Osama Bin Laden is a man of vast contrasts. He's America's public enemy No. 1, but a hero to the Islamic world for fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He's a multimillionaire Saudi citizen who lives like a pauper, camping out in the dusty southeastern corner of Afghanistan with four wives and some 15 children.
Past interviewers and intelligence analysts say he's painfully shy in conversation, yet eloquent and passionate when describing his goals of removing American forces from his Saudi homeland, destroying the Jewish state in Israel, and defeating pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East.
"He presents himself as an intelligent, well-educated person, in a gentle kind of way," says Jerrold M. Post, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and a former personality profiler at the CIA.
Dr. Post goes on to say that bin Laden is also "highly expert at propaganda management."
Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai recalls how bin Laden stagemanaged his first interview, in May 1998. Mr. Yusufzai and other journalists were smuggled into Afghanistan at night by the terrorist group Harkat al-Ansar, and then driven to bin Laden's secret base in Khost, which American cruise missiles had pounded just a few months before in retaliation for the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
When bin Laden's motorcade finally arrived, surrounded by motorcycles and other security personnel, a platoon of soldiers fired their weapons in the air, and a host of artillery batteries boomed from the surrounding hills as soon as bin Laden exited his car.
"It was a grand entry, like you see in the movies," says Yusufzai, whose subsequent Dec. 23, 1998, interview in the deserts near Kandahar was the last time that bin Laden met the press. In the interview, bin Laden denied responsibility for the US Embassy bombings, but praised the work of his "brothers." "He told me, 'My job is to inspire, to organize people. My job is to provoke people. I'm not doing it myself, but I'm preaching so that others will do it.' "
Whether bin Laden is responsible for Monday's airline terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - where thousands may have lost their lives - or merely gave it inspiration and moral support, it is clear that the self-described freedom fighter may be the most difficult foe the US has faced in its history. As a financial patron for a loose network of like-minded but independent groups scattered from the Philippines to Afghanistan to Morocco and beyond, bin Laden has become an unlikely hero for millions of Muslims and a symbol of the growing clash between Western capitalism and democracy and militant Islam.
"They're winning the battle of the hearts, and minds, and we're losing it," says a Western military intelligence source in New Delhi with extensive experience in the Middle East. "What do people want? You give them food, housing, education. You give them hope, and that's exactly what Islamic groups are doing."
There was little in bin Laden's upbringing to indicate that he was destined for greatness. Born in 1957 one of the youngest of nearly 50 children to a former bricklayer turned construction magnate, bin Laden grew up a rich kid in an increasingly wealthy country. He studied engineering in college, an indication that he intended to take over the family company, which by 1966 had become the largest private construction firm in the world.
All that changed in December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and propped up a communist government in Kabul. Arriving in the mid-1980s, bin Laden became the main financier for Maktab al-Khidamat ("the Office of Services"), which recruited Muslims from local mosques around the world to fight against the Soviets as mujahideen, or "holy warriors." The contacts that bin Laden made at this time allowed him to organize an international network of motivated Islamic radicals, called Al-Qaeda (literally "the base").
When the mujahideen eventually forced the Soviet forces to leave Afghanistan in 1990, bin Laden returned to his home country, Saudi Arabia, where he found the rulers inviting in American forces. This reportedly enraged the young leader, who was looking for a cause and more seriously studying Islam.
"It is very disruptive to lose your enemy as he did," says Post. "The way he dealt with it was to replace the Soviets with the Americans."
Many of his followers, well-trained Muslim warriors, also returned to their own countries, from North Africa to South Asia and even the United States, filled with experience and fueled with a passion to bring what they saw as a more pure form of Islamic government to their own countries.
Throughout the following years, bin Laden became more and more militant about expelling Americans from his holy land. In a series of fatwas or declarations and interviews, he increasingly became more hard-line. He stressed the significance of Muslims being killed all over the world - from the the US support of Israel and the suffering of Palestinian Muslims to the mass graves of Muslims in Bosnia and the Chechen Muslims killed by the Russian military.
"There was a significant shift in 1998 from just getting the military out [of Saudi Arabia] to attacking all American civilians," says Post, who has studied all of his speeches and appearances.
In the 1990s, he has been linked by US officials to:
The 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people;
The 1995 and 1996 bombings in Saudi Arabia in which 22 American soldiers were killed;
The 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa, in which 224 people were killed, including 12 Americans.
and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole at a port in Yemen, in which 17 US sailors were killed.
When bin Laden was expelled from Sudan under US and Saudi pressure and moved back to his one-time Afghan training camp near the city of Khost, he quickly backed the latest rising star, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, and asked him for asylum.
This appeal for asylum, Afghan experts say, is the reason why the Taliban are unlikely to hand him over to the US. For the ethnic Pashtuns, who dominate Afghan society and the Taliban, asylum is a sacred concept of hospitality in an often unhospitable desert landscape. The fact that the Taliban leader is reportedly also his father-in-law complicates the picture.
Even so, there are signs of tension between bin Laden and his patron, Mullah Omar. In May 1998, when Pakistan journalist Yusufzai arranged an interview with bin Laden in Khost, Mullah Omar was enraged, apparently because bin Laden did not seek permission. Within a week, the supreme Taliban leader issued a statement that "there can be only one supreme leader of Afghanistan" and bin Laden was not in Afghanistan "to conduct political or military activities." Bin Laden immediately issued a statement, calling Mullah Omar "the commander of the faithful" and by the year's end, refused to take further interviews.
While it's unclear how much money bin Laden has given to the Taliban over the years - Mullah Omar recently told Yusufzai that bin Laden is broke, and now the Taliban give him money - bin Laden's logistical and inspirational support is undeniable.
In the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, where bin Laden once made his base during the Soviet war, bin Laden is still regarded as a hero. On the streets, vendors sell T-shirts with bin Laden's name in Arabic, calling him a "world hero" and a "great mujahid of the Islamic people." And, while many Pakistanis denounce the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they support bin Laden's war to defend Islamic nations against "Western domination."
What's clear from this sentiment, and the fact that many of his former warriors are ready to pick up arms and follow them, is that they identify with him as their leader. "We can only imagine his sense of triumph now," Post says. "This not only emboldens him more, but brings him support and consolidates his position as the major radical leader."