Folk Hero To Radical: The Story of Osama Bin Laden’s Rise to Power

| | October 6, 2023

Many people know the name of Osama Bin Laden. In fact, he was considered to be one of the most wanted men in America and before his death in 2011, he one of the most famous terrorists in the world. When you hear the name Osama, images of strife, chaos and the destruction of the World Trade Centers that shook the world on September 11th, 2001 come to mind. What many of us don’t hear, however, is the story of his beginnings as a leader.

In 1979, the Soviet Army made the executive decision to invade Afghanistan, intent on securing the communist regime that they had installed in the previous years. Afghani locals were not too keen the Soviet’s influence and had begun actively rebelling against the Soviet installed leader, Taraki. With the deployment of troops, the Soviets began a long, active campaign against the Afghani rebels in the hopes of seizing control of the area and securing their communist agenda.

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This is where Bin Laden first found his voice. A young man at the time, Bin Laden was busy spending his time at a university in Saudi Arabia, learning a variety of classical education endeavors, such as mathematics, engineering and business management. His graduation was in 1979, the same year as the Soviet invasion had begun in Afghanistan. Upon hearing about the war, the young Osama felt a sense of frustration and anger at the actions of the Soviets. To him, nothing was more sacred than his faith, Islam, and he saw the influence of a non-Muslim government invading as a call to a holy war.

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Osama wasn’t alone in this thought. Thousands of Mujahedeen soldiers, holy warriors united by their desire to expel the foreign invaders, rose up in Afghanistan and began to fight back. While the war was primarily an Afghani interest, there were many other Muslim soldiers who were interested in fighting for the cause. They were known as the Afghan Arabs, foreign warriors fighting the jihad against the Soviet Invasion.

With his passion for Islam and his desire to defend Afghanistan from the foreign oppression, Osama brought his immense wealth to the fight in Afghanistan. It was from there that he found his natural voice as a leader for the people, many of whom he assisted in training for warfare. The voices that spoke about him back then was far different from the Osama that the world has come to know today. The man was quiet, soft-spoken and calm. He seemed genuinely interested in following his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, the one who had called for the global jihad against the Soviet occupiers. Still, Osama had money, a desire to help the effort and the organizational skills to aid the war effort and he put those skills to use in creating a camp known as al-Masada, or the Lion’s Den.

It was in that camp that the quiet, meek Osama, a man once described as afraid of explosions, participated in a battle against the Soviets. The Battle of Jaji began when Soviet forces arrived to flush out and destroy the Mujahedeen forces that had been harassing a nearby garrison. Osama participated in direct combat there, fighting alongside his fellow Afghan Arabs in the bid to stop the Soviets from seizing control of their network of tunnels they used to move about. Many Arabs died in that fight, but the Soviets ended up backing off, unable to take command of their objective.

The battle was of very little historical significance. The Mujahedeen soldiers had taken far more casualties than the Soviets and Osama had been forced to retreat his forces several times in the course of the battle. But even though this fight was not crucial to the war effort, it made a deep impression on those who heard of Osama’s exploits. He had transformed overnight, seemingly, from a shy and quiet man afraid of the sound of explosions, to a war leader. Aided by a reporter who wrote excitedly of the major role that Osama had played in the battle, he quickly became famous for his exploits in the battle. It became a recruiting tool that would go on to give many other Arabs a good impression of the man’s dedication and skills.

His reputation grew and with it, his forces. He went on to found Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that would soon become infamous. The Soviets ended up withdrawing after a long campaign, failing ultimately in their goals. This was looked at as a victory for the Mujahedeen, despite the fact that they played a relatively minimal role in the actual war effort. Osama returned home, to Saudi Arabia, as a hero and was given great respect for his actions.

Up to this point, he had been seen as a heroic man for his efforts. He had joined a war effort and valiantly worked to provide support for the Islamic cause and many in Afghanistan revered him for his actions. Combined with an excellent PR campaign, many had grown to respect and admire the man for his work. The Saudi Royal family paid him great respect as well. He was, more or less, a strong, loyal man who held status and power in his country.

That changed the day that Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. Osama had warned several times about the chances of Saddam taking aggressive actions and his warning had been proven true in 1990. The Iraqi dictator seized control of Kuwait and occupied it, declaring it to be a new province of Iraq. This made Saudi Arabia very nervous, were we next? They wondered.

Osama was not daunted by Saddam’s actions. He begged the Royal Family to allow him to raise an army, one that would defend the Royal Family and all of Saudi Arabia from the actions of Saddam, but he was refused. They called for help, of course, but they called for the kind of help that Osama would grow to feel an intense, burning rage towards. Saudi Arabia called for help from the United States of America and that was the beginning of Osama’s descent into radicalism.

