Member only
Episode
296

Osama Bin Laden | The World's Most Wanted Man

Sep 9, 2022
History
-
22
minutes

He was put on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list in 1999, and he would only be removed after he was hunted down and killed by US operatives in 2011

In this episode, we will tell the story of how Osama bin Laden went from a shy, religious young boy to the world's most famous terrorist.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login
Subtitles will start when you press 'play'
You need to subscribe for the full subtitles
Already a member? Login
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdf
Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript only available after your trial

Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about one of the most infamous terrorists of the modern era, Osama bin Laden.

[00:00:31] No doubt you know the name Osama bin Laden, you know exactly what he looks like, and know that he was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

[00:00:39] But in this episode, we are going to go a little deeper, we are going to try to go beyond the headlines and ask the question of who actually was Osama bin Laden.

[00:00:50] What experiences or beliefs shaped his world view, what did he actually want, and did he achieve what he set out to do?

[00:00:59] OK then, Osama bin Laden.

[00:01:03] Our story starts in March of 1957. 

[00:01:07] In Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, a baby boy takes his first breath.

[00:01:14] He is given the name of Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden.

[00:01:19] His father was a construction magnate, a wealthy businessman in the construction industry. 

[00:01:25] His father did not come from wealth, he was born in a poor family in Yemen, but had travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man and made his fortune in the construction industry.

[00:01:39] Not only did Osama bin Laden’s father have a lot of money, he had a lot of wives and children.

[00:01:46] Osama bin Laden was thought to be his 17th child, and he went on to have 52 children from 11 different wives. 

[00:01:56] Shortly after Osama bin Laden was born, his parents divorced, and he went to live with his mother.

[00:02:03] This was no doubt an important event in the young man’s life, but it would be followed by an even more important one, his father’s death, when the boy was a mere 10 years old. 

[00:02:16] This is believed to have brought the young boy further towards religion, and he would spend an increasing amount of time praying and studying the Koran.

[00:02:27] While most of his brothers went on to study abroad, in Europe and in the United States, Osama bin Laden stayed in Saudi Arabia.

[00:02:36] It’s perhaps hard to imagine that a man who would become the world’s most famous terrorist would spend much time at university lecture halls listening to professors talking about balance sheets and profit margins, but Osama bin Laden did go to university, remaining in Saudi Arabia, where he studied economics and business.

[00:02:59] It’s not clear whether he actually graduated, whether he actually completed the course, but he clearly learned some valuable skills that would come in handy later on.

[00:03:11] And when he left university in 1979, his initial plan was to join the family business, which, let’s remember, is a multibillion dollar construction company.

[00:03:23] Bin Laden was clearly intelligent, and he had a obvious route to great riches and power simply by doing what was expected of him and joining the family business.

[00:03:36] As we know, this was not the route he chose.

[00:03:41] Now, let’s take a step back for a minute to understand what’s happening in the world at this time, as the events of the late 1970s will cause the life of Osama bin Laden, and you could argue modern history, to take a different path.

[00:03:58] Culminating in February of 1979, the Iranian revolution overthrew the more Western Shah of Iran. Our Iranian listeners will know all too well what this meant for the country, but in short it meant the creation of an Islamic Republic ruled by the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

[00:04:20] To Osama bin Laden, this was a sign of an Islamic movement overthrowing a more Western and liberal one, and offered a glimpse of opportunity.

[00:04:32] And later that year, on Christmas Eve of 1979, Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan, kickstarting a conflict that would last 10 years and cost an estimated million lives.

[00:04:48] In an effort to defend Afghanistan from the Soviets, Islamic fighters from all over the Arab world, also known as mujahideen, travelled to the country to support the resistance.

[00:05:01] One was the subject of today’s episode, Osama bin Laden.

[00:05:06] It’s thought that he first travelled to Pakistan, where he used his money and his knowledge of business and administration to help organise training camps and work on the logistics of the resistance.

[00:05:20] Later, he would travel to Afghanistan itself, and make a name for himself as a fearless fighter, someone who would fight on the frontline and show absolutely no fear of death.

[00:05:34] Although he would later be painted by the West as a fearful coward who hid in caves, his battlefield experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s suggested to his followers that this was not the case, and that he was no coward.

[00:05:51] Indeed, bin Laden seemed completely unafraid of dying, as he believed dying fighting in this holy war would be a surefire route to heaven, even telling his followers that one day in Afghanistan was like 1,000 days of praying in an ordinary mosque.

[00:06:10] And in Afghanistan, bin Laden and the mujahideen were far from the only people who wanted the Soviets defeated and out of the country.

[00:06:20] The other powerful force that was fighting the Soviets, albeit indirectly, was the one that would become bin Laden’s next target, the United States.

[00:06:30] The CIA, the American intelligence agency, provided billions of dollars of weapons and aid to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan.

[00:06:40] This, remember, was just one of the many proxy wars in the Cold War, with the United States supporting whoever was fighting the Soviets.

[00:06:51] Some people have claimed that the CIA actually provided Osama bin Laden and the so-called mujahadeen, the freedom fighters, with cash and weapons directly, although this has been disputed.

[00:07:04] In any case, Afghanistan lived up to its nickname as being the “graveyard of empires”, and in February of 1989, Soviet forces had left the country.

[00:07:16] Later that year, the Berlin Wall fell, and within two years the entire Soviet Union would have collapsed.

[00:07:25] But at the same time, another conflict was brewing.

[00:07:29] And while the Soviet-Afghan war might have provided Osama bin Laden with the perfect training ground for a life as the head of a global terrorist organisation, and the opportunity to make his name for himself, the events of 1990 would provide him with the reason.

