Osama bin Laden – a summary

History In An Hour offers a brief summary on the life and death of Osama bin Laden.

Born 10 March 1957, Osama bin Laden was one of 52 (or more) siblings born to his billionaire father, Mohammed, and his 22 wives. Osama’s mother, Alia, was 14 when she married Mohammed, his tenth wife, and 15 when she gave birth to Osama (‘young lion’ in Arabic). Osama was the only product of this union. His parents divorced soon after his birth.

Mohammed bin Laden had built from scratch a large building empire in Saudi Arabia and when, in 1968, he died in a helicopter crash – his vast fortune was distributed amongst all his children.

Osama bin Laden stood 6ft 5in tall and married the first of his four wives, a 14-year-old, when he was 17. He had 19 children, of whom his 22-year-old son, Khalid, was killed in the US attack that killed Osama in May 2011.

The Mujahideen

Bin Laden first visited Afghanistan during the early weeks of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) and helped organise the supply of men, arms and money for the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet invaders.

Following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in February 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia a hero for having contributed to the Soviets’ defeat. During the late eighties, possibly 1988, bin Laden formed Al-Qaeda, meaning ‘the base’.

Following the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1990 the threat to Saudi Arabia seemed real. Bin Laden offered the Saudi king Mujahideen fighters to help defend the country but the king declined the offer and instead allowed 300,000 US troops onto Saudi soil from where they could attack Iraq. Bin Laden heavily criticised the Saudi king to the point his country of birth revoked his citizenship and had him banished.


In 1992, bin Laden migrated to the Sudan and from there built up Al-Qaeda. In 1996 bin Laden was forced to leave the Sudan and he returned to Afghanistan where he met the Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Omar reputedly married bin Laden’s daughter. Bin Laden became the Taliban’s financial benefactor and helped organise their push on Kabul in September 1996.

In 1998 bin Laden issued a fatwa calling on Muslims throughout the world to “kill Americans wherever they are found”. Following the 1998 suicide bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, US President, Bill Clinton, demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden. But the Mullah Omar refused to comply. Bin Laden’s support for the Taliban obligated Omar’s loyalty and to have handed him over would have violated his deep-rooted sense of hospitality.

Despite several rumours of his death since 2001, bin Laden was still alive until US intelligence finally tracked him down, living in a three-storey house within a fortified compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan, 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Death of Osama bin Laden

On May 2, 2011, a small team of elite US Navy Seals stormed the house – its objective: to kill Osama bin Laden.

The 24 Seals took off from their Afghan base in Bagram in Black Hawk helicopters specially modified to reduce rotor noise. Flying in low to avoid radar detection, the helicopters swooped into the compound.

The Seals had been practising for weeks on a mock-up of the triangular compound, fortified on all sides by a twelve-foot wall topped with barbed wire.

In a 38-minute operation, the climax of which was a seven-minute firefight, three men and a woman were quickly dispatched, while the Seals homed in on their target. (Amongst the victims was bin Laden’s 22-year-old son, Khalid).

Bin Laden and a woman (later confirmed as one of his wives) were found in his bedroom unarmed and wearing pyjamas. Having shot his wife in the calf, the Seals shot bin Laden first in the chest (the “stop shot”), then the head (the “kill shot”). The pyjamas were later found to have 500 euros sewn within.

Thousands of miles away, in Washington DC, President Obama and his staff (pictured) watched the ruthless proceedings via cameras mounted on the helmets of the Seals.

“Geronimo EKIA” (enemy killed in action), reported back a Seal, using their codename for bin Laden. “We got him,” said the President.

Having confirmed through DNA the identity of Bin Laden, the body was flown out to the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. Bin Laden was not to be buried anywhere that could become a shrine. After the reading of Islamic passages, his body was buried in the North Arabian Sea.

President Obama addressed the nation and America celebrated. It may have taken nine years, seven months and 19 days but the US had finally got justice over a man that had cast such a long shadow over their recent history. Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was dead.

Afghan Wars in an hourRupert Colley

Read more about the various Afghan Wars in Afghan Wars: History In An Hour

See also 9/11 – a summary and the death of Mohammad Najibullah, the last Soviet-backed president of Afghanistan.