The myth, the reality
The mission and method of Osama bin Laden
(CNN) -- Within a mere 18 minutes, two hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers, drastically altering the New York skyline, the United States and the world.
After a hijacked plane hit the Pentagon and another crashed in rural Pennsylvania shortly afterward, intelligence experts worldwide thought of one name: Osama bin Laden.
"There is only one group that has ever indicated that it has this kind of ability, and that's Osama bin Laden's" al Qaeda organization, former NATO Supreme Cmdr. Wesley Clark said September 11 on CNN.
The exiled Saudi millionaire has been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list since 1999. The United States' ongoing hunt for bin Laden intensified after officials identified him as the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks.
U.S. forces dropped leaflets in Afghanistan in November 2001 offering a $25 million bounty for bin Laden. But through the U.S. war in Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda and its sympathizers, he eluded U.S. and allied authorities.
Some in the Arab world have disputed bin Laden's role in the September 11 strikes. That said, he has voiced his contempt for the United States on several occasions, declaring a holy war "against the United States government because it is unjust, criminal and tyrannical."
U.S. and allied intelligence and law enforcement have implicated bin Laden in several strikes and strike attempts on U.S. targets since the early 1990s. These include the millennium-bombing plot targeting the Los Angeles airport, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole while it was in port in Aden, Yemen, and the nearly simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
While rarely explicitly admitting his role, bin Laden has publicly celebrated such strikes. In a video released October 7, 2001, he said that America's "greatest buildings were destroyed. Thank God for that. There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that."
In another video released in December 2001 by the Bush administration, bin Laden went even further. On the tape, apparently recorded a month earlier in Kandahar, Afghanistan, bin Laden said: "We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower . . . I was the most optimistic of them all."
"This is all that we had hoped for."
'The myth of the superpower destroyed'
Bin Laden was born the 17th of an estimated 52 children of a well-connected multimillionaire Saudi construction magnate. He studied at a Saudi university and took part in the family business, the bin Laden Group, inheriting millions when his father died in 1968.
In 1979, bin Laden went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets alongside the Afghan resistance fighters known as the mujahedeen.
He used his family's connections and wealth to raise money for the Afghan resistance and provide the mujahedeen with logistical and humanitarian aid, and participated in battles in the Afghan war.
The United States, via the CIA, poured $3 billion into the Afghan resistance during the 1980s, providing weapons and other resources for bin Laden and thousands of others who would become his most loyal, fierce supporters.
The war, which ended with the Soviets' humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, had a profound effect on bin Laden, he later said.
"In this jihad, the biggest benefit was the myth of the superpower was destroyed, not only in my mind, but in the minds of all Muslims," bin Laden said. Jihad, the word for struggle, is used by bin Laden to mean holy war.
As the war drew to a close, the increasingly radical bin Laden formed al Qaeda, or "the Base" in Arabic, an organization of ex-mujahedeen and other supporters channeling fighters and funds to the Afghan resistance.
Declaring U.S. civilians the targets
Bin Laden himself returned to Saudi Arabia to work for the family construction firm. He aligned Saudi groups opposed to the reigning Saudi monarchy, the Fahd family, expressing anger at them and the United States for allowing U.S. and allied forces to invade Iraq from Saudi bases in the Gulf War.
He left Saudi Arabia for Sudan in 1991, taking assets that had grown to an estimated $250 million, according to some officials. (Others estimate a much lower value.) The Saudi government officially stripped bin Laden of his citizenship three years later, freezing all remaining assets he had in the country.
In 1996, bin Laden issued a "fatwah," a religious ruling, urging Muslims to kill U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia -- a declaration he repeated to then-CNN producer Peter Bergen the following year.
"The U.S. government has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal," bin Laden told CNN. "We believe the United States is directly responsible for those killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq."
He made these remarks in a remote section of eastern Afghanistan -- home to the Taliban, a radical Islamic religious, military and political unit -- where he moved in 1997 after being expelled from Sudan. In 1998, bin Laden issued a second fatwah, this one calling for attacks on U.S. civilians.
Al Qaeda takes action
As the head of al Qaeda, bin Laden has forged alliances with like-minded fundamentalist groups such as Egypt's Al Jihad, Iran's Hezbollah, Sudan's National Islamic Front, and jihad groups in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, according to the U.S. government.
Al Qaeda also has ties to the "Islamic Group," led at one time by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian cleric serving a life sentence since his 1995 conviction for a thwarted plot to blow up various New York landmarks. Two of Sheik Rahman's sons joined forces with bin Laden in the late 1990s.
The United States alleges that from 1992 on, bin Laden and other al Qaeda members targeted U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and those stationed in the Horn of Africa.
Bin Laden told CNN in 1997 that "Arab holy warriors" trained in Afghanistan had banded with Somali Muslims in October 1993 to kill 18 U.S. soldiers in a bloody battle on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. U.S. authorities indicted bin Laden in 1996 for training those involved in the attack.
On August 7, 1998, eight years after U.S. forces deployed in Saudi Arabia, a pair of truck bombs exploded, within nine minutes of each other, outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people, among them 12 Americans.
U.S. authorities quickly blamed al Qaeda and President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks on August 20, 1998, on suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. In October 2001, a U.S. judge sentenced four men, one a longtime bin Laden aide, to life in prison for their role in the bombings.
At the center of the storm
The man who pleaded guilty to a failed plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations leading up to New Year's Day 2000 claimed he was trained at an Afghanistan camp run by bin Laden.
Ahmed Ressam said he learned how to handle handguns, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and how to assemble bombs made from the explosives TNT and C4.
Authorities foiled this and other planned attacks on Seattle revelers, a U.S. warship in the Middle East and tourist sites in U.S. ally Jordan.
But on October 12, 2000, a small boat containing two suicide bombers exploded near the USS Cole, then on port call off Aden, Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors died in the blast and U.S. authorities, yet again, accused bin Laden of masterminding the attack.
Bin Laden, apparently living in cave complexes in Afghanistan, did not admit his role, but he did continue recruiting for al Qaeda and publicly calling for a jihad against the United States.
He raised his public profile with a series of videotapes, most released to the Arabic-language TV network Al-Jazeera, in the weeks immediately after September 11. But as the videos stopped coming in spring and summer 2002, speculation was that he may have died in U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
But German intelligence officials and the editor of an Arabic-language magazine said in July that he is in good health.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to issue threats, pledging that bin Laden's jihad is far from over. An al Qaeda spokesman said in June that the group would soon "launch attacks against America."
"Our martyrs are ready for operations against American and Jewish targets inside and outside," the spokesman said. "America should be prepared. It should be ready. They should fasten the seat belts. We are coming to them where they never expected."
CNN Executive Producer Nancy Peckenham, Producer Phil Hirschkorn, CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen and CNN.com Writer/Editor Douglas Wood contributed to this report.