Nov 11, 2001

Prophet of Evil

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post The Washington Post November 11, 2001, Sunday, Final Edition SECTION: BOOK WORLD; Pg. BW01 LENGTH: 1575 words HEADLINE: Prophet of Evil BYLINE: Reviewed by Jeff Stein BODY: HOLY WAR, INC. Inside the Secret World Of Osama bin Laden By Peter L. Bergen Free Press. 283 pp. $ 26 This is the only book you need to read about Osama bin Laden, at least for now. Peter Bergen, a British-raised producer for CNN and ABC television news, has done the world a favor by writing a work that is at once lively, literate and authoritative -- equal parts journalism, history and even whimsical travelogue, from the London salons of welfare-supported, turbaned blowhards to the sand-whipped redoubts of the jihad in Yemen, Cairo and, of course, Afghanistan. Some Holy War. Imagine, if you will, that Hitler had been booted out of Germany and taken his closest psychopaths into unhappy exile. In Bergen's telling, Holy War, Inc. is a global network of mostly professional Arab malcontents bent on overthrowing the corrupt regimes of the Middle East and taking their peoples back to an idealized version of the 7th century. (The future disposition of the technology they use to get their message across -- cell phones, bank transfers, credit cards, fax machines, Apple Powerbooks, video cameras and satellite dishes, not to mention passenger jets -- remains to be worked out.) But what, as many Americans have wondered since the bloody events of Sept. 11, does this have to do with us? The roundabout answer is that American money and power stand behind, or at least tolerate, the abuses of Islamic regimes from Algiers to Islamabad. But the main point of irritation for bin Laden seems to be the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, "the land of the two holy places" (Mecca and Medina), where the family fortune was acquired through contracts with the monarchy that bin Laden so despises. Before launching jihad at home, however, the future terrorist mastermind first had to earn his stripes against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. This is also where Bergen started, in 1983, making a documentary on Afghan refugees fleeing the Russian invasion. He returned a decade later, following the trail of the first World Trade Center bombers to bin Laden's cave. By the time he went back again, bin Laden had issued his first fatwa saying it was the duty of all good Muslims to kill Americans. Bergen was curious. "When you go looking for Osama bin Laden, you don't find him, he finds you," Bergen observes, fittingly enough, at the book's outset. "It was March 1997 when the phone rang." I won't spoil the reader's pleasure of accompanying Bergen on his tour through the vicissitudes of tumultuous Pakistan and war-bitten Afghanistan to meet bin Laden in his well-guarded and well-hidden lair. Suffice it to say that Bergen is out to understand the bearded ghost behind Holy War, Inc: How could this wraithlike, shy, to-the-mansion-born Saudi billionaire morph into a spelunking cult figure among Muslims who, according to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, "resent everything" happening to them around the world, from Israel to Chechnya to Bosnia and Kosovo to Kashmir? Throw in Hollywood, too, says Musharraf: "It is a long list of complaints that has generated a strong persecution complex [among Muslims]. He is a hero figure on the pedestal of Muslim extremism." Upwards of 25,000 Arabs answered the call of the Afghan jihad during 1980-89, most subsidized by some $ 20 million a month in Saudi funds that were funneled to bin Laden by the head of Saudi intelligence. Bergen notes the irony of royal millions going to support bin Laden, calling it "part of a continuing larger pattern of Saudi funding of militant Islamist organizations, known as riyalpolitik, which is supposed to shore up Saudi legitimacy, but actually undermines it, because it funds the very groups most opposed to the Saudi regime." Speaking of blowback -- the mot du jour for unintended consequences -- Bergen takes a swipe at CIA conspiracy mongers. "While the charges that the CIA was responsible for the rise of the Afghan Arabs might make good copy," he writes, "they don't make good history. The truth is more complicated, tinged with varying shades of gray." For starters, most of the Arabs flocked to Afghanistan on their own to die for Allah, a development that the Afghans themselves found unrelievedly and self-righteously obnoxious. "Whenever we had a problem with them we just shot them," an Afghan told one of Bergen's colleagues. "They thought they were kings." The war drew terrorists from all over the Arab world, including key members of the Egyptian Jihad group involved in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, such