TERRORISM

Experts' Picks

(Julia Ewan / The Washington Post)
Sunday, July 16, 2006

We asked Peter Bergen, one of the few Western journalists ever to meet Osama bin Laden, and Warren Bass, a former 9/11 Commission staffer who is now Book World's nonfiction editor, to pick the best of the recent flood of books on terrorism.

Toward the end of Ian McEwan's unsettling novel Saturday (Anchor; paperback, $14.95), his highly civilized, urbane hero finds himself awake in the wee hours, fearing that there's no home that can't be invaded by violence. "London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities," thinks Henry Perowne, a British neurosurgeon who's just endured a harrowing day in the run-up to the Iraq war. "Rush hour will be a convenient time . . . twisted rails, buckled, upraised commuter coaches, stretchers handed out through broken windows, the hospital's Emergency Plan in action. Berlin, Paris, Lisbon. The authorities agree, an attack's inevitable. He lives in different times -- because the newspapers say so doesn't mean it isn't true." The tough-minded, sinewy Saturday evokes that mood of unease with a coiled mastery that would have been disquieting even if Perowne's prophecy hadn't come horribly true with the London terrorist bombings of July 2005. Saturday is the rare book on the post-9/11 moment that's likely to last.

Few Americans will be able to read Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso; paperback, $16.95) all the way through; there's more than enough bile here to choke on. But this volume, edited by Bruce Lawrence of Duke University with translations by James Howarth, is an essential reference work on America's nemesis, giving ordinary Americans a chance to hear firsthand from the man who's deemed it God's work to murder them.

One can get unsettling insights into those who were seduced by bin Ladenism in Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers -- Who They Were, Why They Did It (HarperCollins, $25.95), by Terry McDermott, a Los Angeles Times reporter. It's a misleading title for a fine book (the conspirators, as the book makes clear, were anything but perfect in their execution of the 9/11 plot) whose principal strength is its evocation of the jihadist milieu that drew in these alarmingly cold-blooded killers. "Most of the men of September 11 came from apolitical and unexceptional backgrounds," McDermott notes. The hijackers, he concludes, were "fairly ordinary men" -- which implies that "there are a great many more men just like them."

The year's best polemic on terrorism came from two counterterrorism officials in the Clinton White House, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, who launched a broadside at the Bush administration's handling of its signature issue. In The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right (Times, $26), the pair argue that the U.S. war in Iraq has not dried up the swamp that produces jihadists but deepened it -- giving al-Qaeda time to reinvent itself as a more loose-knit network while boosting its ideological appeal to Muslims smarting with resentment. The authors are also scathing on U.S. efforts to defend the home front against catastrophic attack; if these sections seem dated, it's largely because Hurricane Katrina proved their point all too well.

Terrorism is, famously, a provocation strategy -- a ploy to get the targeted society to overreact to violence by doing violence to its ideals. Geoffrey R. Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, explores how America has tried to balance security and liberty in Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (Norton; paperback, $17.95). In this sweeping, gracefully written survey, Stone finds a clear pattern: "The United States has a long and unfortunate history of overreacting to the perceived dangers of wartime. Time and again, Americans have allowed fear and fury to get the better of them." In the late 18th century, Congress criminalized disloyal statements; Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War; the idealistic Wilson administration tried about 2,000 dissenters for opposing World War I and the draft; FDR interned 120,000 people of Japanese descent; and the Cold War spawned the excesses of McCarthyism. Stone gets his thesis across forcefully: The frontispiece for his conclusion features a 2001 editorial cartoon of the White House musing, "It's a new kind of war. . . . The old rules don't apply." The next panel features the old rules: the Constitution.

Arguably the most important U.S. partner in the war on terrorism is Pakistan. But there have been surprisingly few books written about the nuclear-armed, unstable, strategically crucial state that may in the next decade become the world's fifth most populous country. Stephen P. Cohen's The Idea of Pakistan (Brookings, $32.95) helps fill that lacuna. It is a comprehensive, interesting history of a country that has never satisfactorily resolved the tension between the idea that it was simply a homeland for Muslims and the more radical notion that Islam should penetrate all aspects of the Pakistani state.

Looking to the northwest of Pakistan, Gilles Dorronsoro's Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present (Columbia Univ., $29.50) is a dense, authoritative study of another critical player in the war on terrorism. Three books about the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan detail how that campaign was prosecuted: Gary C. Schroen's First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (Presidio; paperback, $14.95) and Gary Berntsen's Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda -- A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander (Crown, $25.95) are fast-paced, exciting reads by CIA officers who ran operations in Afghanistan after 9/11. (Schroen covers the agency's first forays into Afghanistan in the tense weeks after 9/11, while Berntsen takes the story up to bin Laden's disappearing act in the mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001.) Sean Naylor, a reporter for Army Times, has written a deeply reported and at times gripping history of the final major battle of the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in March 2002 in Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (Berkley; paperback, $15).

Those interested in jihadist thought should consider Fawaz A. Gerges's The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge Univ., $27), a well-researched account of how the Islamist movement is riven by ideological disputes and petty feuds. Yaroslav Trofimov's far-ranging Faith at War: Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, From Baghdad to Timbuktu (Picador; paperback, $15) is a humane, beautifully reported trip around the turbulent Muslim world.

Until the arrests of 17 alleged terrorists in Ontario last month, Canada was not generally seen as an incubator for jihadists. But as Stewart Bell documents in his interesting case study The Martyr's Oath: The Apprenticeship of a Homegrown Terrorist (Wiley, $24.95), two Canadian brothers, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah and Abdul Rahman Jabarah, plotted to carry out attacks against Western targets following the 9/11 attacks. Surprisingly, since 2001, the country that may have suffered the greatest number of casualties from terrorism (other than Iraq) is Russia, with around 1,000 deaths. Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution (Scribner, $27.50), by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, The Washington Post's former Moscow bureau chiefs, has the best account of the infamous Moscow theater siege of 2002 and the Beslan school massacre two years later, both of which were carried out by Chechen terrorists, who found an inadvertent ally in the incompetence of the Russian government response.

Finally, there are the reissues of two classics. Michael Scheuer, the first head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, has released an expanded edition of Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (Potomac; paperback, $19.95), his landmark exegesis of al-Qaeda ideology, strategy and tactics. Meanwhile, Bruce Hoffman, the director of RAND's Washington office, has produced a thoroughly updated, post-9/11 edition of his brilliant Inside Terrorism (Columbia Univ.; paperback, $22.95), which remains probably the best one-volume introduction to the phenomenon. This is a lot to keep up with, but the books keep coming; the fall, and the fifth anniversary of 9/11, will bring a new wave of books about, in Ian McEwan's phrase, our "different times." ยท

Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know." Warren Bass is a senior editor at Book World.


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