Things might have turned out differently for Osama bin Laden--and for the denizens of southern Manhattan--if the tall, thin, soft-spoken 44-year-old hadn't been born rich, or if he'd been born rich but not a second-rank Saudi. It might have been another story if, while studying engineering in college, the young man had drawn a different teacher for Islamic Studies rather than a charismatic Palestinian lecturer who fired his religious fervor. Things might have been different if the Soviet Union hadn't invaded Afghanistan, if Saddam Hussein hadn't stolen Kuwait, or if U.S. forces hadn't retreated so hastily after a beating in Somalia, giving bin Laden the idea that Americans are cowards who can be defeated easily.
Of course, Osama bin Laden wouldn't buy any of that. For him, life is preordained, written in advance by God, who in bin Laden's view must have delighted in the deaths of all those infidels in Manhattan last week. Still, those are among the seminal details that shaped the man U.S. officials believe to be not only capable but also guilty of one of the worst single massacres of civilians since Hitler's camps were shut down. How does any one man, and an intelligent man, come to be so angry? And so callous? Bin Laden has considered himself at war with the U.S. for years, even if the U.S. is getting there only now. Still, how does one man come to be so comfortably certain in the face of responsibility for so many devoured lives?
Last week's deadly operation took planning, patience, money, cool, stealth and extraordinarily committed operatives. It was a measure of the sophistication of the complex network of devout, high-spirited Islamic militants whom bin Laden has been assembling for almost 20 years. The big challenge here was will. Whence did the will grow to do something so atrocious?
In many ways, bin Laden's story is like that of many other Muslim extremists. There's the fanatical religiosity and the intemperate interpretation of Islam; the outrage over the dominance, particularly in the Arab world, of a secular, decadent U.S.; the indignation over U.S. support for Israel; the sense of grievance over the perceived humiliations of the Arab people at the hands of the West.
But bin Laden brings some particular, and collectively potent, elements to this equation. As a volunteer in the war that the Islamic rebels of Afghanistan fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, bin Laden had a front-row seat at an astonishing and empowering development: the defeat of a superpower by a gaggle of makeshift militias. Though the U.S., with billions of dollars in aid, helped the militias in their triumph, bin Laden soon turned on their benefactor. When U.S. troops in 1990 arrived in his sacred Saudi homeland to fight Saddam Hussein, bin Laden considered their infidel presence a desecration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthplace. He was inspired to take on a second superpower, and he was funded to do so: by a fortune inherited from his contractor father, by an empire of business enterprises, by the hubris that comes from being a rich kid whose commands had always been obeyed by nannies, butlers and maids.