Osama bin Laden is not the only Islamist who has abandoned a good career and comfortable lifestyle in order to wage a jihad. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri -- bin Laden's right-hand man -- now in his late forties, could have been one of Egypt's leading pediatricians but gave up a promising career and affluence to fight the Egyptian government. He then refused political asylum in Western Europe (with a generous stipend) and ended up living in eastern Afghanistan not far from bin Laden.
Although bin Laden and Zawahiri are the most notorious Islamist terrorists, there are hundreds like them. These dedicated commanders in turn lead thousands of terrorists in a relentless and uncompromising holy war against the United States and the West as a whole. The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 were the latest but by far not the last shots in this rapidly escalating war of terrorism. What makes these individuals -- the leaders and symbols of the new Islamist upsurge -- commit themselves to this kind of war?
The rise of the new radical Islamist elite is a recent phenomenon in the developing world. These leaders, from the affluent and privileged segment of society, are highly educated and relatively Westernized. They are not the underprivileged, impoverished, and embittered isolates who usually constitute the pool that breeds terrorists and radicals. These Islamist terrorist leaders are different from the typical European middle-class revolutionaries and terrorists -- from the anarchists of the nineteenth century to the Communist revolutionaries of the late twentieth century -- because the Islamists have become popular leaders of the underprivileged masses, while the European terrorists remained isolated from a generally hostile population. Only Ernesto "Che" Guevara -- the Argentinian doctor turned revolutionary fighter of the early 1960s -- came close to being the kind of populist leader these Islamists are.
To understand these Islamist leaders -- particularly Osama bin Laden -- one needs to understand their break with their past, their motivation, the fire in their veins, and the depth of their hatred of the United States and what it stands for.
OSAMA BIN LADEN, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their compatriots, mostly Saudis and Egyptians, are the product of the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s. Their entire lives, from their early years up until the time they rejected a luxurious lifestyle and embraced radicalism and militancy, were strongly influenced by key events unfolding in the Middle East -- most importantly, the Arab prosperity and identity crisis that accompanied the oil boom in the 1970s, the triumph of revolutionary Islam in Iran, and the rallying cry of the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden was born in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, probably in 1957. At the time his father, Muhammad bin Laden, was a small-time builder and contractor who had arrived from Yemen in search of employment. Osama was one of numerous siblings -- his father had more than fifty children from several wives. Muhammad bin Laden was conscientious about education and advancement in life and tried to provide his children with proper schooling. During the 1960s the family moved to the Hijaz, western Saudi Arabia, and ultimately settled in Al-Medina Al-Munawwara. Osama received most of his formal education in the schools of Medina and later Jedda, Saudi Arabia's main commercial port on the Red Sea.
The oil boom of the 1970s changed Muhammad bin Laden's fortunes. The development boom in the Hijaz brought him in direct contact with the Saudi elite, and he soon developed a special relationship with the upper-most echelons of the House of al-Saud as both a superior builder and the provider of discreet services, such as the laundering of payments to "causes." His contacts at the top enabled Muhammad bin Laden to expand his business into one of the biggest construction companies in the entire Middle East -- the Bin Laden Corporation. The special status of the bin Laden company was established when the House of al-Saud contracted with it to refurbish and rebuild the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. During the 1970s, the bin Laden company was involved in the construction of roads, buildings, mosques, airports, and the entire infrastructure of many of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
Osama was destined to follow in his father's footsteps. He went to high school in Jedda and then studied management and economics at King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, one of Saudi Arabia's best schools. His father promised him he would be put in charge of his own company, which would enjoy the bin Ladens' direct access to the Court to gain extremely profitable contracts.
Osama bin Laden started the 1970s as did many other sons of the affluent and well-connected -- breaking the strict Muslim lifestyle in Saudi Arabia with sojourns in cosmopolitan Beirut. While in high school and college Osama visited Beirut often, frequenting flashy nightclubs, casinos, and bars. He was a drinker and womanizer, which often got him into bar brawls.
Ultimately, however, Osama bin Laden was not an ordinary Saudi youth having a good time in Beirut. In 1973 Muhammad bin Laden was deeply affected spiritually when he rebuilt and refurbished the two holy mosques, and these changes gradually affected Osama. Even while he was still taking brief trips to Beirut, he began showing interest in Islam. He started reading Islamic literature and soon began his interaction with local Islamists. In 1975 the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war prevented further visits to Beirut. The Saudi Islamists claimed that the agony of the Lebanese was a punishment from God for their sins and destructive influence on young Muslims. Osama bin Laden was strongly influenced by these arguments.
The drastic personal change in Osama bin Laden's life in the mid-1970s reflects the turmoil of the Arab Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia, during the 1970s.
What began as a period of Arab self-respect and great expectations -- derived from the self-perceived restoration of "Arab honor" in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack against Israel that ended with an inconclusive Israeli military victory) and then the great affluence and influence resulting from the oil boom that followed the embargo of 1973-1974 (which the oil-producing states of the Arabian Peninsula declared in order to force the West into adopting anti-Israeli policies) -- quickly turned into an era of acute crisis and trauma due to the Arab world's inability to cope with the consequences of its actions. The sudden increase in wealth of the ruling elite and the upper and educated strata and exposure to the West led to confusion and a largely unresolved identity crisis resulting in radicalism and eruptions of violence. Improved media access and availability throughout the region brought home crises in other parts of the world. Be-cause of its conservative Islamic character and sudden wealth and influence, Saudi Arabia was uniquely influenced by these dynamics.
In Jedda, Osama bin Laden was constantly exposed to the often contradictory trends influencing Saudi society at the time. As Saudi Arabia's main port city on the Red Sea coast, Jedda was exposed to Western influence more than most other Saudi cities were. Sailors and experts came to Jedda, while the increasingly rich local elite, including the bin Laden family, visited the West. Coming from generally conservative and isolated Saudi Arabia, these visitors were shocked by their encounter with the West -- by the personal freedoms and affluence of the average citizen, by the promiscuity, and by the alcohol and drug use of Western youth. Many young Saudis could not resist experimenting with the forbidden. When they returned to Saudi Arabia, they brought with them the sense of individualism and personal freedoms they encountered in the West.
The wealth and worldly character of Jedda also transformed it into a shelter for Islamist intellectuals persecuted throughout the Muslim world. Several universities, primarily King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, which bin Laden attended from 1974 to 1978, became a hub of vibrant Islamist intellectual activity; the best experts and preachers were sheltered in the universities and mosques, providing an opportunity to study and share their knowledge. They addressed the growing doubts of the Saudi youth. Their message to the confused was simple and unequivocal -- only an absolute and unconditional return to the fold of conservative Islamism could protect the Muslim world from the inherent dangers and sins of the West.
In March 1975, in the midst of the oil boom and the Islamic intellectual backlash against it, Saudi Arabia's King Faisal was assassinated. The assassin, Prince Faisal ibn Musaid, was the king's deranged nephew. He was also thoroughly Westernized and had visited the United States and Western Europe frequently. Both Islamists and Court insiders expressed apprehension that exposure to Western ways had caused Faisal ibn Musaid to go insane. Although the succession process worked and the kingdom suffered no ensuing crisis, the seed of doubt and discontent was sown. The assassination was a turning point for Saudi Arabia. For both the Saudi establishment and the conscientious elite, the assassination of the beloved king served as proof that the...