sudan, but he became a man without a country. The Saudi government froze his assets and revoked his citizenship. His family, which had become rich on its relations with the royal family, denounced him publicly after he was caught smuggling weapons from Yemen.
This seemed to make him only more zealous. He sent an open letter to King Fahd outlining the sins of the Saudi government and calling for a campaign of guerrilla attacks to drive Americans from Saudi Arabia. Three months later, in November 1995, a truck bomb exploded at a Saudi National Guard training center operated by the United States in Riyadh, killing seven people. That year, Belgian investigators found a kind of how-to manual for terrorists on a CD. The preface dedicated it to Bin Laden, the hero of the holy war.
The next May, when the men accused of the Riyadh bombing were beheaded in Riyadh’s main square, they were forced to read a confession in which they acknowledged the connection to Bin Laden. The next month, June 1996, a truck bomb destroyed Khobar Towers, an American military residence in Dhahran. It killed 19 soldiers.
Bin Laden fled to Afghanistan that summer after Sudan expelled him under pressure from the Americans and Saudis, and he forged an alliance with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban. In August 1996, from the Afghan mountain stronghold of Tora Bora, Bin Laden issued his “Declaration of War Against the Americans Who Occupy the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.”
“Muslims burn with anger at America,” it read. The presence of American forces in the Persian Gulf states “will provoke the people of the country and induces aggression on their religion, feelings, and prides and pushes them to take up armed struggle against the invaders occupying the land.”
The imbalance of power between American forces and Muslim forces demanded a new kind of fighting, he wrote, “in other words, to initiate a guerrilla war, where sons of the nation, not the military forces, take part in it.”
That same month in New York City, a federal grand jury began meeting to consider charges against Bin Laden. Disputes arose among prosecutors and American law enforcement and intelligence officers about which attacks against American interests could truly be attributed to Bin Laden — whether in fact he had, as an indictment eventually charged, trained and paid the men who killed the Americans in Somalia.
His foot soldiers, in testimony, offered different pictures of Bin Laden’s actual involvement. In some cases he could be as aloof as any boss with thousands of employees. Yet one of the men convicted of the bombings of the embassies said that Bin Laden had been so involved that he was the one who had pointed at surveillance photographs to direct where the truck bomb should be driven.
Bin Laden was becoming more emboldened, summoning Western reporters to his hide-outs in Afghanistan to relay his message: He would wage war against the United States and its allies if Washington did not remove its troops from the gulf region.
“So we tell the Americans as a people,” he told ABC News, “and we tell the mothers of soldiers and American mothers in general that if they value their lives and the lives of their children, to find a nationalistic government that will look after their interests and not the interests of the Jews. The continuation of tyranny will bring the fight to America, as Ramzi Yousef and others did. This is my message to the American people: to look for a serious government that looks out for their interests and does not attack others, their lands or their honor.”
In February 1998, he issued the edict calling for attacks on Americans anywhere in the world, declaring it an “individual duty” for all Muslims.
In June, the grand jury that had been convened two years earlier issued its indictment, charging Bin Laden with conspiracy to attack the United States abroad, for heading Al Qaeda and for financing terrorist activities around the world.
On Aug. 7, 1998, the eighth anniversary of the United States order sending troops into the gulf region, two bombs exploded simultaneously at the American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Nairobi bomb killed 213 people and wounded 4,500; the bomb in Dar es Salaam killed 11 and wounded 85.
The United States retaliated two weeks later with strikes against what were thought to be terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which officials contended — erroneously, it turned out — was producing chemical weapons for Al Qaeda.
Bin Laden had trapped the United States in a spiral of tension, where any defensive or retaliatory actions would affirm the evils that he said had provoked the attacks in the first place. In an interview with Time magazine that December, he brushed aside President Clinton’s threats against him, and referred to himself in the third person, as if recognizing or encouraging the notion that he had become larger than life.
“To call us Enemy No. 1 or Enemy No. 2 does not hurt us,” he said. “Osama bin Laden is confident that the Islamic nation will carry out its duty.”
In January 1999, the United States government issued a superseding indictment that affirmed the power Bin Laden had sought all along, declaring Al Qaeda an international terrorist organization in a conspiracy to kill American citizens.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, Bin Laden did what had become routine: He took to Arab television. He appeared, in his statement to the world, to be at the top of his powers. President Bush had declared that the nations of the world were either with the Americans or against them on terrorism; Bin Laden held up a mirror image, declaring the world divided between infidels and believers.
Bin Laden had never before claimed or accepted responsibility for terrorist attacks. But in a videotape found in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar weeks after the attacks, he did precisely that, reveling in the horror of Sept. 11.
“We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower,” he said. “We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all.”
In the videotape, showing him talking to followers nearly two months after the attacks, Bin Laden smiles, hungers to hear more approval and notes proudly that the attacks let loose a surge of interest in Islam around the world.
He explained that the hijackers on the planes — “the brothers who conducted the operation” — did not know what the mission would be until just before they boarded the planes. They knew only that they were going to the United States on a mission of martyrdom.
Bin Laden’s voice continued to be heard, off and on, for almost the next 10 years as he issued threats, warnings and pronouncements on video and audiotape from wherever he was hiding. As recently as October he appealed for aid for flood victims in Pakistan and blamed the West for causing climate change.
Bin Laden long eluded the allied forces in pursuit of him, moving, it was said, under cover of night with his wives and children, at first between mountain caves. Yet he was determined that if he had to die, he too would die a martyr’s death.
His greatest hope, he told supporters, was that if he died at the hands of the Americans, the Muslim world would rise up and defeat the nation that had killed him.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 2, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of the restorations of the Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem and mosques at Medina and Mecca by Bin Laden's father.
An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of the restorations of the Al Aksa mosque in Jerusalem and mosques at Medina and Mecca by Bin Laden's father.