Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan on Sunday, was a son of the Saudi elite whose radical, violent campaign to re-create a seventh-century Muslim empire redefined the threat of terrorism for the 21st century.
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 leaders 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.
It took nearly a decade before the United States’ quest 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.
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 CIA officer called “the North Star” of global terrorism. He had united disparate militant groups, from Egypt to Chechnya, from Yemen to the Philippines, under the banner of al-Qaida 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 the freedom to make al-Qaida — the name means “the base” — a multinational corporation to export terror around the globe.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the names al-Qaida and bin Laden spread to every corner of the globe. Groups calling themselves al-Qaida, or acting in the name of its cause, attacked U.S. troops in Iraq, bombed tourist spots in Bali, and blew up passenger trains in Spain.
He waged holy war with modern methods. He sent fatwas — religious decrees — by fax and declared war on Americans in an email message beamed by satellite around the world. Al-Qaida members kept bomb-making manuals on CD and communicated with encrypted memos on laptop computers, leading one American official to declare that bin Laden possessed better communication technology than the United States.
He styled himself a Muslim ascetic, a billionaire’s son who gave it all up 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 CEOs, he insisted on receiving written questions in advance.
Although he claimed to follow the purest form of Islam, many scholars insisted that he was glossing over Islam’s edicts against killing innocents and civilians. Islam draws boundaries on where and why holy war can be waged; bin Laden declared the whole world fair territory.