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Though bin Laden grew up wealthy, he wasn't entirely within the charmed circle in Saudi Arabia. As the son of immigrants, he didn't have quite the right credentials. His mother came from Syria by some reports, Palestine by others. His father moved to Saudi Arabia from neighboring Yemen, a desperately poor country looked down on by Saudis. If bin Laden felt any alienation or resentment about his status, it was good preparation for the break he would ultimately make with the privileged and bourgeois life that was laid out for him at birth.
The family's wealth came from the Saudi bin Laden Group, built by Osama's father Mohamed, who had four wives and 52 children. Mohamed had had the good luck of befriending the country's founder, Abdel Aziz al Saud. That relationship led to important government contracts such as refurbishing the shrines at Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest places, projects that moved young Osama deeply. Today the company, with 35,000 employees worldwide, is worth $5 billion. Osama got his share at 13 when his father died, leaving him $80 million, a fortune the son subsequently expanded to an estimated $250 million.
At the King Abdel Aziz University in Jidda, bin Laden, according to associates, was greatly influenced by one of his teachers, Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who was a major figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has played a large role in the resurgence of Islamic religiosity. Bin Laden, who like most Saudis is a member of the puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, had been pious from childhood, but his encounter with Azzam seemed to deepen his faith. What's more, through Azzam he became steeped not in the then popular ideology of pan-Arabism, which stresses the unity of all Arabs, but in a more ambitious pan-Islamicism, which reaches out to all the world's 1 billion Muslims.
And so bin Laden at age 22 was quick to sign up to help fellow Muslims in Afghanistan fight the godless invading Soviets in 1979. For hard-liners like bin Laden, a non-Muslim infringement on Islamic territory goes beyond the political sin of oppression; it is an offense to God that must be corrected at all costs.
At first, bin Laden mainly raised money, especially among rich Gulf Arabs, for the Afghan rebels, the mujahedin. He also brought in some of the family bulldozers and was once famously using one to dig a trench when a Soviet helicopter strafed him but missed. In the early 1980s, Abdullah Azzam founded the Maktab al Khidmat, which later morphed into an organization called al-Qaeda (the base). It provided logistical help and channeled foreign assistance to the mujahedin. Bin Laden joined his old teacher and became the group's chief financier and a major recruiter of the so-called Arab Afghans, the legions of young Arabs who left their homes in places like Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia to join the mujahedin. He was instrumental in building the training camps that prepared them to fight. Bin Laden saw combat too; how much is in dispute.
During the same years, the CIA, intent on seeing a Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, was also funneling money and arms to the mujahedin. Milton Bearden, who ran the covert program during its peak years--1986 to 1989--says the CIA had no direct dealings with bin Laden. But U.S. officials acknowledge that some of the aid probably ended up with bin Laden's group anyway.