as the rotund, bespeckled Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahir, now constantly at bin Laden's side. The blind Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, now doing time in a U.S. federal penitentiary for plotting to blow up the Holland Tunnel and other New York landmarks, showed up there, too. So did Mohammed Odeh, a Jordanian who engineered the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya. "Having lost his deeply religious father while he was still a child, bin Laden would, throughout his life, be influenced by religiously radical older men," Bergen writes. The first of these were professors of Islamic studies at Jeddah's King Abdul-Aziz University. One was a founder of the global jihad movement, the other the brother of a man who'd written the movement's key text. "It's as if Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman's brother had taught him about capitalism," Bergen writes. It wasn't long after graduating in 1981 that bin Laden began uttering anti-American oaths and urging boycotts of U.S. goods. Then, in 1983, he keenly observed the effect of a 1983 suicide truck bomb that killed 241 Marines in Beirut: Even "cowboy" Ronald Reagan pulled up stakes and ran. But the real magic of the Afghan jihad was how it fired the radical Arab imagination, Bergen says. It was "an intoxicating moral victory: a superpower had been defeated in the name of Allah." Considering this, and the swift U.S. retreat from Lebanon, Arabs began to think past the Palestinian struggle to a larger canvas: Islamism the world over. Why get bogged down fighting Israel in Gaza when you can carry the war to America itself -- hit the puppeteer, not the puppets? Back from Afghanistan and having enhanced his hero status with far-flung highway and agricultural projects in desperately poor Sudan, bin Laden embarked on his first experiment to torture the United States. He dispatched operatives to Somalia to help kill American Rangers and drag their corpses through the streets of Mogadishu. Dazed, the Clinton administration quickly retreated. In response to the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa, Clinton ordered ineffectual cruise missile strikes on bin Laden's putative outposts in Afghanistan and Sudan. (The latter strike in particular only fueled anti-American sentiments in the region by destroying Sudan's largest pharmaceutical factory.) Two years later, the bombing of the USS Cole in the election season went entirely unanswered, despite Clinton's secret order for the CIA to assassinate bin Laden. Then came Sept. 11, a demonstration that Holy War, Inc. was tuned up for a knockout blow. "Bin Laden is not some Ay-rab who woke up one morning in a bad mood, his turban all in a twist, only to decide America was THE ENEMY," Bergen writes with heat. "He has reasons for hating the United States, and if we understand those reasons, we will have a glimmer of insight into what provoked the terrible events of September 11." Those reasons do not include "Madonna's midriff, or the drug and alcohol culture of the West, or its tolerance for homosexuals," Bergen opines, contradicting the president of Pakistan, another Muslim leader anxious about offending the true believers in his country. "[Bin Laden] leaves that kind of material to . . . Jerry Falwell." Or Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor whose "seductive" theory of an apocalyptic "clash of [Christian and Muslim] civilizations" is all the rage these days, Bergen says, but wrong. "What [bin Laden] condemns the United States for is simple: Its policies in the Middle East," Bergen insists. "These are . . . the continued U.S. military presence in Arabia; U.S. support for Israel; its continued bombing of Iraq; and its support for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that bin Laden regards as apostates from Islam." Everything is negotiable in time, but not when there are some 4,600 dead, a smoldering hole where the World Trade Center used to be, a side of the Pentagon obliterated and an anthrax threat at our throats and noses. It's somewhat -- but only somewhat -- comforting to be reminded that, for every crazed Islamic terrorist, there are millions upon millions of other Muslims who just want to get along. Eventually, Bergen thinks, Holy War, Inc. will be pounded into isolation and smothered in its Afghan crib. "One can only hope," he says, "that will pave the way for a more moderate Afghanistan but also for a new era of reconciliation between the great civilizations of the West and the Muslim world. As the great Jewish prophet -- recognized by Muslims and Christians alike -- observed two thousand years ago: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." All others go to hell. Jeff Stein is coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda."