Nov 18, 2001

21st-Century Jihad

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company The New York Times November 18, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final SECTION: Section 7; Page 15; Column 1; Book Review Desk LENGTH: 1369 words HEADLINE: 21st-Century Jihad BYLINE: By Ethan Bronner; Ethan Bronner, an editor at The Times, was the Middle East correspondent for The Boston Globe from 1991 to 1997. BODY: HOLY WAR, INC. Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. By Peter L. Bergen. 283 pp. New York: The Free Press. $26. The gathering -- a sea of colored cloth, flowing robes, turbans and fezzes, of silk headscarves and pantaloons -- rose rhythmically to chants of "jihad" and "Allahu akbar" ("God is great"). Anguished lectures described an unrelenting threat from the West. It was 1995 in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, at a biennial meeting of militant Muslim groups from more than 80 countries. The theme was straightforward: the West, led by the United States, had defeated the Soviet Union through the exploitation of Muslim forces in Afghanistan. Now the Americans, with their sick culture of sex and hamburgers, were moving to phase two, establishing their hegemony as the sole and unstoppable superpower. Look around, speakers said. Palestine was overrun by Jews armed with nuclear weapons, Iraqi children were being starved, Kashmir was bleeding, Chechnya destroyed, Algeria imploding, Bosnia disintegrating. The United Nations and Amnesty International were tools of the West, the media run by Zionists. None of it was shocking to anyone spending time in the Arab world in the 1990's. Yet in the era of the globalizing economy, with Israel and the Palestinians making progress on a peace framework, and with the sophisticated classes of Jordan, Egypt and even Syria wearing Chicago Bulls shirts and watching CNN, the conference seemed especially pathetic and irrelevant. I was the only American reporter there, and while I was struck by the depth of the anger and the dangerous failure of the attendants to see that they were being left behind by history, I couldn't really blame my colleagues for passing it up. What future did this crowd have? As a Western diplomat based in Khartoum put it to me, the meeting was a "gathering of losers." Since September, we have all begun to focus more clearly on the power of such shared rage. And while Osama bin Laden was not at that conference, his name was heard often. Three years later, when he announced the formation of the "Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," the text he issued sounded like a summary of its speeches. Peter L. Bergen, an American-born, English-educated television journalist, set out six years ago to meet and understand bin Laden. As he says in "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden," completed in August and rushed into print after the Sept. 11 attack, he had wanted to get to the bottom of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Through intermediaries in London, he persuaded bin Laden to give his first television interview to the English-speaking world to CNN in 1997. The opening chapter of this engaging, well-written account of bin Laden and his organization tells of Bergen's trip with the correspondent Peter Arnett to a cave in Afghanistan to interview the man whom the State Department the previous year called "the most significant financial sponsor of Islamic extremist activities in the world today." Bergen has a fine eye for detail, and as we accompany him over pothole-filled paths, across chaotic borders, checking out arms bazaars and listening to bin Laden's soft cough as he proclaims that Americans are fair game for attack, we sense we are on an interesting journey with a trustworthy guide. Bergen frames several issues well that are now of some urgency to grasp. Al Qaeda, bin Laden's organization, is best understood, he says, as a multinational holding company based in Afghanistan. The traditional structure of a holding company, he points out, is "a core management group controlling partial or complete interests in other companies. Holding companies are also sometimes used by criminals to disguise their illegal activities and are often based in countries where they can operate with little or no regulatory scrutiny." Bergen notes the significance of 1979 in contemporary Muslim history. That was the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. He compares the way Muslims were drawn to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan to the way socialists and fellow travelers were drawn to Spain to fight Franco's fascists in the 1930's. Given the hysteria and half-truths surrounding bin Laden, Bergen steers a sensible course, sorting through competing stories. He bursts the myth that the C.I.A. created bin Laden, pointing out that the agency never had a direct relationship with him and that he was anti-American from the start. He also helps elucidate what so many Muslims find attractive about bin Laden -- that he came from an immensely wealthy family and could easily have spent his time, like other rich Saudi boys, in Monte Carlo hotel suites, but chose to live in utter austerity, sleeping on floors, fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and spending his money supporting the Muslim cause. Bergen offers limited psychological insight into bin Laden but he does suggest a few themes. He takes us to the rugged north of Yemen where the bin Ladens originated (the veiled, sheltered women there are so secluded, he says, that they speak their own dialect). The family had moved to Saudi Arabia by the time Osama was born in 1957, one of 50 or so children of Mohammed bin Laden, a fiercely self-directed man who went from having nothing to being a construction tycoon with contracts to expand the great mosques of Mecca and Medina. Mohammed bin Laden died when Osama was 10, and Osama seemed, from his university days forward, to attach himself to somewhat older men with radical, uncompromising visions. First he fell under the spell of two prominent professors of Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University, and in recent years has been under the influence of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon who is widely thought to be the real brains behind Al Qaeda's operations of the past few years. The book devotes several chapters to the major bin Laden milestones of recent years -- his early contacts with the Taliban, the American Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 and the attack on the destroyer Cole in October 2000. For readers who feel they are swimming in daily newspaper articles and television reports and want a single source that brings all the background together, this readable book works well. But since many other fine journalists are now going over the same ground and offering ever more complete versions of what was known in August, for those really interested in Al Qaeda, this is more of a place to start than end. The book contains one significant failing, in my view, and that is Bergen's analysis of why bin Laden is at war with the United States. Bergen takes issue with Samuel Huntington's widely cited thesis that there is a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. He says bin Laden has a clear and specific political agenda -- changing American policy in the Middle East. He opposes the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the bombing of Iraq, support for Israel and for regimes, like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that he considers apostates from Islam. Bin Laden has never, Bergen notes, railed against Coca-Cola or Madonna or homosexuals. But this seems a cramped, literal parsing of bin Laden's few public statements and, in the end, simplistic and unsatisfying. You do not have to accept Huntington's argument entirely to see that this battle is over more than American foreign policy. Bin Laden is the product of a generation of Arab and Muslim failure to come to terms with much of the modern world; Arab societies have imported Western gadgets and machinery but not adopted its method of inquiry. Arab discourse today is stuck between the poles of what the British-Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya has called "triumphalism and breast-beating." This means that the contours of public debate across the region remain sadly limited; education is confused with indoctrination. That, along with poverty and corruption, provides fertile ground for the rage bin Laden stokes. Until those things change, the clash championed by him and his followers will be as much cultural as it is political.