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Osama bin Laden was born into an almost unlimited family fortune amassed from a potent mixture of Western technology and Islamic loyalties, two forces that would come to be violently opposed in his imagination and ideology.

Propelled by that wealth, by Islamic asceticism and by a rising hatred of the United States, he would become the Western world's most enterprising and dedicated enemy.

His early life provides few indications of his future identity. He was born in 1957, the 17th of 52 children sired by Mohammed bin Laden, a dirt-poor labourer from Yemen whose fortunes rose with those of the Saudi royal family in the later half of the 20th century. By the time Osama was born, Mohammed had taught himself engineering and become the sole official builder for the House of Saud, which gave him exclusive contracts to build their palaces, the burgeoning nation's highways, and eventually to rebuild the holiest sites of Mecca. As oil money flooded into the desert, Mohammed was paid a healthy share of it, soon becoming almost as wealthy as royalty.

Mohammed's fortune and social standing brought him wives, and his wives brought him children. A devout follower of the Wahabi sect of Sunni Islam, he kept four wives at any time: three permanent Saudi Wahabi wives and an ever-changing string of "fourth wives," often from abroad.

Osama's mother, Hamida, was one of these later wives, in fact his 10th or 11th spouse, and possibly the least reputable of them. The daughter of a Syrian trader, she offended the faithful with her ravishing looks, her stylish Western dress and her education. She was known to many as "the slave wife"; Osama, in turn, became known as "the son of the slave."

Osama saw little of his father, and the chance for further contact ended abruptly in 1967, when Mohammed was killed in a helicopter crash. The family construction business carried on, buoyed even higher by the phenomenal wealth of the OPEC years. The young Osama rejected his mother's bewildered attempts at parenting, and was raised by the family's staff at their Jedda compound, among outlandish wealth.

Some friends and acquaintances have speculated that Osama bin Laden's adult views were shaped by childhood alienation.

"I think he had an unhappy childhood," said Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to the United States, who knew Mr. bin Laden years before he became an international fugitive.

"I think he was the black sheep of the family in a way. ... but for a while, we thought his religious leanings were positive things."

But Mr. bin Laden seemed far from disturbed or pathological during his teen years. He toured Europe with his brothers, typically in a Rolls-Royce or a Cadillac the family had flown in from Saudi Arabia. The shy, gangly boy had a brief but chaste flirtation with a Spanish girl in Oxford, England. Many were impressed by his charisma and dedication.

"He was very courteous - more so than any of the others in his class," Brian Fyfield-Shayler, who taught Mr. bin Laden English in Jedda, said in an interview with the Observer. "Physically, he was outstanding because he was taller, more handsome and fairer than most of the boys. He also stood out, as he was singularly gracious and polite and had a great deal of inner confidence."

Mr. bin Laden finished high school at a propitious moment for a young man in the Third World. The modernizing independence movements that had swept much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East in the 1950s and 60s had metamorphosed into severe, totalizing ideologies by the early 70s: Marxism, dictatorship and emerging forms of Islamic fundamentalism, sometimes in combination.

Mr. bin Laden, for reasons unknown, decided not to attend university in England or the United States, as many of his siblings had - instead, he entered engineering studies at Jedda's King Abdul Aziz University, which was becoming a proving ground for the new Islamic thought.

It is unclear whether his decision to stay in Jedda arose from a rejection of the West, or vice versa.

"Since I was a boy, I have been at war with and harbouring hatred for the Americans," he told an interviewer from the al-Jazeera television network in 1998. In fact, there is little evidence that his anti-Americanism developed much before the 1990s.

Whatever its motive, the decision to stay in Jedda proved explosive. Mr. bin Laden was one of many students who came to be influenced by the writings and charismatic personality of Abdullah Azzam, a scholar who was resurrecting strands of ascetic Islam that had lain dormant for more than a century. (He was also the founding leader of Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group.)

Mr. bin Laden's study of this thought (along with engineering, which would prove useful later) was given an impetus to action with the overthrow of Iran by Shia Muslim extremists in 1979. Suddenly, spiritual thoughts could become political actions.

Mr. bin Laden had barely completed his studies (and married the first of four wives) when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Like many Arabs, he saw it as his patriotic and spiritual duty to join the Islamic rebels, known as the mujahedeen. But unlike many other Arabs, 23-year-old bin Laden had the money to finance the movement - as much as $50-million (U.S.) per year, according to a CIA estimate - and the charismatic personality to lead it.

Within months, he had developed a reputation as a brave fighter and an inspiring leader; he made frequent trips back to Saudi Arabia to gather funds and move a branch of the family construction company to Afghanistan. Mr. bin Laden's troops developed a reputation for limitless loyalty: According to one report, his soldiers would break into tears if they had not been killed in a battle, thus missing the opportunity for holy martyrdom.

During his 10 years in the Afghan war, two divergent forces influenced Mr. bin Laden. One was the U.S. government: The CIA, which supported the mujahedeen as an anti-Soviet force definitely gave Mr. bin Laden powerful weapons, including one shipment of 25 sniper rifles, and probably aided him with money and logistical assistance, as well.

In 1979, the Soviet Union abruptly withdrew from Afghanistan. This marked an end to the influx of foreign dollars and weapons, and to the common cause that had united disparate bands of Islamic fighters. The leadership of Afghanistan once again fell to factional fighting. Mr. bin Laden, like so many other mujahedeen, returned home, emboldened by conflict and impatient with secular society. Now a celebrity and a war hero, he expected to take a prominent role in Saudi society, carrying on the jihad (holy mission) of Afghanistan.

