Nov 01, 2001

Atlantic Monthly Review of Holy War Inc.

Books & CriticsBooks New & Noteworthy Osama bin Laden's mindset; two extraordinary novels; the peaceful collapse of "The Evil Empire" ..... Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden by Peter L. Bergen Free Press, 297 pages, $26.00 A few hours after the first American air strikes against Afghanistan, on October 7, a pre-recorded videotape was broadcast around the world. A tall, skinny man with a scraggly beard, wearing a camouflage fatigue jacket and the headdress of a desert tribesman, an AK-47 assault rifle at his side, stood placidly before a rocky backdrop. In measured language Osama bin Laden again declared war on the United States. Only a few weeks before, bin Laden's statement would likely have been dismissed as the inflated rhetoric of a saber-rattling braggart. But with the World Trade Center laid to waste, the Pentagon heavily damaged, and the wreckage of a hijacked plane strewn across a field in rural Pennsylvania, his declamation was taken very seriously indeed. Precisely how bin Laden achieved this feat is the subject of Peter Bergen's unusually astute book. Bergen, an Oxford-educated television journalist who in 1997 produced the first televised interview with bin Laden, is one of only a few Americans who have actually met him - a fact that alone endows Holy War, Inc. with a perspective that none of bin Laden's other biographers can claim. Moreover, Bergen's research took him not only to Afghanistan but also to the place where the bin Laden family originated, in the isolated Hadramawt region of Yemen, and to Pakistan, Egypt, and Kashmir, among other places. The portrait of bin Laden that Bergen paints is therefore richer and more complex than the image of a hate-filled, mindless fanatic that prevails today. The broad outline of bin Laden's history is by now well known. The scion of a porter turned construction magnate, whose money-making prowess was perhaps matched only by his ability to produce countless progeny and his religious piety, bin Laden sought to make his own mark in life as a patron of jihad. Accordingly, in the early 1980s, he was drawn to Afghanistan, where he helped to rally - and even more critical, to fund - the Muslim guerrilla forces resisting that country's Soviet invaders. The guerrillas' success in repelling one of the world's two superpowers had a lasting impact on bin Laden. To his mind, Russia's defeat in Afghanistan set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the collapse of the USSR and the demise of communism. This same reductionism, coupled with an abiding sense of divinely ordained historical inevitability, today convinces bin Laden that he and his fighters cannot but triumph in the struggle against America. Where Holy War, Inc. shines is less in the recounting of these familiar details than in Bergen's insight into bin Laden's mindset and behavior. For example, Bergen notes, bin Laden is a graduate of Saudi Arabia's prestigious King Abdul-Aziz University, where he obtained a degree in economics and public administration in 1981. According to Bergen, he subsequently cut his teeth in the family business and later used corporate-management techniques he had learned in the classroom and on the job to transform al Qaeda (Arabic for "the Base"), which he founded, into the world's pre-eminent terrorist organization. Bin Laden achieved this by cleverly combining an Islamic fundamentalist world view with the technological munificence of modernity: al Qaeda operatives, for example, encrypt messages on Macintosh or Toshiba computers, communicate by e-mail or on Internet bulletin boards, use satellite telephones, and fly first class. As Bergen explains, "this grafting of entirely modern sensibilities and techniques to the most radical interpretation of holy war is the hallmark of bin Laden's network." Bergen offers the professionally produced and edited two-hour al Qaeda recruitment videotape that bin Laden circulated throughout the Middle East last summer (which also subtly presaged the September 11 attacks) as an example of bin Laden's nimble exploitation of "twenty-first-century communications and weapons technology in the service of the most extreme, retrograde reading of holy war." The tape, with its footage of "infidels" attacking Muslims in Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Indonesia; of children starving under the yoke of UN economic sanctions in Iraq; and of the accursed "Crusader" military forces in the holy land of Arabia, was subsequently converted to DVD format for ease in copying onto computers and uploading to the World Wide Web for global dissemination. "All men dream: but not equally," wrote T. E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. "Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible." Bergen sees bin Laden as one of those dangerous men. Indeed, in an age arguably devoid of ideological leadership, when the impersonal forces of economic determinism and globalization are thought to have erased the ability of a single man to affect the course of history, bin Laden-despite our efforts?managed to taunt us and to strike at us for years even before September 11. His effective melding of religious fervor, Muslim piety, and a profound sense of grievance into a powerful ideological force?however invidious and repugnant?stands as an undeniably towering accomplishment. Bin Laden cast this struggle as precisely the "clash of civilizations" that America and its coalition partners have labored so hard to avoid. "This is a matter of religion and creed; it is not what Bush and Blair maintain, that it is a war against terrorism," he declared in a videotaped speech broadcast over the Al Jazeera television network on November 3. "There is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels. It is ideological, so Muslims have to ally themselves with Muslims." As Bergen makes clear, bin Laden has been an intelligent, crafty, and formidable adversary. Holy War, Inc. should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand him. -Bruce Hoffman