[00:07:47] And that reason would come on August 2nd of 1990, when Sadam Hussein’s Iraqi forces rolled into Iraq’s tiny but oil-rich neighbour, Kuwait.

[00:07:59] Within a couple of days, Kuwait had fallen, and Sadam Hussein declared that Kuwait was the 19th province of Iraq.

[00:08:09] Now, as a quick reminder of Middle Eastern geography, Iraq is directly north of Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait is located to the southeast of Iraq, sandwiched between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

[00:08:24] So, Kuwait was taken, and there was the very real fear that Sadam Hussein might direct his forces south and take Saudi Arabia.

[00:08:34] Osama bin Laden offered his services to the Saudi rulers, the House of Saud, promising that his soldiers and money could help defend Saudi Arabia in the event of an Iraqi invasion.

[00:08:46] By this time, Osama bin Laden had made quite a reputation as a fearless fighter, and had developed a strong reputation and network in the area.

[00:08:57] But the Saudis refused.

[00:09:00] Instead, they allowed American forces to use Saudi Arabia as a launchpad for an invasion of Kuwait, in what would be called the First Gulf War. 

[00:09:10] This incensed Osama bin Laden, it drove him mad

[00:09:16] And the reason for it, according to commentators, has little to do with the belief that the United States is inferior or that Western culture is incompatible with Islam, it actually comes from his belief that there should only be one religion in Saudi Arabia, Islam.

[00:09:35] Bin Laden would later teach his followers that the Prophet Mohammed, on his deathbed, said that there should only ever be one religion in Saudi Arabia.

[00:09:45] By allowing Western troops into Saudi Arabia, no matter whether the intentions were to fight Sadam Hussein, and defend Saudi Arabia, this was going directly against the wishes of the prophet, at least in Osama bin Laden’s interpretation.

[00:10:01] So, Osama bin Laden set out on his lifelong mission to get US troops out of the Middle East. 

[00:10:09] On this mission, it’s hard to argue that he succeeded, as there is no individual in history who has done more to increase the Western presence in the Middle East than Osama bin Laden. We’ll come on to discuss this more in a minute.

[00:10:25] So, what did this mean in practice?

[00:10:28] It meant the build up of the group Al Qaeda, the group that had grown out of the Soviet-Afghan war. From 1992 to 1996, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were based in Sudan, after the Islamist coup d’état in the country. 

[00:10:47] He had been forced to leave Saudi Arabia after criticising the regime, and his Saudi passport and citizenship were taken away in 1994. 

[00:10:58] Although one could perhaps trace his path to global terrorism back to when he was a much younger man, it was in the 1990s, when he was in his mid 30s, when he made the transition from regional nuisance to global terrorist threat.

[00:11:15] Al Qaeda, the terrorist group he was head of, continued to grow, and with it, the attacks.

[00:11:22] The first attack that he is believed to have been involved with came in 1992, in Aden, the capital of Yemen.

[00:11:31] But it wouldn’t be until 1998, with the twin bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, that his face became known the world over, and in June of 1999 the FBI would decide that he was such a threat that his name would be put on its list of Ten Most Wanted.

[00:11:53] As you might imagine, he was never removed from this list alive.

[00:11:58] So, back to our story. 

[00:12:00] Osama bin Laden is now one of the world’s most wanted men, and has had to move out of Sudan, now to Afghanistan, the one country that will actually take him. 

[00:12:12] He is head of a terrorist group that has carried out attacks across Africa and the Middle East. 

[00:12:18] We know this for sure, but what was not clear to everyone was “why”.

[00:12:25] The simplistic answer that was plastered all over American cable TV was that he hated American freedoms, but it was slightly more complicated than that. 

[00:12:36] The rare pieces of evidence that we have of Osama bin Laden suggest a man fixated on one thing, one goal: removing the Western military presence from the Middle East.

[00:12:49] He even said this in an interview with CNN, perhaps the most famous American news network, which took place in 1997.

[00:12:59] Perhaps ominously, when asked “what are your future plans”, he responded “you’ll see them and hear about them in the media, god willing”.

[00:13:09] Four years later, on September 11th of 2001, the world saw the culmination of his plan, as two planes struck the World Trade Center in New York, and another crashed into the Pentagon.

[00:13:22] 2,977 people in total were killed, making Osama bin Laden responsible for the deadliest attack on US soil.

[00:13:33] The objective, let’s remember, was to push the United States out of the Middle East, to frighten the United States government into removing its troops from Saudi Arabia. 

[00:13:45] Osama bin Laden thought there would be widespread opposition to entering a foreign conflict, and he remembered the public opposition to the war in Vietnam.

[00:13:56] Although Osama bin Laden was clearly an intelligent man in many ways, this was a huge miscalculation on his part.

[00:14:05] Not only did the 9/11 attacks result in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent 20-year occupation of the country, which had strong domestic support initially, let's remember, but they also made him the highest profile criminal in the world.

[00:14:23] There was a $25 million bounty placed on his head, a reward for his capture, and soon it became incredibly hard for him to control his group’s activities.

[00:14:36] For obvious reasons, it’s hard to know exactly what he was doing and where he was in the period immediately after the 9/11 attacks - we are talking about the world’s most wanted man here - but American intelligence services believe that he spent most of the following years moving from safehouse to safehouse in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

[00:15:01] Now, you probably know how this story ends, or rather, how the life of Osama Bin Laden ends.

[00:15:07] The United States did manage to track him down, to find him, and on May 2nd of 2011, just after one o’ clock in the morning, a helicopter with an elite team of US forces descended on a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, where they found, shot and killed Osama bin Laden.

