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His journey to found Al Qaeda and topple the Twin Towers started 18 years ago.
In 1993 the thick, black smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center parking garage marked the first time Osama bin Laden appeared on the radar screen of the American intelligence community.
That was the first World Trade Center bombing, a botched plot by what seemed to be a rag-tag group of taxi drivers brought together by a blind Egyptian cleric in Jersey City. The truck bomb they parked in the garage was intended to take down the towers. Instead it left a five-story crater in the parking garage and killed six people and led to the conviction of the militant Islamists from Egypt, Sudan and the West Bank who attempted to carry it out.
At that point no one — not the FBI or the CIA or the NYPD Counterterrorism taskforce or the journalists covering the incident — had any idea that this crude attempt was the beginning of a nascent movement that would become known as Al Qaeda.
It was not until many months after the smoke had cleared from the World Trade Center, that there was a brief report on the inside pages of The Washington Post. It reported that a scion of the Saudi construction magnate, Muhammad bin Laden, may have helped to finance the bombing in lower Manhattan that did not succeed in toppling the World Trade Towers.
But out of that failure was born bin Laden’s avowed determination to marshal his forces to attack the United States in what he called a “jihad,” or “holy war.” His next assault was the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998.
Bin Laden spent years funding and developing the expertise to carry out the hijacking of four passenger jets which would be used as suicide-piloted missiles to attack at the heart of American financial and military might.
Two planes struck and toppled the Twin Towers. Another plane slammed into the Pentagon. A fourth suicide pilot was overpowered by passengers and the plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and America responded with two wars.
Bin Laden was born in 1957, the seventh son and 17th child of more than 50 children who were born to his billionaire father by several wives. Osama, whose name in Arabic means “the young lion,” grew up amid the privilege and entitlement reserved for the Saudi royal family. Although not royalty themselves, the bin Laden family was an extremely close and trusted clan in the House of Saud.
The young bin Laden was radicalized in his college years, according to research by Peter Bergen, the author of “Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret Life of Osama bin Laden,” at the King Abdul-Aziz University where he fell under the tutelage of the Islamic scholar Muhammad Qutub. He was the younger brother of Sayyid Qutub, the radical Islamic thinker from the Wahabbi, or Salafist, branch of Islam. Sayyid Qutub is widely seen as the intellectual founding father of modern Islamic militancy and its call to action to topple the corrupt, Westernized regimes of the Muslim world.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, bin Laden was in the early wave of international volunteers who went to fight alongside the U.S.-backed Afghan “mujahadeen,” or freedom fighters. With Saudi Arabia’s blessing, bin Laden funded and facilitated a group of volunteer fighters who came to be known as “the Afghan Arabs.” After the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s and the Berlin Wall fell, the United States, largely abandoned its support for the “mujahadeen” and its supporters.
Afghanistan fell into a brutal civil war in the early 1990s. During that time, bin Laden regrouped with his followers in Sudan and began to give shape to his movement. And that was where he was living in 1993 when reports began to surface that he may have helped to fund the first World Trade Center bombing.
But the idea was quickly dismissed by high-level national security officials at the time who said that bin Laden since the early 1980s assisted the U.S.-backed “mujahadeen” and was seen as an ally more than an enemy. At least so it seemed at the time.
Back then, I was a reporter for the New York Daily News covering the story of the World Trade Center bombing just like we covered other crimes in New York. And so I followed the trail of the suspects to the mosque in Jersey City where Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman was their spiritual mentor and then to another mosque in Brooklyn.
The Daily News sent me to Egypt, Pakistan, the West Bank and ultimately to Sudan, where one of the suspects was from. There in Sudan, my translator and researcher informed me that this man, Osama bin Laden, was holding forth at what was known as the Islamic Conference at The People’s Hall in the center of Khartoum.
At the hall was a 6-foot-4 Saudi with flowing white robes who was referred to simply as the “Emir.” He was surrounded by Egyptian advisers and protectors. I couldn’t get near him, but would later learn that he was Osama bin Laden.
Looking back many years later, it became clear that at that conference and others that would follow, bin Laden was assembling a prequel to what was to be known as Al Qaeda. I had no idea then that this would be a story that I would cover for the next 18 years.
By the mid 1990s, this movement known as “Al Qaeda,” which is Arabic for the base, would develop a formal ideology and a mission to fight a global “jihad,” or “holy war,” against the infidels of the West, the “Zionists and Crusaders,” as bin Laden called them.
All of those dreams are over now for bin Laden. They are drifting into the depths along with his body which the U.S. interned at sea after he was killed in the heavily-fortified, walled compound where he had been hiding — where, as Obama put it, “justice has been done.”