BEN LADEN, Ossama

(Full name: Sheikh Usamah bin Muhammad bin Laden)

Rich businessman of Yemeni origin born in Riyadh in 1957 into a family of entrepreneurs closely related to the Saudi royal family,the 17th of 52 children of Muhammad bin Laden. He studied religious sciences and engineering while taking part in the management of the family’s affairs. His strong religious convictions led him to join some local Islamist groups in 1973 and to go to Afghanistan in 1979 after the beginning of the Soviet military intervention. He took part in the fight, set up training camps, armed and led Arab volunteers and financed their voyage (see Afghans). It was in Afghanistan that he created links with Islamist movements from all over the Muslim world.

After the retreat of the Soviets in 1988, he went back to Saudi Arabia where the criticisms he addressed to the government for having allowed the deployment of American troops on the Saudi ground, as well as the support he gave to Islamist armed groups abroad resulted in the withdrawal of his passport in 1992. As soon as this withdrawal was lifted, he settled in Sudan where he is said to have contributed to the financing of the Islamic National Front of Hassan al Tourabi. Saudi Arabia deprived him of his citizenship in 1994, as Cairo, Algiers and Sanaa accused him of continuing to finance subversive activities on their respective countries.

In 1996, he left Sudan (perhaps on the insistence of the Sudanese authorities which wished to distanciate themselves from accusations of support for terrorism to which they were subject). He reappeared in Afghanistan in May of the same year and began to launch fatwas (religious decrees) against the United States.

He is suspected of having financed and encouraged a series of bomb attacks committed over the last few years and in particular those perpetrated against the American embassies of Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam on 7 August 1998. He seems to be at the origin of different radical organizations: the International Islamic Front, the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places (which claimed the bomb attacks in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam) and the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. If all this is true, he would control an « army » of about 5,000 Muslim radicals operating in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines.

After the bombing of their embassies in Nairobi and Dar-Es-Salaam in August 1998, the United States fired some hundred Cruise missiles at his guerilla bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. The missiles inflicted little lasting damage on the guerilla bases but made Bin Laden a hero in the Islamic world.

In spite of repeated American requests, the Taliban, then in control of most of Afghanistan, refused to hand over bin Laden to the United States saying that « it is not right to give a Muslim to an infidel country », although the United States were at the time – with Saudi Arabia – one of the Taliban’s biggest financial backers.

One year after the bombing of their embassies, the United States took some unilateral mesures against Afghanistan, freezing assets worth 500,000 $ of the Ariana airline and banning U.S. companies and individuals from doing business with Afghanistan. To no avail.

« These sanctions were taken in response to the Taliban’s continuing provision of safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network », U.S. National Security Council spokesman David Leavy told reporters.

A few days before the first anniversary of the bombings in Dar-Es-Salaam and Nairobi, the Qatari satellite television station Al-Jazeerah TV announced that two U.S. military planes landed at airports in Pakistan on 9 August with dozens of commandos in apparent preparation for a strike against Osama bin Laden.

On 15 October 1999, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution imposing sanctions on Afghanistan if it did not hand over the Saudi dissident for trial. This resolution, drafted by the US with support from Russia (which suspects Bin Laden to finance Islamic rebels fighting their forces in Daghestan) imposed sanctions effective one month later. Under these sanctions, all bank accounts held by the Taliban abroad were frozen and flights by aircraft owned, leased or operated by the Taliban are to be banned, excepting humanitarian flights and flights allowing Afghan citizens to perform the religious pilgrimage to Mecca (to avoid breaches like those which happened when sanctions where imposed on Libya in the Lockerbie case).

Following the massive terrorist attacks of 11 September against US commercial and political targets (the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington DC) suspicions were mostly directed at Osama Bin Laden and his network. Most believe that it took an Osama Bin Laden to have the ultra radical ideological drive as well as the financial, logistic and human ressources to carry out such an operation. So far, neither Bin Laden nor anyone linked to him has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Taliban authorities have immediately condemned the terrorist actions and denied that Bin Laden, who was living on Afghan territory, could be involved. On 20 September 2001 a council of Afghan clerics advised the Taliban to ask Bin Laden to leave Afghanistan « in the proper time and of his own free will. » Since then the Taliban have issued contradictory statements on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.

The United States government nevertheless named him as the prime suspect ultimately responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks. Bin Laden has denied this accusation, although he expressed admiration for whoever was responsible.

Following these events, the UN Security Council, on January 16, 2002, unanimously established an arm embargo and the freezing of assets of bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and the remaining Taliban. After the refusal by the Taliban government to unconditionally extradite bin Laden under these pressures, the United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew its regime. Despite the American goal to destroy Al Qaeda, Bin Laden still eludes his pursuers. Many terrorist attacks claimed by Al Qaeda have been committed. Among them, that of Bali on October 12, 2002: an attack against a nightclub killing 202 people and making 300 wounded, and that of Madrid on March 11, 2004, where 191 people perished in a commuter train.

After two years of silence, four days before the American presidential elections of 2004, an audio message is aired on the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera, confirming that Osama bin Laden is still alive. He criticizes the two candidates George Bush and John Kerry and announces new terrorist attacks. The latter will be held in 2005 in London and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.

On 19 January 2006, Al-Jazeera broadcasts a new record, cutting short all rumors about Osama Ben Laden’s death. It offers a « truce » in exchange for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The offer will be unconditionally rejected by the White House. New messages are broadcasted in April, May and June 2006. In April 2007 the Qatari channel broadcasts a video, the first one in three years, in which Osama Bin Laden speaks mainly to the American people; he also mentions the Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy.  Messages broadcast by Al Jazeera are the best way for Osama bin Laden to communicate. However, the authenticity of recent audio messages in December 2009 and January 2010 is, according to U.S authorities, less verifiable.

Since then, Al-Qaeda has claimed 5 attacks during the years 2007 and 2008, and the failed attack of December 25, 2009, on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Osama bin Laden has still not been located and all attempts to flush him out remained unsuccessful. Many rumors have repeatedly announced him dead. In September 2006, the French newspaper L’Est Republican revealed that the Saudi secret services were convinced that Bin Laden had died in August 2006. Yet all these claims remain to the state of rumor.