[00:15:30] This much you probably know already, but what is more interesting to dwell on, to talk about, is what was discovered during the raid.

[00:15:41] In the compound where bin Laden was hiding, the US forces discovered a treasure trove of information, hard drives containing 470,000 different files that give us some indication of what bin Laden had been doing, and help us to understand bin Laden the man.

[00:16:01] So, what do they tell us?

[00:16:04] Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given how wanted he was, he was incredibly cut off from Al Qaeda, the group he was nominally in charge of

[00:16:15] He had no internet or telephone line, and was only able to communicate with people via letters. And clearly, if you’re trying to run what is essentially a multinational 21st century business, this makes communication very difficult.

[00:16:33] Secondly, and despite how difficult it was to communicate with the outside world, he was a serious micromanager. He obsessed over details, and would leave nothing up to chance. He would send letters to trusted associates, but these would be handwritten, then scanned and put onto an encrypted flash drive and taken, physically, to whoever needed to receive them.

[00:17:00] Thirdly, and this is in stark contrast to many portrayals of him, he did seem to put great trust in his wives and daughters. He is thought to have married five times, and at the time of his death he was found with three of his wives. These three were all highly intelligent women, all with PhDs, doctorate qualifications, and the files found at his house show that he turned to them for advice on a wide variety of matters. And it was a similar case with his daughters.

[00:17:37] The fourth thing, which is related to the third point actually, because it was a frequent topic of conversation between him and his wives, is how troubled he was by the Arab Spring, the revolutions in the Arab world that started in 2010.

[00:17:53] Now, why was he disturbed by this, you might ask? 

[00:17:56] You might have thought that it presented an opportunity, as corrupt rulers were being toppled, were being overturned.

[00:18:05] Indeed, bin Laden did write that the chaos could present an opportunity for Al Qaeda thoughts and ideas to spread.

[00:18:14] But, more importantly, it seemed that he wasn’t sure where the Arab Spring left Al Qaeda. If Western-backed regimes could be toppled peacefully, or at least relatively peacefully compared to bombings and the deaths of Muslim civilians, then what was the role of Al Qaeda? 

[00:18:35] Where did it fit in? 

[00:18:37] He was also concerned that instability in the region would mean that US forces would move in, which was exactly the thing that he had always fought against.

[00:18:48] Clearly, he had reason to be fearful

[00:18:51] The United States has left Afghanistan, but there are still reported to be between 45,000 and 65,000 American troops in the Middle East, split between Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.

[00:19:06] Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to debate whether these troops should be there, but the reality is that bin Laden thought that attacking the US would get them out, and in fact it did exactly the opposite.

[00:19:20] And his legacy is, well, it’s complicated of course. 

[00:19:25] On the one hand Al Qaeda is thankfully now significantly weakened, although there are some commentators who suggest a newly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will give it more breathing room, and allow it to build up strength.

[00:19:40] On the other hand, he became the poster boy for Islamic terrorism, a hero and icon, someone whose name attacks could be carried out on behalf of. 

[00:19:53] When he was killed, although his body was quickly disposed of at sea, he became a martyr for jihadists, someone who gave up his huge family riches and wealth in his “holy quest”.

[00:20:07] Let's be clear though, he was a violent terrorist, someone who was not afraid of killing men, women and children, muslims and non-muslims alike. There is no excusing or denying that, and one must underline that he was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, and indirectly perhaps responsible for hundreds or thousands times more.

[00:20:31] But to portray him as merely a simple cave-dwelling Western-hating terrorist is to somewhat miss the point, and to only scrape the surface of the complicated ideology and legacy of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man.

[00:20:50] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Osama bin Laden.

[00:20:55] I hope it's been an interesting one, and even though I’m sure you knew a bit about him before, that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:05] Do you remember where you were when you first found out about Osama bin Laden?

[00:21:09] What do you think his medium and long term legacy will be?

[00:21:14] How do you think historians will look back on his impact on stability in the Middle East?

[00:21:19] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:23] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:31] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about one of the most infamous terrorists of the modern era, Osama bin Laden.

[00:00:31] No doubt you know the name Osama bin Laden, you know exactly what he looks like, and know that he was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

[00:00:39] But in this episode, we are going to go a little deeper, we are going to try to go beyond the headlines and ask the question of who actually was Osama bin Laden.

[00:00:50] What experiences or beliefs shaped his world view, what did he actually want, and did he achieve what he set out to do?

[00:00:59] OK then, Osama bin Laden.

[00:01:03] Our story starts in March of 1957. 

[00:01:07] In Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, a baby boy takes his first breath.

[00:01:14] He is given the name of Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden.

[00:01:19] His father was a construction magnate, a wealthy businessman in the construction industry. 

[00:01:25] His father did not come from wealth, he was born in a poor family in Yemen, but had travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man and made his fortune in the construction industry.

[00:01:39] Not only did Osama bin Laden’s father have a lot of money, he had a lot of wives and children.

[00:01:46] Osama bin Laden was thought to be his 17th child, and he went on to have 52 children from 11 different wives. 

[00:01:56] Shortly after Osama bin Laden was born, his parents divorced, and he went to live with his mother.

[00:02:03] This was no doubt an important event in the young man’s life, but it would be followed by an even more important one, his father’s death, when the boy was a mere 10 years old. 

[00:02:16] This is believed to have brought the young boy further towards religion, and he would spend an increasing amount of time praying and studying the Koran.

[00:02:27] While most of his brothers went on to study abroad, in Europe and in the United States, Osama bin Laden stayed in Saudi Arabia.

