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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holy Sites Inspire Bin Laden's Struggle

CAIRO, Egypt -- He is described as soft-spoken, a good listener and infused with the serenity of the deeply devout. His favorite hobby is riding Arabian horses. He is said to enjoy playing traditional healer, dispensing honey and herbs to the sick.

But beneath Osama bin Laden's benign exterior burns a desire to rid Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia -- home of Islam's holiest shrines -- of the Israelis and Americans he regards as infidels.

"If the instigation for jihad against the Jews and the Americans ... is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal," bin Laden told Time magazine in a 1999 interview.

"He clearly has declared war against the United States and has been carrying out systematic attacks against American facilities and Americans for the last several years," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of counterterrorism operations for the CIA. "He is the most serious threat. This is clearly the big enemy."

Jamal Ismail, a Palestinian journalist, says a bin Laden aide called him after Tuesday's attack to say bin Laden denied being involved but "thanked almighty Allah ... when he heard this news."

Why would the son of a construction magnate, a man destined for a life of ease and riches, rejoice in the massacre of innocents? Because of rage against America and its support for Israel, say people who have known or met him.

Bin Laden, 47, was once a hero in his own country, gaining a reputation as a courageous, resourceful commander in the Afghan war against the Soviets.

When he returned to Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was showered with praise and donations and was in demand as a speaker. Over 250,000 cassettes of his fiery speeches were distributed, selling out as soon as they appeared.

"When we buy American goods, we are accomplices in the murder of Palestinians," he says in one of the cassettes. "American companies make millions in the Arab world, with which they pay taxes. ... The United States uses that money to send $3 billion a year to Israel, which it uses to kill Palestinians." The tapes are now banned in Saudi Arabia.

Ismail met bin Laden in the 1980s in Peshawar, a Pakistani town that was the staging ground for anti-Soviet attacks. In an interview from Islamabad, Ismail said he would fly in on a private jet loaded with gifts for the fighters. "He would train with his men, eat with them and never make them feel he's doing them a favor."

He said bin Laden tries to speak the classical Arabic of the Koran and peppers his speech with pious references.

It was in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet fight that bin Laden's rage grew. Among his visitors were Palestinians who told him about losing family, friends and homes in clashes with the Israelis.

"I have seen him sob several times upon hearing such stories," Ismail said.

In bin Laden's eyes, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 did not mean the end of the struggle. But opposing the United States put him at odds with the Saudi monarchy, which has close ties with Washington.

In 1990, U.S. troops landed in Saudi Arabia to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Bin Laden tried to dissuade the government from allowing in non-Moslem armies.

A one-time neighbor said in 1998 that bin Laden presented the Saudi defense minister with a 10-page program to train Saudis to defend themselves and use equipment from his family's firm to fortify the border with Iraq.

But the Saudi leadership turned to the United States to protect its vast oil reserves. When he continued criticizing Riyadh's alliance with Washington, bin Laden was stripped of citizenship and sought refuge in Sudan. Under U.S. and Saudi pressure, the Sudanese expelled him, and he returned to Afghanistan.

There, bin Laden prepared for the holy war. Almost daily, he and his men practiced attacks, hurling explosives and shooting at imaginary enemies.

Although news reports have said bin Laden funds his operations through a vast international financial empire, former associates have said those claims are exaggerated. Saudi Arabia froze his bank accounts and his $350 million share of the family business in 1992. He lost about $150 million in investments when he was forced to leave Sudan in 1996. The next year, a former financial aide, Sayed Tayib al-Madani, was pardoned by Saudi Arabia in return for exposing some of bin Laden's financial operations.