In 1987, Bin Laden was commanding a group of mujahedin that attacked Soviet and pro-Moscow Afghan units in the eastern province of Paktia. The fighting degenerated into hand-to-hand combat, and the attackers had to withdraw. But Bin Laden seized what became a prop central to his public persona — the Kalashnikov automatic rifle that was usually by his side in television interviews or photographs. He claimed to have taken it from a dead Soviet general.
In Afghanistan, Bin Laden's leadership skills and genius for organization became evident.
In Peshawar, he came face to face with Azzam, the incendiary preacher, and they began to work together for the Afghan cause. The men rented a residence and established what they called the House of the Faithful.
The property was to serve as a base for Arab fighters flocking to the Pakistani-Afghan border for a chance to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad. There, Bin Laden would interview the arrivals, then assign them to various factions of the Afghan resistance.
With Azzam, Bin Laden founded the Mujahedin Services Bureau, an organization that sought to channel and strengthen the armed response of Muslims everywhere to the Afghans' plight. By the late 1980s, it reportedly had branches in 50 countries, including the United States.
Bin Laden launched a recruiting drive that enrolled thousands of volunteers. He set up half a dozen camps to train them in guerrilla warfare.
Bin Laden also brought in bulldozers, dump trucks and other assets of his family's company, and drew on his background in construction to build trenches, roads and tunnels to aid the resistance. Many times, it is said, he dug emplacements on the front lines himself and kept working under enemy fire.
He spent tens of millions of dollars of his fortune in Afghanistan, yet led the same spartan life as an ordinary fighter, sleeping on the floor of his Peshawar office on a pallet bed.
Word of the young Saudi's exploits spread through the Middle East, ensuring fresh fighters for the Afghan cause and a steady stream of contributions. According to one Western intelligence estimate, Bin Laden brought in about $50 million a year for the Afghan resistance.
The United States was also generously bankrolling the anti-Soviet fighters. CIA agents from the period say they knew of Bin Laden and approved of what he was doing, but had no interaction with him.
In 1988, a number of the foreign fighters made a decision whose effects are still being felt today. The Soviets, it seemed clear, were on the run. The moment had come to turn the hammer of radical Islam against corrupt and pro-Western regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Among those involved was Omar Abdel Rahman, who would later be convicted of masterminding a plot to blow up New York City landmarks in the early 1990s.
When the metamorphosis was complete, the organization created to fund and staff the anti-Soviet struggle had become Al Qaeda, a multinational network of Muslim extremists.
But in Afghanistan, the holy war was ending in an inconclusive mess.
In 1989, with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the Kremlin, the Soviets withdrew, leaving behind a pro-Kremlin government whose army proved surprisingly strong in the field. The mujahedin fought the regime, and one another. Bin Laden, who had advocated the unity of all believers, grew increasingly disgusted, and finally returned to Jidda.
Despite his bitter disappointment at the end, Bin Laden had learned indelible lessons in Afghanistan. The Soviets' comeuppance demonstrated that even a superpower was no match for the righteous power of an Islamic holy war.
The fight broadens
The next great cataclysm to shake the Arab world would push Bin Laden even further into religious and political extremism, and eventually put him at loggerheads with Saudi ruling family.
It came Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces overran Kuwait.
The panicked Saudis worried that their country might be next. Though Bin Laden had grown increasingly critical of the monarchy, he offered to raise an army of Afghan war veterans to defend the kingdom.
Members of the royal family gave him a polite hearing, but refused his offer.
Instead, they called on the United States to provide protection.
For Bin Laden, the presence of U.S. forces on Saudi soil was a desecration of sacred ground. He appears to have experienced it as a personal humiliation.
"If Italy invited Muslim soldiers to protect the Vatican City, what would be the feeling of the Christian world?" he later said.
When Bin Laden denounced what he called a sacrilege, Saudi authorities threatened to confiscate all his property unless he kept silent.