[00:02:36] It’s perhaps hard to imagine that a man who would become the world’s most famous terrorist would spend much time at university lecture halls listening to professors talking about balance sheets and profit margins, but Osama bin Laden did go to university, remaining in Saudi Arabia, where he studied economics and business.

[00:02:59] It’s not clear whether he actually graduated, whether he actually completed the course, but he clearly learned some valuable skills that would come in handy later on.

[00:03:11] And when he left university in 1979, his initial plan was to join the family business, which, let’s remember, is a multibillion dollar construction company.

[00:03:23] Bin Laden was clearly intelligent, and he had a obvious route to great riches and power simply by doing what was expected of him and joining the family business.

[00:03:36] As we know, this was not the route he chose.

[00:03:41] Now, let’s take a step back for a minute to understand what’s happening in the world at this time, as the events of the late 1970s will cause the life of Osama bin Laden, and you could argue modern history, to take a different path.

[00:03:58] Culminating in February of 1979, the Iranian revolution overthrew the more Western Shah of Iran. Our Iranian listeners will know all too well what this meant for the country, but in short it meant the creation of an Islamic Republic ruled by the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

[00:04:20] To Osama bin Laden, this was a sign of an Islamic movement overthrowing a more Western and liberal one, and offered a glimpse of opportunity.

[00:04:32] And later that year, on Christmas Eve of 1979, Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan, kickstarting a conflict that would last 10 years and cost an estimated million lives.

[00:04:48] In an effort to defend Afghanistan from the Soviets, Islamic fighters from all over the Arab world, also known as mujahideen, travelled to the country to support the resistance.

[00:05:01] One was the subject of today’s episode, Osama bin Laden.

[00:05:06] It’s thought that he first travelled to Pakistan, where he used his money and his knowledge of business and administration to help organise training camps and work on the logistics of the resistance.

[00:05:20] Later, he would travel to Afghanistan itself, and make a name for himself as a fearless fighter, someone who would fight on the frontline and show absolutely no fear of death.

[00:05:34] Although he would later be painted by the West as a fearful coward who hid in caves, his battlefield experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s suggested to his followers that this was not the case, and that he was no coward.

[00:05:51] Indeed, bin Laden seemed completely unafraid of dying, as he believed dying fighting in this holy war would be a surefire route to heaven, even telling his followers that one day in Afghanistan was like 1,000 days of praying in an ordinary mosque.

[00:06:10] And in Afghanistan, bin Laden and the mujahideen were far from the only people who wanted the Soviets defeated and out of the country.

[00:06:20] The other powerful force that was fighting the Soviets, albeit indirectly, was the one that would become bin Laden’s next target, the United States.

[00:06:30] The CIA, the American intelligence agency, provided billions of dollars of weapons and aid to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan.

[00:06:40] This, remember, was just one of the many proxy wars in the Cold War, with the United States supporting whoever was fighting the Soviets.

[00:06:51] Some people have claimed that the CIA actually provided Osama bin Laden and the so-called mujahadeen, the freedom fighters, with cash and weapons directly, although this has been disputed.

[00:07:04] In any case, Afghanistan lived up to its nickname as being the “graveyard of empires”, and in February of 1989, Soviet forces had left the country.

[00:07:16] Later that year, the Berlin Wall fell, and within two years the entire Soviet Union would have collapsed.

[00:07:25] But at the same time, another conflict was brewing.

[00:07:29] And while the Soviet-Afghan war might have provided Osama bin Laden with the perfect training ground for a life as the head of a global terrorist organisation, and the opportunity to make his name for himself, the events of 1990 would provide him with the reason.

[00:07:47] And that reason would come on August 2nd of 1990, when Sadam Hussein’s Iraqi forces rolled into Iraq’s tiny but oil-rich neighbour, Kuwait.

[00:07:59] Within a couple of days, Kuwait had fallen, and Sadam Hussein declared that Kuwait was the 19th province of Iraq.

[00:08:09] Now, as a quick reminder of Middle Eastern geography, Iraq is directly north of Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait is located to the southeast of Iraq, sandwiched between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

[00:08:24] So, Kuwait was taken, and there was the very real fear that Sadam Hussein might direct his forces south and take Saudi Arabia.

[00:08:34] Osama bin Laden offered his services to the Saudi rulers, the House of Saud, promising that his soldiers and money could help defend Saudi Arabia in the event of an Iraqi invasion.

[00:08:46] By this time, Osama bin Laden had made quite a reputation as a fearless fighter, and had developed a strong reputation and network in the area.

[00:08:57] But the Saudis refused.

[00:09:00] Instead, they allowed American forces to use Saudi Arabia as a launchpad for an invasion of Kuwait, in what would be called the First Gulf War. 

[00:09:10] This incensed Osama bin Laden, it drove him mad

[00:09:16] And the reason for it, according to commentators, has little to do with the belief that the United States is inferior or that Western culture is incompatible with Islam, it actually comes from his belief that there should only be one religion in Saudi Arabia, Islam.

[00:09:35] Bin Laden would later teach his followers that the Prophet Mohammed, on his deathbed, said that there should only ever be one religion in Saudi Arabia.

[00:09:45] By allowing Western troops into Saudi Arabia, no matter whether the intentions were to fight Sadam Hussein, and defend Saudi Arabia, this was going directly against the wishes of the prophet, at least in Osama bin Laden’s interpretation.

[00:10:01] So, Osama bin Laden set out on his lifelong mission to get US troops out of the Middle East. 

