Bin Laden By the Book

By Paul R. Pillar
Sunday, February 26, 2006

As long as Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large somewhere along the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the hunt for them will be a major part of the al Qaeda story. Their mocking of the hunters, in their repeated audio- and videotapes, will keep them in the news regardless of any operational role they still play.

The nature of that role is an open question, but with bin Laden and Zawahiri on the run and many of the upper echelons of their organization dead or incarcerated, their direct connection with terrorist operations is almost certainly less than at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Other issues involving what remains of bin Laden's group in South Asia include how much assistance it receives from local Afghan and Pakistani populations (or from the still-active Taliban) and how much effort Pakistani security forces are putting into the hunt.

The most important questions about the international terrorist threat today involve not bin Laden's group but the larger radical Sunni Islamist movement of which it is the most familiar part -- and to which the term "al Qaeda" often is loosely applied. The latter usage of that name gives rise to questions about whether al Qaeda is best thought of as an organization or an ideology. In this looser, larger sense, it is more an ideology. But issues of power and organization still arise with, for example, the relationship that bin Laden and Zawahiri have with insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, who has adopted the al Qaeda brand name but has exerted operational autonomy.

As for ideology, there are questions about the extent to which al Qaeda's offshoots and emulators in Europe, East Asia and elsewhere will adhere to bin Laden's concept of a global jihad against a U.S.-led West or will be more focused on national and regional conflicts.


Book-length profiles of al Qaeda include:

· " Through Our Enemies' Eyes" (Potomac Books) by former CIA bin Laden unit chief Michael Scheuer (writing as Anonymous) and Peter Bergen's "Holy War Inc." (Touchstone).

· Bruce Hoffman's "Inside Terrorism" (Columbia University Press) is still probably the best general treatment of terrorism.

· "The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West" (Harvard University Press), by Gilles Kepel, offers a leading European scholar's perspective on the evolving shape of jihadism.

· The first part of "The Age of Sacred Terror" (Random House) by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon traces the ideological roots and modern evolution of Sunni jihadism.

· "The Muslim World After 9/11," a new volume from Rand, is a useful compendium on how changed perspectives after that event have affected many issues throughout the Muslim world.


· Articles that raise questions about some of the conventional wisdom on al Qaeda include: Daniel Byman, "Al-Qaeda as an Adversary: Do We Understand Our Enemy?" (World Politics, October 2003) and Jason Burke, "Think Again: Al Qaeda" (Foreign Policy, May/June 2004).

· I raised some of the implications of a decentralized jihadist movement in "Counterterrorism After Al Qaeda" (Washington Quarterly, Summer 2004).

On the Web

· A concise factual summary about al Qaeda is at, part of the highly informative Web site on terrorism maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations.

· In a similar vein is a report released by the Congressional Research Service in August 2005, "Al Qaeda: Profile and Threat Assessment," available at

Paul R. Pillar, who is on the faculty of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, served for 28 years in the CIA and recently retired as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia.

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