The story as it unfolds: who was Osama bin Laden?

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Although no one in the United States realized it at the time, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 was a defining moment in the life of a devout young Sunni Muslim whose father was a billionaire construction mogul in Saudi Arabia.

Osama bin Laden, then 22, was “deeply moved” when he heard an “infidel” army attack Afghanistan, an event that turned out to be “the most transformative of his life, launching him into a full-time job to help Afghans. resistance, ”writes Peter Bergen in his new biography,“ The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden ”.

And few in the West took notice when bin Laden, a decade and a half later, issued his first public declaration of war against the United States. A man known until then as a “terrorist financier” warned the world that he would wage jihad against the most powerful country from his cave house in the mountains of Tora Bora.

Bin Laden reiterated his declaration of jihad, being part of a searing criticism of American foreign policy, in his first television interview, produced by Mr. Bergen for CNN in 1997. Again, few people in the United States l ‘noticed.

“Our interview was hardly picked up,” Mr. Bergen said in an interview for this episode of History As It Happens. “It just went into a vacuum. And I think it was because, for everyone, it was not clear that [bin Laden] had really done anything.

By the late 1990s, only a handful of CIA and FBI counterterrorism officials noticed bin Laden and feared he would threaten American citizens. They are said to be waging an unsuccessful campaign to capture or kill the leader of Al Qaeda in the years leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, years marked by the bombings of African embassies in 1998 and the suicide bombing. against the USS Cole in 2000.

Mr. Bergen, vice president of New America and CNN national security analyst, is one of the world’s leading authorities on al Qaeda and international jihadism. In this episode, Mr. Bergen discusses the purpose of his latest book: to try to explain why bin Laden chose to devote his life to mass murder.

“These ‘why’ questions are difficult because you can’t really get a full answer because we can’t live in someone else’s head,” Bergen said. “I don’t do a lot of wheelchair psychology. “

Bin Laden grew up in one of the most austere religious circles in the world for a Sunni Muslim, but none of his 54 siblings chose to pursue Islamism. “For his part, it turned him more towards religion. He memorized the Quran, ”Mr. Bergen said.

Bin Laden’s adherence to radical Islam and violent jihad found its raison d’être in US foreign policy, which he accused of supporting corrupt secular dictators across the Middle East. The US military presence in Saudi Arabia to fight the Gulf War in 1991 further radicalized Bin Laden, completing his break with the Saudi royal family.

Among the topics covered in this episode: Islam at the heart of al-Qaeda; bin Laden’s exploits on the battlefield in Afghanistan; the myth of CIA-bin Laden cooperation; why so few people in the West noticed it before 1998; and his escape from Tora Bora in late 2001, among others.

To listen to Peter Bergen’s conversation with host Martin Di Caro, download this episode of History As It Happens.

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