[00:10:09] On this mission, it’s hard to argue that he succeeded, as there is no individual in history who has done more to increase the Western presence in the Middle East than Osama bin Laden. We’ll come on to discuss this more in a minute.

[00:10:25] So, what did this mean in practice?

[00:10:28] It meant the build up of the group Al Qaeda, the group that had grown out of the Soviet-Afghan war. From 1992 to 1996, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were based in Sudan, after the Islamist coup d’état in the country. 

[00:10:47] He had been forced to leave Saudi Arabia after criticising the regime, and his Saudi passport and citizenship were taken away in 1994. 

[00:10:58] Although one could perhaps trace his path to global terrorism back to when he was a much younger man, it was in the 1990s, when he was in his mid 30s, when he made the transition from regional nuisance to global terrorist threat.

[00:11:15] Al Qaeda, the terrorist group he was head of, continued to grow, and with it, the attacks.

[00:11:22] The first attack that he is believed to have been involved with came in 1992, in Aden, the capital of Yemen.

[00:11:31] But it wouldn’t be until 1998, with the twin bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, that his face became known the world over, and in June of 1999 the FBI would decide that he was such a threat that his name would be put on its list of Ten Most Wanted.

[00:11:53] As you might imagine, he was never removed from this list alive.

[00:11:58] So, back to our story. 

[00:12:00] Osama bin Laden is now one of the world’s most wanted men, and has had to move out of Sudan, now to Afghanistan, the one country that will actually take him. 

[00:12:12] He is head of a terrorist group that has carried out attacks across Africa and the Middle East. 

[00:12:18] We know this for sure, but what was not clear to everyone was “why”.

[00:12:25] The simplistic answer that was plastered all over American cable TV was that he hated American freedoms, but it was slightly more complicated than that. 

[00:12:36] The rare pieces of evidence that we have of Osama bin Laden suggest a man fixated on one thing, one goal: removing the Western military presence from the Middle East.

[00:12:49] He even said this in an interview with CNN, perhaps the most famous American news network, which took place in 1997.

[00:12:59] Perhaps ominously, when asked “what are your future plans”, he responded “you’ll see them and hear about them in the media, god willing”.

[00:13:09] Four years later, on September 11th of 2001, the world saw the culmination of his plan, as two planes struck the World Trade Center in New York, and another crashed into the Pentagon.

[00:13:22] 2,977 people in total were killed, making Osama bin Laden responsible for the deadliest attack on US soil.

[00:13:33] The objective, let’s remember, was to push the United States out of the Middle East, to frighten the United States government into removing its troops from Saudi Arabia. 

[00:13:45] Osama bin Laden thought there would be widespread opposition to entering a foreign conflict, and he remembered the public opposition to the war in Vietnam.

[00:13:56] Although Osama bin Laden was clearly an intelligent man in many ways, this was a huge miscalculation on his part.

[00:14:05] Not only did the 9/11 attacks result in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent 20-year occupation of the country, which had strong domestic support initially, let's remember, but they also made him the highest profile criminal in the world.

[00:14:23] There was a $25 million bounty placed on his head, a reward for his capture, and soon it became incredibly hard for him to control his group’s activities.

[00:14:36] For obvious reasons, it’s hard to know exactly what he was doing and where he was in the period immediately after the 9/11 attacks - we are talking about the world’s most wanted man here - but American intelligence services believe that he spent most of the following years moving from safehouse to safehouse in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

[00:15:01] Now, you probably know how this story ends, or rather, how the life of Osama Bin Laden ends.

[00:15:07] The United States did manage to track him down, to find him, and on May 2nd of 2011, just after one o’ clock in the morning, a helicopter with an elite team of US forces descended on a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, where they found, shot and killed Osama bin Laden.

[00:15:30] This much you probably know already, but what is more interesting to dwell on, to talk about, is what was discovered during the raid.

[00:15:41] In the compound where bin Laden was hiding, the US forces discovered a treasure trove of information, hard drives containing 470,000 different files that give us some indication of what bin Laden had been doing, and help us to understand bin Laden the man.

[00:16:01] So, what do they tell us?

[00:16:04] Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given how wanted he was, he was incredibly cut off from Al Qaeda, the group he was nominally in charge of

[00:16:15] He had no internet or telephone line, and was only able to communicate with people via letters. And clearly, if you’re trying to run what is essentially a multinational 21st century business, this makes communication very difficult.

[00:16:33] Secondly, and despite how difficult it was to communicate with the outside world, he was a serious micromanager. He obsessed over details, and would leave nothing up to chance. He would send letters to trusted associates, but these would be handwritten, then scanned and put onto an encrypted flash drive and taken, physically, to whoever needed to receive them.

[00:17:00] Thirdly, and this is in stark contrast to many portrayals of him, he did seem to put great trust in his wives and daughters. He is thought to have married five times, and at the time of his death he was found with three of his wives. These three were all highly intelligent women, all with PhDs, doctorate qualifications, and the files found at his house show that he turned to them for advice on a wide variety of matters. And it was a similar case with his daughters.

[00:17:37] The fourth thing, which is related to the third point actually, because it was a frequent topic of conversation between him and his wives, is how troubled he was by the Arab Spring, the revolutions in the Arab world that started in 2010.

[00:17:53] Now, why was he disturbed by this, you might ask? 

[00:17:56] You might have thought that it presented an opportunity, as corrupt rulers were being toppled, were being overturned.

[00:18:05] Indeed, bin Laden did write that the chaos could present an opportunity for Al Qaeda thoughts and ideas to spread.