Osama had been confident that he could raise a powerful army to fight against Saddam. He had been successful in his efforts with the Mujahedeen back in the Soviet War, why not here? He boasted that he could foster nearly 100,000 troops within three months and be able to valiantly battle against Saddam, but those words had fallen on deaf ears. The Royal Family had chosen to go with America. With infidels.

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His personality changed. He grew from a quiet and mild mannered man interested in genuinely helping his Muslim brethren into an angry, arrogant man, frustrated at the presence of the United States. The Americans had moved in to assist Saudi Arabia against Saddam, getting involved in a war known as Desert Storm. Osama saw this not only as a slap in the face, but as an affront to his very faith, for he believed that it was forbidden for non-Muslims to occupy territory where the Holy Sites were. He felt humiliated, believing that the Americans did not belong.

He became outspoken, criticizing the Royal Family for their decision and demanding that the U.S leave Saudi Arabia. He began to write out a Fatwa, or ruling, that the Muslims must prepare themselves for jihad. He began recruiting his own army at that time as well and the Royal Family was going to have none of it. They quickly kicked him out of the country for his actions, hoping that it wouldn’t reflect poorly on them.

He was exiled to Sudan, where he would go on to continue criticizing the Royal Family and working on building infrastructure for Sudan. His work employed many laborers as he operated construction, built roads and buildings. His interests went beyond infrastructure, however and soon there were accusations of Sudan becoming a hotbed of terrorist activity.

Osama had begun funding and assisting in the training of radical terrorist groups, helping send them across the globe, building Al-Qaeda into a powerful terrorist network. He worked long and hard to establish networks, train soldiers and aid the effort for global jihad. He tried his best to keep things quiet as he assisted in smuggling arms to Yemen and Egypt, but his efforts to stay under the radar ultimately failed. The United States had taken great notice for him and his organization’s work in various bombing campaigns across the globe and put immense pressure onto Sudan to expel Osama.

The Sudanese, wanting to be taken seriously by the American government, did as was expected of them and they threw Osama out of the country. For his work smuggling arms, the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship as well and his family cut all ties to him. Osama had gone from at one time being the man who fought against Soviet Russia, to being a man without a country. He chose to go to one of the few places left that he had any influence. He decided to go back to Afghanistan.

Osama at this point had lost a great deal of money, resources and influence. He had lost his positions of authority and the respect of his own country. He was, more or less, in no position to become anything other than a radical. He embraced the role and began to descend deeper into his fundamentalism and he started by formally declaring war against the United States of America.

He began raising funds through primarily the weapons and drug trade, raising money and establishing training camps for his soldiers. He found that Afghanistan had changed since he had left, a new political force, the Taliban had arrived and they were interested in imposing Islamic rule on the country. They were on friendly terms with Osama, but had no interest in the man’s desire to wage war against the nation of America.

Osama’s policies grew more radical with each passing day, it seemed. The once gentle and soft-spoken man began to issue out policies stating that it was perfectly fine to kill innocent bystanders who were close to the enemies of the jihad, because those bystander’s lives would be counted as martyrs as well. He led the charge in Anti-Americanism that many who opposed to the United States would find as a rallying cry to join in the war.

Al-Qaeda grew in power and influence and launched a major attack on the United States Navy ship, the USS Cole. Combined with their bombings of two United States Embassies in East Africa, the United States retaliated through a series of missile strikes against Al-Qaeda encampments, one of where Osama was thought to have been. Emerging after the missile strikes, he declared himself alive and to have survived an attack straight from the United States gave him the legitimacy as the chosen one to bring about the end of the United States’ supposed occupation of the Holy Sites.

Osama’s story devolves quickly from there. His role in the attacks on the World Trade Centers, the mobilization of Al-Qaeda in a global campaign and terror and his eventual death at the hands of a United States military team all play a major part in his future, but that’s not where we’re looking at today. Today we just wanted to take a look at the origin of a man who once held the respect of many nations for his work as a freedom fighter and how his own arrogance and pride drove him to the very edges of fanaticism.

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The worst part? He never saw his own actions for what they were, rather the loss of respect, citizenship and relationships with his family were just the cost of staying true to his beliefs. Yet, it must be asked, what really was Osama’s greatest belief? Was it dedication to the cause of jihad, or was there something more? Perhaps the taste of power and admiration from the Soviet War had led him to crave more, or maybe he truly saw himself as doing a good and noble thing. We can never quite know the truth of what his motives were, but we can see the results of his actions. We can’t see what is in the hearts of men, but we can see the legacy that they leave. And Osama’s legacy was not of quiet, gentle strength, but of brutality against civilians in the hopes of inspiring terror.


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