Nov 01, 2001

Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World Of Osama bin Laden

Peter L. Bergen Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World Of Osama bin Laden (Free Press) With the 24-hour news cycle providing a messy first draft of history, context has become a scarce commodity, especially when it comes to a figure as frightening and unknowable as Osama bin Laden. Will he be remembered down the line as an evil tactician who touched off a tectonic clash of civilizations? Or will his ideas end up, as President Bush memorably put it, "in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies"? Holy War, Inc. doesn't address such questions directly, but it does offer a comprehensive and well-balanced look into the militant world that gave rise to bin Laden and his army of believers. Hugely anticipated as the first major treatment of the subject to hit stores since Sept. 11 (and excerpted in the December issue of Vanity Fair), Holy War, Inc. is the result of more than six years of work by CNN terrorism analyst Peter L. Bergen, who matches tireless research with personal details culled from his own travels throughout the Middle East. The book opens with Bergen's 1997 interview with bin Laden, one of the few interviews granted to Western journalists, and pulls back to retrace bin Laden's eerily quiet, CEO-like march toward the worldwide "privatization of terrorism." Seen by his peers as "sweet and sincere but not a potential leader" during Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union in the '80s, bin Laden went on to build his wealth and influence in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, while first showing up as a blip on U.S. intelligence screens around the time of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Not exactly underreported at this point, bin Laden's story makes up a relatively small portion of Holy War, Inc., partially because of the paucity of verifiable facts, but mostly because of Bergen's admirable effort to illustrate terrorism's frighteningly sprawling reach. The author sets off more than a few alarms with stories of an Al-Qaeda member infiltrating the U.S. military, even teaching classes to a Special Forces unit at Fort Bragg, and the head-crunching complexities of so much Islamic conflict. Sprinkling his reportage with humanizing details—from the Fanta orange-soda habit of the bombers of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania to his own harrowing ride with a Pakistani cabbie who loved Cher's "weirdly compelling" song "Believe"—Bergen writes with a voice that is disturbing in its sweep but comforting in its search for understanding. —Andy Battaglia