[00:18:14] But, more importantly, it seemed that he wasn’t sure where the Arab Spring left Al Qaeda. If Western-backed regimes could be toppled peacefully, or at least relatively peacefully compared to bombings and the deaths of Muslim civilians, then what was the role of Al Qaeda? 

[00:18:35] Where did it fit in? 

[00:18:37] He was also concerned that instability in the region would mean that US forces would move in, which was exactly the thing that he had always fought against.

[00:18:48] Clearly, he had reason to be fearful

[00:18:51] The United States has left Afghanistan, but there are still reported to be between 45,000 and 65,000 American troops in the Middle East, split between Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.

[00:19:06] Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to debate whether these troops should be there, but the reality is that bin Laden thought that attacking the US would get them out, and in fact it did exactly the opposite.

[00:19:20] And his legacy is, well, it’s complicated of course. 

[00:19:25] On the one hand Al Qaeda is thankfully now significantly weakened, although there are some commentators who suggest a newly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will give it more breathing room, and allow it to build up strength.

[00:19:40] On the other hand, he became the poster boy for Islamic terrorism, a hero and icon, someone whose name attacks could be carried out on behalf of. 

[00:19:53] When he was killed, although his body was quickly disposed of at sea, he became a martyr for jihadists, someone who gave up his huge family riches and wealth in his “holy quest”.

[00:20:07] Let's be clear though, he was a violent terrorist, someone who was not afraid of killing men, women and children, muslims and non-muslims alike. There is no excusing or denying that, and one must underline that he was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, and indirectly perhaps responsible for hundreds or thousands times more.

[00:20:31] But to portray him as merely a simple cave-dwelling Western-hating terrorist is to somewhat miss the point, and to only scrape the surface of the complicated ideology and legacy of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man.

[00:20:50] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Osama bin Laden.

[00:20:55] I hope it's been an interesting one, and even though I’m sure you knew a bit about him before, that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:05] Do you remember where you were when you first found out about Osama bin Laden?

[00:21:09] What do you think his medium and long term legacy will be?

[00:21:14] How do you think historians will look back on his impact on stability in the Middle East?

[00:21:19] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:23] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:31] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about one of the most infamous terrorists of the modern era, Osama bin Laden.

[00:00:31] No doubt you know the name Osama bin Laden, you know exactly what he looks like, and know that he was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

[00:00:39] But in this episode, we are going to go a little deeper, we are going to try to go beyond the headlines and ask the question of who actually was Osama bin Laden.

[00:00:50] What experiences or beliefs shaped his world view, what did he actually want, and did he achieve what he set out to do?

[00:00:59] OK then, Osama bin Laden.

[00:01:03] Our story starts in March of 1957. 

[00:01:07] In Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, a baby boy takes his first breath.

[00:01:14] He is given the name of Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden.

[00:01:19] His father was a construction magnate, a wealthy businessman in the construction industry. 

[00:01:25] His father did not come from wealth, he was born in a poor family in Yemen, but had travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man and made his fortune in the construction industry.

[00:01:39] Not only did Osama bin Laden’s father have a lot of money, he had a lot of wives and children.

[00:01:46] Osama bin Laden was thought to be his 17th child, and he went on to have 52 children from 11 different wives. 

[00:01:56] Shortly after Osama bin Laden was born, his parents divorced, and he went to live with his mother.

[00:02:03] This was no doubt an important event in the young man’s life, but it would be followed by an even more important one, his father’s death, when the boy was a mere 10 years old. 

[00:02:16] This is believed to have brought the young boy further towards religion, and he would spend an increasing amount of time praying and studying the Koran.

[00:02:27] While most of his brothers went on to study abroad, in Europe and in the United States, Osama bin Laden stayed in Saudi Arabia.

[00:02:36] It’s perhaps hard to imagine that a man who would become the world’s most famous terrorist would spend much time at university lecture halls listening to professors talking about balance sheets and profit margins, but Osama bin Laden did go to university, remaining in Saudi Arabia, where he studied economics and business.

[00:02:59] It’s not clear whether he actually graduated, whether he actually completed the course, but he clearly learned some valuable skills that would come in handy later on.

[00:03:11] And when he left university in 1979, his initial plan was to join the family business, which, let’s remember, is a multibillion dollar construction company.

[00:03:23] Bin Laden was clearly intelligent, and he had a obvious route to great riches and power simply by doing what was expected of him and joining the family business.

[00:03:36] As we know, this was not the route he chose.

[00:03:41] Now, let’s take a step back for a minute to understand what’s happening in the world at this time, as the events of the late 1970s will cause the life of Osama bin Laden, and you could argue modern history, to take a different path.

[00:03:58] Culminating in February of 1979, the Iranian revolution overthrew the more Western Shah of Iran. Our Iranian listeners will know all too well what this meant for the country, but in short it meant the creation of an Islamic Republic ruled by the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

[00:04:20] To Osama bin Laden, this was a sign of an Islamic movement overthrowing a more Western and liberal one, and offered a glimpse of opportunity.

[00:04:32] And later that year, on Christmas Eve of 1979, Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan, kickstarting a conflict that would last 10 years and cost an estimated million lives.

[00:04:48] In an effort to defend Afghanistan from the Soviets, Islamic fighters from all over the Arab world, also known as mujahideen, travelled to the country to support the resistance.

[00:05:01] One was the subject of today’s episode, Osama bin Laden.

[00:05:06] It’s thought that he first travelled to Pakistan, where he used his money and his knowledge of business and administration to help organise training camps and work on the logistics of the resistance.

[00:05:20] Later, he would travel to Afghanistan itself, and make a name for himself as a fearless fighter, someone who would fight on the frontline and show absolutely no fear of death.

