Public Enemy No. 1

Four years ago Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir took a strange journey into Afghanistan in pursuit of a story. After being driven blindfolded for hours, Mir at last arrived at a mountain training camp near the Afghan town of Khost. There guards subjected him to a thorough search, which included spreading a gel on his abdomen and using a scanner to make sure, he says, that he had not swallowed a homing device. “I was amazed at all this equipment,” says Mir. “They broke all my pens and checked my notebook too.” A half hour later he was ushered into a room filled with videotaping gear and books. And there he was greeted warmly by Osama bin Laden, who offered his guest a huge array of food, complete with an entire roast sheep, rice, salad and—most startling for an anti-American zealot—chilled Pepsi.

As the United States government gears up to go after bin Laden, 44, it’s clear that tracking down the world’s most famous outlaw will be no small feat. Considerably easier, say U.S. authorities, will be making a case against him as the ultimate author of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which have left nearly 7,000 people missing and feared dead. They have yet to produce evidence directly linking bin Laden with the horror, but they are confident they can In the meantime bin Laden’s heroic stature has grown in parts of the Muslim world, especially among the poor and dispossessed, for his willingness to take on the United States. As he declared in a 1998 statement to his followers, “To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able.”

The irony is that, far from being a member of the disenfranchised, bin Laden himself was born a child of great privilege in Saudi Arabia. His father, Mohamed, an uneducated laborer originally from Yemen started a construction company in 1930 that eventually became one of the largest in the Middle East. Mohamed was equally successful in producing offspring. He reportedly had more than 50 children by his various wives. Even Osama seems to have been overwhelmed by the fruit of his family tree. Journalist Mir recalls asking him if he could name his 25 brothers: “He got to about the 15th, and then he couldn’t go on and he started laughing. At the time of Mohamed’s death in a plane crash in 1968, the Saudi Binladen Group was worth billions of dollars. It is unclear how much Osama inherited, but one family member calls estimates that he is now worth up to $300 million “utter rubbish,” putting the figure closer to $20 million.

It seems unlikely that bin Laden’s virulent hatred of America came from his family. Indeed, his older brother Salem, who took over the company after their father’s death and who was killed in a plane crash near San Antonio in 1988, was an unabashed admirer of American culture. “Once we crossed the Saudi border, off came the robes and on came blue jeans and out came the guitars,” says a friend who used to fly Salem on business. “His favorite song was ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ and he could sing it in seven languages.”

By contrast, Osama is believed to have been a devout Muslim as a young man, but he also enrolled at a university in Saudi Arabia to study business administration. He fell under the spell of a radical teacher, Abdullah Azzam, who fueled his fundamentalism. But the event that changed everything for bin Laden, most experts agree, was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In 1980 he moved to Pakistan to help train the legions of foreign Muslims recruited to battle the Soviets. For most of the ’80s he was involved in the resistance effort as a fighter and fund-raiser. At the time he had the blessing of the CIA, which was also backing the guerrillas in Afghanistan with arms and training. With the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family business. A year later, however, the Gulf War broke out and bin Laden was outraged that the Saudi royal family allowed American troops into the country, which is home to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Bin Laden, who was disowned by his family in 1994 for his renegade ways, moved to Sudan and set up a headquarters for his organization al-Qaeda—meaning, the Base—which is now estimated to have thousands of members worldwide. By 1996, with Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war, he headed there and launched his campaign against the United States in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. “He sees the West, which can transport this incredible, MTV pop culture around the world through its dominant economy, as the enemy,” says Thomas Goutierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. There followed a string of attacks on U.S. holdings, most notably the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed more than 200 people and the suicide raid on the destroyer Cole off Yemen that took the lives of 17 sailors. Both assaults were linked to bin Laden. In response the State Department put a $5 million price on his head and launched an unsuccessful 1998 cruise missile attack on several of his Afghan camps.

The trouble is that bin Laden is scrupulous about his own security. Even Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban leaders claim to know nothing of his whereabouts—though U.S. officials doubt that is true. He no longer talks on his cell or satellite phones out of fear that U.S. intelligence could use voice-recognition software to pinpoint him. He constantly switches locations, and when he travels in Afghanistan he is accompanied by dozens of bodyguards and uses several identical Toyota Landcruisers one with a body double who resembles him down to the graying beard and gaunt 6’4″ frame. He also appears to have a wide network of well-placed agents. Journalist Mir says that when he met bin Laden, the terror chief was able to recite the names and addresses of Mir’s family, his bank account number, even his girlfriend’s phone number. “I was terrified by what he knew about me,” says Mir.

Bin Laden seems to have grown used to his surroundings. When Mir visited him, he was allowed to stay in a guest cave furnished with fine Afghan carpets, pillows and bookshelves containing volumes in Arabic and English. By contrast, when British journalist Abdel Barri Atwan met him in 1996, the creature comforts were few and far between. “There were two beds, which were no more than wooden pieces nailed together in a very primitive way,” says Atwan. “The mattresses on them were very dirty—they looked like they’d been used for two centuries.” By all accounts bin Laden is devoted to his family, which includes at least three wives and 15 children. Mir says that bin Laden particularly doted on his young son Ali, now about 10. “He pulled him onto his lap and played with him” during the interview, says Mir. It is also rumored that bin Laden married one daughter off to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

According to Pakistani intelligence sources, bin Laden is now believed to be hiding with his family in the central Afghan province of Oruzgan, the country’s most mountainous and impenetrable region. In all likelihood he is staying in the cavelike redoubts that honeycomb the terrain. Some experts believe that the best hope for getting him with a minimum of bloodshed is to somehow smoke him out and catch him fleeing to another safe haven. Ultimately getting the world’s most wanted man may come down to his making a mistake. As British terrorism expert Paul Wilkinson puts it, “Terrorists do make mistakes, thank God.”

• Julian West in Islamabad, Nina Biddle and Pete Norman in London, Barbara Sandler in Chicago and Bob Stewart in San Antonio

Related Articles