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Osama bin Laden Called His Mother to Say He Wouldn't Be Able to Get in Touch

In this series, Newsweek maps the road to 9/11 as it happened 20 years ago, day by day.

Osama bin Laden telephoned his mother in Syria on September 10 to tell her that he might not be able to meet her for a while because "something big" was going to happen that would end their communications for a long time.

Mohammed bin Laden and his wife, Alia Ghanem, a Syrian, gave birth to Osama ("young lion" in Arabic) in Riyadh on March 10, 1957. He was 17th of 52 children sired by the elder bin Laden, who over the years took 11 different wives. Bin Laden's father ended up being Saudi Arabia's wealthiest construction magnate and a close friend of the Saud royal family, granted many contracts to build basic infrastructure in the country and then to renovate Islamic holy shrines.

When he was three, Osama's mother divorced Mohammed, and bin Laden was raised by his mother's second husband in Saudi Arabia. He grew up and attended school mostly in Jeddah, joining the Muslim Brotherhood at a young age. The young Osama went to Pakistan (and then Afghanistan) after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and there became connected with a number of soaring Islamic radical intellectuals. His main work during the Soviet occupation was caring for Afghan and Arab fighters and refugees and in monitoring Saudi and Gulf state young men who came to Afghanistan to wage "jihad." There was no contact between the CIA and bin Laden during this period as he generally dealt with the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

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Osama phoned his mother in Syria on September 10 and told her he wouldn't be able to be in touch for a while. A videotape released by Al-Jazeera TV featuring Osama bin Laden is broadcast in Britain December 27, 2001. Getty Images

With the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the CIA also withdrew all of the support for its covert action program against the Soviets and maintained no significant assets within the country. Little was known about bin Laden other than that he was one of many financiers of radical and terrorist groups. In 1993, a special unit was established within the CIA Counterterrorist Center (CTC) called the Bin Laden Station that focused on developing intelligence on the financier. Through 1998, when the two African embassies were attacked in August, the CIA worked alone and with friendly foreign intelligence services to disrupt bin Laden, degrade his ability to engage in terrorism, and bring him to justice.

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Looking at flyers of the missing from the World Trade Center disaster at a Prayer Wall, September 15, 2001 in New York, four days after the bombing of the landmark New York twin towers. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Joint Inquiry concluded after 9/11: "Between 1996 and September 2001, the counterterrorism strategy adopted by the U. S. Government did not succeed in eliminating Afghanistan as a sanctuary and training ground for Usama Bin Ladin's [sic] terrorist network. A range of instruments was used to counter al-Qa'ida [sic], with law enforcement often emerging as a leading tool because other means were deemed not to be feasible or failed to produce results. While generating numerous successful prosecutions, law enforcement efforts were not adequate by themselves to target or eliminate Bin Ladin's sanctuary. The United States persisted in observing the rule of law and accepted norms of international behavior, but Bin Ladin and al-Qa'ida [sic] recognized no rules and thrived in the safe haven provided by Afghanistan.... Despite intelligence information on the immediacy of the threat level in the spring and summer of 2001, the assumption prevailed in the U.S. Government that attacks of the magnitude of September 11 could not happen here. As a result, there was insufficient effort to alert the American public to the reality and gravity of the threat."

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"Something big" was going to happen, said Osama bin Laden on September 10, 2001. Policemen and firemen run away from the huge dust cloud caused as the World Trade Center's Tower One collapses after terrorists crashed two hijacked planes into the twin towers, September 11, 2001 in New York City. Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images

Newsweek is reconstructing the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day. Each day a new story will be published here. On September 11 we'll live tweet the events of the day, minute by minute, starting at 4:45 a.m. EST, @RoadTo911.