WASHINGTON — A member of a wealthy Saudi family who'd gone astray, Osama bin Laden earned his combat spurs by fighting with Afghanistan's ragtag Mujahadeen army to drive occupying Soviet troops out of their homeland in the 1980s.
Ironically, the group had U.S. backing.
Bin Laden, though, had a far bigger vision, one that would lead him to be reviled by Western civilization and hailed as a folk hero among Islamic extremists by becoming the face of a 19-year campaign of global terror. It peaked with the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings that left nearly 3,000 people dead in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The group has set off explosives in hotels, U.S. embassies, Navy vessels, British commuter trains, buses and, in its singular, crowning triumph, demolished the twin, 110-story towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan in the Sept. 11 attacks.
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Around 1988, bin Laden led a loose network of Arabs in secretly forming al Qaida (for "the base"), the group through which he would declare global "jihad," or holy war, on the United States and other governments. Bin Laden proclaimed those targets to be "infidels" due to their failure to abide by an extremist interpretation of Islam, for their support of Israel, and set a goal of driving U.S. armed forces out of Saudi Arabia.
In 1992, the group coordinated bombings of two hotels in Aden, Yemen.
In 1993, terrorists set off a van full of explosives in a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. The FBI later found evidence that bin Laden had provided financial support to a blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, who led the plot.
An apartment fire set inadvertently by a plotter in 1994 in Manila, the Philippines prevented the execution of another hugely ambitious al Qaida plan, an effort to blow up 10 passenger jets in mid-Pacific flights.
As Bin Laden's forces grew, al Qaida set up large training camps in Afghanistan, grooming young recruits and planning sophisticated attacks that would penetrate layers of security around key targets.
In 1998, al Qaida operatives carried out the bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 5,000 others.
Two years later, authorities in Jordan thwarted an al Qaida plot to blow up hotels during celebrations of the millennium.
In yet another demonstration of its growing potency, on Oct. 12, 2000, a suicide bomber blew a hole in the Navy destroyer USS Cole while it was harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39 others. Al Qaida later claimed responsibility.
Statements introduced at the trial of the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, revealed that bin Laden personally approved the group's biggest and deadliest operation, the Sept. 11 hijackings of four U.S. jetliners that were slammed into the Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
Weeks later, President George W. Bush dispatched U.S. forces to drive al Qaida out of its Afghan havens, but the troops failed to catch bin Laden and most other top commanders as they fled through the country's mountainous Tora Bora region. Bin Laden was long believed to have found sanctuary in friendly parts of neighboring Pakistan.
Even as he fled relentless U.S. efforts to find him and kill him, bin Laden's forces continued to strike.
Al Qaida has been blamed for the March 11, 2004, bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, 911 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, though al-Qaida never claimed responsibility.
On July 7, 2005, four members of al Qaida joined other terrorists in bombings trains in the London Underground and a double-decker bus, killing 52 people and injuring about 700 others.
Al Qaida members also have attempted to blow up U.S. jetliners by hiding bombs in their shoes and underwear and, last year, the group took credit for a plot to set off plastic explosives on U.S.-bound cargo planes in the Middle East.
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