[00:05:34] Although he would later be painted by the West as a fearful coward who hid in caves, his battlefield experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s suggested to his followers that this was not the case, and that he was no coward.

[00:05:51] Indeed, bin Laden seemed completely unafraid of dying, as he believed dying fighting in this holy war would be a surefire route to heaven, even telling his followers that one day in Afghanistan was like 1,000 days of praying in an ordinary mosque.

[00:06:10] And in Afghanistan, bin Laden and the mujahideen were far from the only people who wanted the Soviets defeated and out of the country.

[00:06:20] The other powerful force that was fighting the Soviets, albeit indirectly, was the one that would become bin Laden’s next target, the United States.

[00:06:30] The CIA, the American intelligence agency, provided billions of dollars of weapons and aid to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan.

[00:06:40] This, remember, was just one of the many proxy wars in the Cold War, with the United States supporting whoever was fighting the Soviets.

[00:06:51] Some people have claimed that the CIA actually provided Osama bin Laden and the so-called mujahadeen, the freedom fighters, with cash and weapons directly, although this has been disputed.

[00:07:04] In any case, Afghanistan lived up to its nickname as being the “graveyard of empires”, and in February of 1989, Soviet forces had left the country.

[00:07:16] Later that year, the Berlin Wall fell, and within two years the entire Soviet Union would have collapsed.

[00:07:25] But at the same time, another conflict was brewing.

[00:07:29] And while the Soviet-Afghan war might have provided Osama bin Laden with the perfect training ground for a life as the head of a global terrorist organisation, and the opportunity to make his name for himself, the events of 1990 would provide him with the reason.

[00:07:47] And that reason would come on August 2nd of 1990, when Sadam Hussein’s Iraqi forces rolled into Iraq’s tiny but oil-rich neighbour, Kuwait.

[00:07:59] Within a couple of days, Kuwait had fallen, and Sadam Hussein declared that Kuwait was the 19th province of Iraq.

[00:08:09] Now, as a quick reminder of Middle Eastern geography, Iraq is directly north of Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait is located to the southeast of Iraq, sandwiched between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

[00:08:24] So, Kuwait was taken, and there was the very real fear that Sadam Hussein might direct his forces south and take Saudi Arabia.

[00:08:34] Osama bin Laden offered his services to the Saudi rulers, the House of Saud, promising that his soldiers and money could help defend Saudi Arabia in the event of an Iraqi invasion.

[00:08:46] By this time, Osama bin Laden had made quite a reputation as a fearless fighter, and had developed a strong reputation and network in the area.

[00:08:57] But the Saudis refused.

[00:09:00] Instead, they allowed American forces to use Saudi Arabia as a launchpad for an invasion of Kuwait, in what would be called the First Gulf War. 

[00:09:10] This incensed Osama bin Laden, it drove him mad

[00:09:16] And the reason for it, according to commentators, has little to do with the belief that the United States is inferior or that Western culture is incompatible with Islam, it actually comes from his belief that there should only be one religion in Saudi Arabia, Islam.

[00:09:35] Bin Laden would later teach his followers that the Prophet Mohammed, on his deathbed, said that there should only ever be one religion in Saudi Arabia.

[00:09:45] By allowing Western troops into Saudi Arabia, no matter whether the intentions were to fight Sadam Hussein, and defend Saudi Arabia, this was going directly against the wishes of the prophet, at least in Osama bin Laden’s interpretation.

[00:10:01] So, Osama bin Laden set out on his lifelong mission to get US troops out of the Middle East. 

[00:10:09] On this mission, it’s hard to argue that he succeeded, as there is no individual in history who has done more to increase the Western presence in the Middle East than Osama bin Laden. We’ll come on to discuss this more in a minute.

[00:10:25] So, what did this mean in practice?

[00:10:28] It meant the build up of the group Al Qaeda, the group that had grown out of the Soviet-Afghan war. From 1992 to 1996, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were based in Sudan, after the Islamist coup d’état in the country. 

[00:10:47] He had been forced to leave Saudi Arabia after criticising the regime, and his Saudi passport and citizenship were taken away in 1994. 

[00:10:58] Although one could perhaps trace his path to global terrorism back to when he was a much younger man, it was in the 1990s, when he was in his mid 30s, when he made the transition from regional nuisance to global terrorist threat.

[00:11:15] Al Qaeda, the terrorist group he was head of, continued to grow, and with it, the attacks.

[00:11:22] The first attack that he is believed to have been involved with came in 1992, in Aden, the capital of Yemen.

[00:11:31] But it wouldn’t be until 1998, with the twin bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, that his face became known the world over, and in June of 1999 the FBI would decide that he was such a threat that his name would be put on its list of Ten Most Wanted.

[00:11:53] As you might imagine, he was never removed from this list alive.

[00:11:58] So, back to our story. 

[00:12:00] Osama bin Laden is now one of the world’s most wanted men, and has had to move out of Sudan, now to Afghanistan, the one country that will actually take him. 

[00:12:12] He is head of a terrorist group that has carried out attacks across Africa and the Middle East. 

[00:12:18] We know this for sure, but what was not clear to everyone was “why”.

[00:12:25] The simplistic answer that was plastered all over American cable TV was that he hated American freedoms, but it was slightly more complicated than that. 

[00:12:36] The rare pieces of evidence that we have of Osama bin Laden suggest a man fixated on one thing, one goal: removing the Western military presence from the Middle East.

[00:12:49] He even said this in an interview with CNN, perhaps the most famous American news network, which took place in 1997.

[00:12:59] Perhaps ominously, when asked “what are your future plans”, he responded “you’ll see them and hear about them in the media, god willing”.

