Jun 06, 2002

Peter Bergen, Holy war, Inc.

Free Press, 283 pages Posted on June 6, 2002 CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen had finished the manuscript of Holy War, Inc. - his book about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda - only a few weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Surveying bin Laden's violent shadow world was a prescient choice for the Oxford-educated U.S. television journalist's first book. In fact, Bergen's publisher rushed Holy War, Inc. into print with some quick updating from its author ? and without a full index. It's easy to see why that is. Bergen's book is the best available work on bin Laden, even as a number of books about the mysterious terrorist leader - including Yossef Bodansky's error-ridden Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America and Roland Jacquand's In the Name of Osama Bin Laden: Global Terrorism and the Bin Laden Brotherhood have come to the market. It's impeccably researched and the authoritative source on the rise of bin Laden from the chaos of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the political turmoil that followed. Yet, equally important is that fact that Holy War, Inc. is written with a narrative flair that perfectly suits the exciting story that it tells. As the CNN producer who arranged journalist Peter Arnett's 1997 interview with bin Laden, Bergen is among the few Westerners who has actually met al-Qaeda's leader. The opening sentence of Holy War, Inc. ? "When you go looking for Osama bin Laden, you don't find him: he finds you." ? provides a suitably chilling beginning to the saga. In the book's gripping prologue, readers of Holy War, Inc. journey with Bergen to meet the reclusive bin Laden in his Afghanistan hideaway. One of Bergen's strengths as an author is his eye for the succinct detail that sums up a scene or a place. It's a skill in which Bergen is the equal of The Fall of Yugoslavia author Misha Glenny -- an acknowledged master of the quick quip that sets the plate for more weighty discussion. For instance, CNN's bin Laden interview team journeyed from Pakistan into Afghanistan for the interview via the town of Darra, which Bergen describes thusly: "[Darra] might be the world's largest outlet store for weaponry. There, you can buy guns that are disguised as pens and shoot only one bullet ? a bargain at seven bucks. Or, for the more sportive customer, there are flamethrowers, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Prefer to start with a test drive? For fifty dollars, they'll let you fire a bazooka. The gunsmiths in Darra do a brisk business." Bergen observes that for all the efforts they put into obtaining the interview ?including abandoning their own cameras due to al-Qaeda's fears of an assassination attempt on bin Laden ? the story "had little impact." The events of September 11, however, changed all that, and the attacks thrust bin Laden into the international spotlight. As the author ends Holy War, Inc.'s prologue, he recalls that bin Laden's final words, when asked about his future plans, were: "You'll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing." God willing or unwilling, the entire world has indeed heard about bin Laden's "future plans." Yet, what makes Holy War, Inc. such a fascinating read is the author's ability to explain how bin Laden's rose to prominence ? and the psychology behind the terrorist attacks that he has launched. In fact, Bergen's book is a useful antidote against much of the nonsense that has surrounded discussions of al-Qaeda, particularly in the U.S. media. Holy War, Inc. traces bin Laden's upbringing in a family of wealthy Saudi capitalists ("When you order a hamburger at a Hard Rock Cafe in the Middle East," Bergen writes, "the bin Laden family takes a bite of the profits.") and his attraction to the conflict in Afghanistan in 1979. Five years into the war against the Soviet invaders, bin Laden already was funding military operations ?and laying the groundwork for the al-Qaeda movement. Holy War, Inc also provides a useful primer on how bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives have used the new tools of globalization ? e-mail, money transfers ?against the countries from which they sprang. "Al-Qaeda," Bergen observes, "was as globally minded as any other international company.") Attacks such as the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, argues Bergen, were "dress rehearsals" for the more spectacular attacks of 2001. Viewed through the simplistic prism imposed upon the "war on terrorism" by U.S. President George W. Bush and others, the conflict between the "civilized" world and al-Qaeda is essentially a moral and religious conflict ? the white cowboy hats of the United States against the black turbans of radical Islam. American values, it is said, are under assault in by fundamentalist Muslims bent on terror. In Holy War, Inc., however, Bergen takes a more complex and well-informed view of what bin Laden's motivations for waging jihad against the United States and other targets. "If you have read this far in Holy War, Inc.," he writes, "then presumably the question you are hoping will be answered is: Why is bin Laden doing what he does?" After examining the glaring lack of bin Laden pronouncements on the cultural evils of the West (such as Hollywood, or pornography, or drugs or homosexuality) the author concludes that the al-Qaeda leader's war on the United States is a "political" war. "The hijackers who came to America," writes Bergen, "did not attack the headquarters of a major brewery or AOL-Time Warner or Coca-Cola, nor did they attack Las Vegas or Manhattan's West Village or even the Supreme Court. They attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, preeminent symbols of the United States' military and economic might." Holy War, Inc.'s clarity of thought and its engaging narrative combine to make it essential reading for anyone who has an interest in how the September 11 attacks in the United States came to pass. Bergen casts a bright light into terrorism's darkest corners ? and helps the reader to gaze unflinchingly at what he has discovered there.