He would be sorely disappointed. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mr. bin Laden expected to become the leader of a Saudi mujahedeen force to oppose this affront to the Arabs. Instead, the Saudi royal family sided with another opponent of Hussein: The United States. More than 300,000 U.S. troops were stationed on Saudi soil, and they were given the important duty of guarding the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. An enraged bin Laden became an outspoken dissident, distributing pamphlets and cassette tapes opposing the move, and for the first time began to characterize the United States as the chief enemy of Islam. His anti-Americanism, by most accounts, was forged during this period.

Mr. bin Laden's increasingly visible extremism, and his repeated attempts to assemble a rebel army, led him to be ostracized by his family and by the Saudi regime. In 1991, he was expelled from Saudi Arabia just as he was invited to Sudan by Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamic extremist who had come to influence the country's government. Mr. Bin Laden moved with his four wives and a large entourage to Khartoum, where he immediately began gathering hundreds of mujahedeen veterans in a new and unusual organization called al-Qaeda.

It had a financial arm, controlling export markets in sesame seeds, corn and peanuts, increasing Mr. bin Laden's wealth even further. But at its centre was a new kind of army, one that did not rely on national aspirations, traditional leadership hierarchies or permanent installations. Al-Qaeda would be an decentralized, theologically-driven terrorist network, with the resources and discipline of an army. Mr. bin Laden began sending large contributions to Islamic extremist groups in many countries, and established al-Qaeda training camps. It soon had branches in Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan and an office in London. Its goal, explained in artfully written treatises by Mr. bin Laden, was to rid the traditionally Islamic nations of all that was alien to Islam - especially things associated with Jews and Americans.

Over the next five years, al-Qaeda would be connected with some of the most dramatic terrorist actions of the decade: the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center; the attacks on U.S. troops in Somalia the same year; the Riyadh car bombing of 1995; the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996. Intelligence authorities now believe that some of these acts were committed by other groups, but they only added to Mr. bin Laden's prestige within the extremist world.

In 1996, the winds of political change created a new opening for Mr. bin Laden. The Sudanese regime had asked him to leave, alarmed by the notoriety, and U.S. reprisals, brought by his terrorist army. At the same time, Afghanistan was about to be overtaken by the most theologically rigid of the former mujahedeen, a group of Pashtun religious scholars who called themselves just that: The Taliban, or the scholars. Mr. bin Laden sent out feelers to Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban; they reached an immediate understanding. Mr. bin Laden's money, celebrity, and thousands of highly trained followers would be a perfect match for Mullah Omar's zealous but ill-supplied leadership. By 1997, Mullah Omar's regime and Mr. bin Laden's movement would be deeply enmeshed, and it would be hard even for close followers to determine exactly who was in command.

Using this secure base, and elaborate training camps he had built in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden turned al-Qaeda into a global terrorist army of unprecedented sophistication. He trained hundreds, possibly thousands, of recruits from a dozen nations to acquire false identities, infiltrate foreign countries, form invisible "sleeper cells" and live among the population, hiding in plain sight. These cells were to be awakened into action, sometimes by their own impetus, and sometimes through Mr. bin Laden's command, like Manchurian candidates.

In 1998, Mr. bin Laden issued a fatwa (although he lacked the clerical status to issue a genuine fatwa) entitled World Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. It announced that it was the duty of all Muslims to kill any and all Americans, including civilians, on any occasion. Not long after, Mr. bin Laden would begin awakening his sleeper cells.

In August of 1998, an enormous truck bomb exploded outside a U.S. embassy and college complex in Nairobi, killing 213 people and injuring 4,600. At the same time, a similar bomb exploded at a U.S. embassy in Tanzania, killing 11. One of the drivers of the Tanzania truck had fled and survived, and confessed that he been trained in al-Qaeda's Afghan camps.

In the final days of 1999, a Montreal resident of Algerian birth named Ahmed Ressam was arrested at a Canada-U.S. border crossing with the chemicals, fuses and timers for three powerful bombs in his trunk. After his conviction on terror charges in Los Angeles in 2001, this "Y2K bomber" agreed to testify against fellow terrorists. He admitted to having trained at Mr. bin Laden's Afghanistan camps in 1998, and identified dozens of other members of terror cells living quietly in North American cities, waiting for unnamed attacks. Unfortunately, most of his testimony would be given after Sept. 11.

In 2000, 17 U.S. soldiers were killed when a marine bomb exploded beside the U.S. battleship Cole, severely damaging the ship. Mr. bin Laden later expressed pride in this action, and some intelligence agencies have traced it to his camps.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the world learned just how well trained, disciplined and stealthy Mr. bin Laden's trainees really were. In an act of unimaginable efficiency and planning, several thousand Americans were killed in less than an hour, using the most rudimentary technology. In a videotape released by U.S. authorities, Mr. bin Laden boasted that he had personally calculated the damage that a fuel-laden aircraft could cause to the Twin Towers - and admits that some of the hijackers, though prepared for "martyrdom," did not know the details of the attacks until they boarded the airplanes.

The scope of the destruction, and the ferocity of the U.S. reprisals, may have taken Mr. bin Laden by storm.

He spent the remaining years in hiding, apart from occasional taped messages to his followers and the media. Then last August intelligence officials caught his trail. After tracking clues for the past eight months, President Barack Obama ordered a mission to capture or kill him. He was killed by the U.S. in a firefight in a compound in Pakistan, the President said. He was 54. No American was injured.