[00:13:09] Four years later, on September 11th of 2001, the world saw the culmination of his plan, as two planes struck the World Trade Center in New York, and another crashed into the Pentagon.

[00:13:22] 2,977 people in total were killed, making Osama bin Laden responsible for the deadliest attack on US soil.

[00:13:33] The objective, let’s remember, was to push the United States out of the Middle East, to frighten the United States government into removing its troops from Saudi Arabia. 

[00:13:45] Osama bin Laden thought there would be widespread opposition to entering a foreign conflict, and he remembered the public opposition to the war in Vietnam.

[00:13:56] Although Osama bin Laden was clearly an intelligent man in many ways, this was a huge miscalculation on his part.

[00:14:05] Not only did the 9/11 attacks result in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent 20-year occupation of the country, which had strong domestic support initially, let's remember, but they also made him the highest profile criminal in the world.

[00:14:23] There was a $25 million bounty placed on his head, a reward for his capture, and soon it became incredibly hard for him to control his group’s activities.

[00:14:36] For obvious reasons, it’s hard to know exactly what he was doing and where he was in the period immediately after the 9/11 attacks - we are talking about the world’s most wanted man here - but American intelligence services believe that he spent most of the following years moving from safehouse to safehouse in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

[00:15:01] Now, you probably know how this story ends, or rather, how the life of Osama Bin Laden ends.

[00:15:07] The United States did manage to track him down, to find him, and on May 2nd of 2011, just after one o’ clock in the morning, a helicopter with an elite team of US forces descended on a compound in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, where they found, shot and killed Osama bin Laden.

[00:15:30] This much you probably know already, but what is more interesting to dwell on, to talk about, is what was discovered during the raid.

[00:15:41] In the compound where bin Laden was hiding, the US forces discovered a treasure trove of information, hard drives containing 470,000 different files that give us some indication of what bin Laden had been doing, and help us to understand bin Laden the man.

[00:16:01] So, what do they tell us?

[00:16:04] Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given how wanted he was, he was incredibly cut off from Al Qaeda, the group he was nominally in charge of

[00:16:15] He had no internet or telephone line, and was only able to communicate with people via letters. And clearly, if you’re trying to run what is essentially a multinational 21st century business, this makes communication very difficult.

[00:16:33] Secondly, and despite how difficult it was to communicate with the outside world, he was a serious micromanager. He obsessed over details, and would leave nothing up to chance. He would send letters to trusted associates, but these would be handwritten, then scanned and put onto an encrypted flash drive and taken, physically, to whoever needed to receive them.

[00:17:00] Thirdly, and this is in stark contrast to many portrayals of him, he did seem to put great trust in his wives and daughters. He is thought to have married five times, and at the time of his death he was found with three of his wives. These three were all highly intelligent women, all with PhDs, doctorate qualifications, and the files found at his house show that he turned to them for advice on a wide variety of matters. And it was a similar case with his daughters.

[00:17:37] The fourth thing, which is related to the third point actually, because it was a frequent topic of conversation between him and his wives, is how troubled he was by the Arab Spring, the revolutions in the Arab world that started in 2010.

[00:17:53] Now, why was he disturbed by this, you might ask? 

[00:17:56] You might have thought that it presented an opportunity, as corrupt rulers were being toppled, were being overturned.

[00:18:05] Indeed, bin Laden did write that the chaos could present an opportunity for Al Qaeda thoughts and ideas to spread.

[00:18:14] But, more importantly, it seemed that he wasn’t sure where the Arab Spring left Al Qaeda. If Western-backed regimes could be toppled peacefully, or at least relatively peacefully compared to bombings and the deaths of Muslim civilians, then what was the role of Al Qaeda? 

[00:18:35] Where did it fit in? 

[00:18:37] He was also concerned that instability in the region would mean that US forces would move in, which was exactly the thing that he had always fought against.

[00:18:48] Clearly, he had reason to be fearful

[00:18:51] The United States has left Afghanistan, but there are still reported to be between 45,000 and 65,000 American troops in the Middle East, split between Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.

[00:19:06] Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to debate whether these troops should be there, but the reality is that bin Laden thought that attacking the US would get them out, and in fact it did exactly the opposite.

[00:19:20] And his legacy is, well, it’s complicated of course. 

[00:19:25] On the one hand Al Qaeda is thankfully now significantly weakened, although there are some commentators who suggest a newly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will give it more breathing room, and allow it to build up strength.

[00:19:40] On the other hand, he became the poster boy for Islamic terrorism, a hero and icon, someone whose name attacks could be carried out on behalf of. 

[00:19:53] When he was killed, although his body was quickly disposed of at sea, he became a martyr for jihadists, someone who gave up his huge family riches and wealth in his “holy quest”.

[00:20:07] Let's be clear though, he was a violent terrorist, someone who was not afraid of killing men, women and children, muslims and non-muslims alike. There is no excusing or denying that, and one must underline that he was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, and indirectly perhaps responsible for hundreds or thousands times more.

[00:20:31] But to portray him as merely a simple cave-dwelling Western-hating terrorist is to somewhat miss the point, and to only scrape the surface of the complicated ideology and legacy of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man.

[00:20:50] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Osama bin Laden.

[00:20:55] I hope it's been an interesting one, and even though I’m sure you knew a bit about him before, that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:05] Do you remember where you were when you first found out about Osama bin Laden?

[00:21:09] What do you think his medium and long term legacy will be?

[00:21:14] How do you think historians will look back on his impact on stability in the Middle East?

[00:21:19] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:23] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:31] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]