Apr 20, 2006

review of OBL I know in Books in Canada

Books in Canada    In 1997, Peter Bergen travelled to Afghanistan to interview a young Saudi who, word had it, was using his family wealth to finance international terrorism. Bergen listened for an hour as the tall, thin man in camouflage quietly declared war against the West. Asked about his plans, he replied: “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.”     The interview with Osama bin Laden caused hardly a ripple when it aired on CNN on May 10, 1997, but a year later, the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, Ahmed Ressam was caught on the Canada-U.S. border on his way to blow up Los Angeles airport, the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen, and then came the attacks of September 11. The apocalyptic threats bin Laden had made to Bergen in soft-spoken monotone no longer seemed so far-fetched. Bergen’s first book, Holy War Inc., about the rise of al-Qaeda, was an international bestseller. Bergen was recognised as a leading authority on bin Laden. But even then, Bergen wasn’t sure he really understood the man he had met in that mud hut near Jalalabad. In his new book The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader, Bergen sets out to learn more about the world’s most wanted terrorist through the recollections of dozens of people who have known him over the years. He also weaves in quotes from Jihad magazine, the mouthpiece of the Arabs who formed al-Qaeda, which Bergen stumbled across in Kabul. Oral history can be difficult to pull off but Bergen’s book works for the most part because of the credibility of his sources (everyone quoted in the book has actually met bin Laden), the intimate anecdotes they offer up, and the skilled fashion with which the author has stitched them together into a story. The outline of bin Laden’s life is already well known. Born into a wealthy Saudi construction family, he opened a guesthouse for Arab volunteers who were assembling in Peshawar, Pakistan, to help their Muslim brothers fight the Soviet troops who had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Bin Laden eventually formed his own Arab fighting faction and went to battle. Emboldened by the Soviet defeat and his experiences of leading men into war, bin Laden teamed up with like-minded Egyptian radicals to take down the remaining superpower, the United States, which he blamed for the ills of the Arab and Muslim world. Bergen wrote all this in his first book, but this time he offers a more nuanced take on bin Laden. That is partly because he was able to travel to Saudi Arabia to flesh out bin Laden’s early years. We learn that he was the only child born to his mother, with whom he had an intense relationship. Bin Laden’s high school English teacher recalls him as shy, courteous, and “not one of the great brains of the class.” We learn that bin Laden was devout as a teenager, that he would fast and give money to the poor of Jeddah. We learn that he purposely lived a simple life, devoid of luxuries and comfort. And we discover that he is driven by a virulent anti-Semitism so strong he named his daughter after an historical figure whose claim to fame was that she slaughtered Jews. Bergen has done his homework and as a result, he is able to go beyond the cartoon caricature of a super villain. Bergen also manages to dispel some of the misconceptions about bin Laden. In particular, he shoots down the common belief that bin Laden helped defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. Bergen discovers that he was actually a military disaster and played no significant role in the conflict. A Western reporter who met him in Afghanistan describes an argument he had with the “rather spoiled brat” who seemed to be “playing at jihad.” Likewise, the myths that bin Laden was financed by the CIA and that al-Qaeda was invented by the Americans in 2001 are both put to rest. “What bin Laden has done is unforgivable,” Bergen writes. “But bin Laden is a man and we need to understand him neither through a fog of our own propaganda . . .nor through the mythomania of his supporters, who style him as a defender of Islam.” What emerges from Bergen’s book is a portrait of a man who started out faithful to his religion but, after living for so long in the isolated world of fanatics and warriors in Afghanistan, ended up faithful only to violence, his laughably distorted view of the world, and his tremendous ego. A fellow al-Qaeda member writes, “I think our brother [bin Laden] has caught the disease of [television] screens, flashes, fans and applause.” Bin Laden’s intent was to draw the West into a global war that he thought he could win. That is his ideology, and he has succeeded in spreading it far and wide in the Muslim world. His serene, self-satisfied face now taunts the West and inspires those who share his grudge-or at least admire him for taking us down a notch. “And this means that we have barely begun the war with al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups because thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world will continue to embrace bin Laden’s doctrine of violent anti-Westernism,” Bergen writes. Bergen believes that capturing bin Laden is still critical. Even though he is in hiding and no longer exerts control over his organisation, bin Laden continues to provide “broad strategic guidance” to terrorists, and every day he remains at large is a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda, Bergen writes. Whether he will ever be caught is another matter. Bergen quotes a former bodyguard who says he was instructed to kill bin Laden if it appeared he was about to be captured. “I think he desires only one thing,” says another bin Laden associate, “and that is martyrdom.” Bergen also believes that bin Laden’s project is ultimately doomed. The 9/11 attacks were a strategic disaster, costing bin Laden his sanctuary in Afghanistan and setting off a counterterrorism campaign that has netted much of the al-Qaeda leadership. In addition, Bergen documents how many of those close to bin Laden were turned off by 9/11, including his own son. Nor has the vast majority of Muslims embraced his vague vision of global jihad. Bin Laden has espoused endlessly about what he is against, but he has been unable to articulate what he is for, beyond copycats of the repressive Taliban regime. Bin Laden has reached a level of fanaticism that lets him stand for nothing but violence. For a man devoted to his own martyrdom, that might seem attractive but for everyone else, it is hardly an appealing vision. Stewart Bell (Books in Canada)