Who Is He?

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Reviewed by Richard A. Clarke
Sunday, January 22, 2006


An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader

By Peter L. Bergen

Free Press. 444 pp. $26

When the Arabic news network al-Jazeera broadcast a new audiotape believed to be from Osama bin Laden on Thursday, it gave us the first evidence we've had in 13 months that the al Qaeda leader still lives. Safely distanced from tell-tale telephones and e-mails that could be used to track him, he may now be giving broad guidance to his followers via a "Pony Express" of trusted couriers. Or he may have fled to a country other than Afghanistan or Pakistan, where he's most frequently said to be lurking. One thing he is definitely not, however, is caught, "dead or alive," at the instructions of President George W. Bush.

Bin Laden is the man who defied America, who gored the only superpower and got away with it. He is now a symbol -- Abu Jihad, the father of the holy struggle -- and a spiritual leader, an inspiration and a role model to millions. Much as Che Guevara was as important in life as in death to the communist cause in Latin America, bin Laden will be a force for years.

In large part, that's because he founded not only his relatively small jihadist group, al Qaeda, but also created or rebuilt terrorist organizations in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, the Pacific Rim, South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. Those organizations took over from the original core of al Qaeda (Arabic for "the base") when the United States belatedly invaded the sanctuary that bin Laden had created in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. When that base was largely destroyed, its offspring took over the struggle. Al Qaeda-related groups staged twice as many attacks in the 36 months after 9/11 as al Qaeda itself had in the previous 36 months, according to State Department reports. The second stage of jihad that bin Laden seems to have planned is still unfolding today.

So who was this son of a Yemeni businessman turned Saudi construction magnate? What made him into history's most successful terrorist? Peter L. Bergen has written what will long be a "go-to" resource for those seeking answers to such questions. A Johns Hopkins University faculty member and a CNN consultant who himself met bin Laden in 1997, Bergen has created something unique: a chronological record of what is known about bin Laden from his birth in 1957 to 2005, assembled by stringing together statements from bin Laden and those who taught him, met him, worked with him or interviewed him over those 48 years. The result is a detailed, well-researched narrative that persuasively answers dozens of questions that are still painfully relevant today: Did the CIA give bin Laden his start in Afghanistan in the 1980s jihad against the Soviets? (No, the CIA's aid went directly to Afghan mujaheddin fighting the occupiers, not to Arab outsiders like bin Laden.) Did the Pentagon let him slip away in 2001? (Yes, by only belatedly sending U.S. troops to Tora Bora, where Bergen -- despite Bush administration claims -- confirms that bin Laden was cornered.) Is bin Laden behind Abu Musab Zarqawi's insurgent attacks in Iraq? (No, Zarqawi's group was always a separate, Jordanian-based organization, not one that takes orders from bin Laden.) Did Saddam Hussein and bin Laden work together? (No, the fanatically religious bin Laden loathed the secular Iraqi tyrant.)

Bergen, the author of the bestselling Holy War, Inc. (2001), has made a fresh contribution here by unearthing often obscure first-person accounts, attempting to establish their credibility and providing bridging and scene-setting narratives that link them together. Although these accounts are often self-serving and may be inaccurate, they still produce a far more detailed picture of bin Laden than the one that emerges from more conventional biographies.

Here, bin Laden hardly seems exceptional (or, for that matter, unusually bright). As a young man, he was strictly religious, according to many of Bergen's sources, but none of them tells us how and why he turned to zealotry. Osama's mother, stepfather, older brothers and boyhood friend next door were far less devout. Thus, on a key question about the young Osama's psyche, Bergen leaves us wondering.

On the other hand, Bergen does help detangle the complex bin Laden family. Osama was among the youngest of the 54 children whom his wealthy father, Mohammed bin Laden, had by multiple wives. Although Osama deeply admired his father, he seldom spent time with him and was raised as much by his stepfather and older brothers as by his beloved sire. The most important of those brothers to Osama may have been Salem bin Laden, who took over the family construction business after Mohammed bin Laden's death in a 1967 plane crash. But the strong-willed, gregarious Salem, like many of Osama's other siblings, seemed to love America and might not have tolerated his brother's eventual loathing for it; Salem spent time with Houston swells and died in Texas while flying his own sports aircraft. Had that Arab pilot not crashed in America in May 1988, one wonders if four others would have on Sept. 11, 2001.

Instead, the apparently impressionable Osama fell under more malevolent influences. Among those who shaped bin Laden ideologically, Bergen stresses three key players: Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam and Ayman Zawahiri.

As a student, Osama read works by Qutb, an Islamist Egyptian firebrand given the death penalty in 1964 by the country's secular dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser. His writings and reputation -- as well as his updated versions of the "Islam is the answer" political creed espoused since the 1920s by the Muslim Brotherhood -- appealed to bin Laden. Bergen flatly states that bin Laden, influenced at university by Qutb's brother, joined the Brotherhood, a secretive, allegedly nonviolent group whose tentacles reach throughout the Arab world today.

It was also at university (although his brothers had attended American or British colleges, Osama studied management and economics at King Abd al-Aziz University in Jedda, Saudi Arabia) that bin Laden met Abdullah Azzam, a radical Palestinian professor of Muslim studies. Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Azzam formed the so-called Services Bureau in Peshawar, Pakistan, to recruit, coordinate and assist Arab volunteers rushing to help the Afghan resistance. Bin Laden, who had inherited some money from his father's estate (far less than is widely believed, according to Bergen), helped out and became Azzam's deputy -- and, eventually, his rival. Bergen reports that the Services Bureau opened branches throughout the United States but was seen by the U.S. government as a friendly group supporting President Reagan's anti-Soviet policies. By 1987, bin Laden's all-Arab unit of jihadists had withstood a 22-day siege by Soviet special forces at a camp named al Masada, the Lion's Den, that he built near the eastern Afghanistan village of Jaji. Showing his skill with propaganda, bin Laden publicized the inconsequential battle of Jaji throughout the Muslim world. He became a hero; Azzam died mysteriously in 1989.

During the jihad against the Soviets, bin Laden met an Egyptian doctor named Ayman Zawahiri who had volunteered to patch up wounded Afghan fighters. Zawahiri was well-educated and thoroughly radicalized; he had been tortured by Egyptian authorities in the investigation following President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination by Islamist gunmen. The doctor opened bin Laden's eyes to the possibilities of using the Services Bureau's newfound network to help spread jihad not just in Afghanistan but around the globe. Although Zawahiri did not give up his own terrorist organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, to become bin Laden's deputy until the late 1990s, the Egyptian fanatic soon became bin Laden's key partner. Zawahiri, in turn, was linked to the so-called blind sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, who was arrested in 1993 for plotting bombings in the New York area, including the 1993 attack on the Twin Towers. Bergen's sources suggest that the blind sheik's connection to Zawahiri ultimately led to al Qaeda's thoughts of even more spectacular attacks in New York.

Bergen's own analysis comes through most strongly when he discusses the war in Iraq, which he argues has greatly strengthened the global jihadist movement for some time to come by helping make bin Laden's case that America has rapacious designs on the Arab world. On the other hand, because he relies mostly on the words of others, Bergen's fine volume has one key weakness: It says little or nothing about some important subjects regarding bin Laden that still lurk in the shadows, such as al Qaeda's past or present cell structure in the United States and the role of Iran's secretive, elite Qods Force in supporting Zawahiri. For those dogs that have not yet barked, historians will have to wait for a later book. ยท

Richard A. Clarke served as White House counterterrorism coordinator under Presidents Clinton and Bush. He is the author of "Against All Enemies" and "The Scorpion's Gate."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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