It wasn't unusual to find wealthy Saudis on the periphery of the Afghan struggle against the Soviet Union. They'd arrive in Afghan refugee camps, open briefcases full of cash, and distribute dollars to war widows and wounded veterans.
Usama bin Laden was unusual. The son of a Saudi construction magnate went into the rugged Afghan mountains to fight, gaining a reputation for bravery and determination. He used his millions to buy bulldozers to gouge guerrilla trails in the heart of Afghanistan, and to bring in, by his count, thousands of Egyptians, Lebanese, Turks and others to join their Afghan Muslim brothers in the struggle against an ideology that spurned religion.
Nine years after the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, terrorism experts say bin Laden is using his millions to fund attacks against the United States like, perhaps, the Aug. 7 twin bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 257 people. Veterans of the pan-Muslim army bin Laden raised to fight the Soviets remain loyal to the tall, robed figure some call a hero.
The U.S. State Department calls him "one of the most significant sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world today."
Throughout the 1980s, the United States and bin Laden were on the same side against the now-collapsed Soviet state. Bin Laden made no secret that he saw secular, powerful Washington as much an infidel as Moscow. But his first priority was Moscow, which invaded Afghanistan to prop up a communist government in December, 1979.
The few outsiders who have met bin Laden describe him as modest almost shy. He rarely gives interviews. But he has allowed himself to be photographed, narrow eyes staring intently into the camera under a white turban, his long, thin face made even longer by a brush of graying beard falling to his chest.
He is believed to be in his late 40s, and to have at least three wives.
In a series of fatwas, or religious edicts, faxed to the outside world from his hideout in Afghanistan, bin Laden has laid out his case against the United States: its soldiers protecting oil in his homeland are desecrating Muslim holy sites with their very presence; its power has emasculated Arab countries, turning them into client states; its friend is Israel.
"We - with God's help - call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it," read a February fatwa.