He has a soft voice, a melancholy smile and a gift for flowery Arabic, which allows Osama bin Laden to explain in pleasing poetry why all Americans should die.
To the West, bin Laden is the face of evil, a terrorist who has built a worldwide network connecting zealous fighters with rogue states. He is accused of involvement in the bombings in 1998 of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people, and in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen last fall. That makes him a suspect in Tuesday's attacks on American soil.
"He's probably the most popular individual in the Muslim world," says Yossef Bodansky, author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. "He's the most lucid and eloquent spokesman for all of the grievances Muslims have toward the West, justified and unjustified."
Bin Laden, who had a university education in Saudi Arabia but lacks a formal Islamic education, has been able to make an exceptionally persuasive case that international terrorism is the work of God, Bodansky says.
"It's correct that the majority of Muslims don't follow his beliefs, but we have yet to find someone with similar credentials who can make a contradictory case in Islamic terms," he says. "The contradictory arguments are made at the higher, academic level, but not at the popular level."
Bin Laden, who is in his mid-40s, is part of a large and influential Saudi family that made its money in construction. His fortune is estimated at $350 million. He is the youngest of 24 brothers and has 16 to 18 children. He was radicalized 20 years ago, when he went to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad, or holy war, against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
"He fought bravely, and he returned to Saudi Arabia a hero," Bodansky says.
Bin Laden objected to the American presence in Saudi Arabia after the gulf war, creating diplomatic difficulties for his country, and he was exiled to Sudan.
There he fell under the influence of a Sudanese religious leader, Hassan Turabi, and became further radicalized even as he learned the religious arguments to support his beliefs. In 1996, Sudan succumbed to U.S. diplomatic pressure and forced bin Laden to leave. He went to Afghanistan, where he has lived ever since, training religious fighters recruited from numerous Muslim countries.
He named his organization Al Qaeda, "the base" in Arabic, and began recruiting members from among 50,000 Afghan war veterans. In 1998, he allied himself with several other militant leaders and issued a religious decree called a fatwa: "To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible."
"He's a formidable foe," Bodansky says, "not as a bomb-builder but as someone building a structure among a quarter of the human population." Al Qaeda reportedly has trained about 5,000 militants who have returned to their homes to set up cells of their own.
Bodansky, who works as a congressional consultant as director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, insists that it is too early to declare bin Laden a suspect in Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"The investigation is still at the beginning," he says. "It's going to take time before we can really say this guy did it or that guy did it. It's far too early to have this kind of quick explanation."
Bob Maxim, Middle East analyst for Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services in Virginia, says bin Laden has focused on the United States as the symbol of all the things that Islam despises. These feelings have been inflamed by U.S. support of Israel.
"He sees the U.S. as permissive and promiscuous, tolerating values that are utterly destructive of the social fabric," Maxim says. "You combine the religious grounds and the political grounds, and that's the motivation."
Maxim does not believe Taliban assertions that bin Laden is innocent of terrorism.
"They're in a different moral dimension," Maxim says. "You don't have to tell the truth to infidels."
Al Qaeda reportedly wants not only to expel Westerners from Islamic countries but to overthrow nonreligious governments in Muslim countries. Some sources say the group could have up to several thousand members among various Sunni Muslim organizations.
Bodansky blames sponsoring states for allowing bin Laden or anyone else to carry out terrorist acts.
"He can inspire people to hate us, but it still takes a lot of skill and money to get things done. That requires sponsoring states," Bodansky says. "There's no justification for them to run training camps and hijacking schools.
"Bin Laden can advocate whatever he wants until eternity, but little will come of it without sponsoring states. Someone is teaching them to fly and providing them with false documents to the West. It's not just a problem of an individual," he says.
Bodansky does not expect Afghanistan to accede to U.S. pressure and give up bin Laden anytime soon. The oldest daughter of the favorite of his four wives is married to the mullah who heads the Taliban, the religious group that controls Afghanistan.
"That starts and ends the issue," Bodansky says.