The Secret History of Al Qaeda (by Adbel Bari Atwan); What Terrorists Want (by Louise Richardson)

The Plotters Against America

Reviewed by Michael Scheuer
Sunday, November 26, 2006


By Abdel Bari Atwan

Univ. of California. 256 pp. $24.95


Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

By Louise Richardson

Random House. 312 pp. $25.95

We should strike the term "terrorist group" from the lexicon of those charged with beating Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and its allies. The term defeats thought, understanding and imagination, and it allows leaders in both parties to argue a politically correct absurdity: that al-Qaeda threatens U.S. national security but that our attackers are a limited number of criminal magicians who have hijacked the faith of millions of Muslims and will "be brought to justice one man at a time."

Although "insurgent" is not a perfect fit either, the term far better describes al-Qaeda and the other Islamists attacking America. These zealous groups are large, multi-functional, media-savvy, well-funded, superbly led and religiously motivated. Their focus is on winning, not strutting on the world stage. Numerous No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 leaders of al-Qaeda are gone, but the organization's threat remains. Most important, al-Qaeda and its ilk -- unlike traditional terrorist and insurgent groups -- have no return address; they are not confined to one state or reliant upon its patronage. Islamist groups can hit America with impunity and high confidence that U.S. military forces cannot annihilate them in response. Al-Qaeda is many things, including a proliferating ideology and a unique, multi-ethnic insurgent organization. It is also a growing threat to U.S. security, in part because our leaders do not accept these realities.

Abdel Bari Atwan fully grasps the foregoing in his excellent, very personal book, The Secret History of al Qaeda. As editor-in-chief of the best Arabic-language daily newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, Atwan "got it" from the moment bin Laden appeared on the scene. Atwan saw that the threat bin Laden posed far exceeded any the West had faced from a terrorist group. He also knew that "the notion that Muslims hate the American people or Western civilization is dangerous and erroneous. What many do hate is American foreign policy." This timeless truth remains inaudible for U.S. leaders, who will leap on any explanation for Muslim anti-Americanism except our invasion of Iraq, unqualified support for Israel and protection for tyrannies that rule Muslims across the Islamic world.

Atwan's 1996 interview with bin Laden in his Afghanistan redoubt was one of the first and remains one of the best. He describes the trip to meet bin Laden in detail and frankly admits he hesitated to run the risks. We are in Atwan's debt that his nerve held: The interview came soon after bin Laden's initial declaration of war on America and gave the world its first close look at that talented, ruthless and pious warrior. "After meeting bin Laden," Atwan writes, "I realized that this was no ordinary man, and fully expected that he would play a significant role in the history of his homeland, Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim world in general."

Atwan reminds the West that "no serious study of bin Laden and al Qaeda can ignore the Islamic background from which they have emerged. . . . Without Islam there would be no al Qaeda." Bin Laden fits neatly into Islamic history's continuum; from the Prophet Muhammad to Saladin to bin Laden (as the al-Qaeda leader sees it), Muslim leaders have waged defensive jihads against infidels attacking Islam's lands, creed and followers. Atwan's concise discussions of Islamic history, jihad and politics should silence the oft-used inanity that bin Laden has "hijacked" Islam. Moreover, Atwan's conclusion should deeply unsettle U.S. leaders: "Bin Laden is the latest in a line of figureheads, for many, in keeping with Muslim tradition." As the ideological leader of a popular global insurgency, he embodies "the political aspirations of a significant proportion of the Muslim nation, aspirations which are inextricably bound up with their faith."

Here, Atwan's blend of memoir and journalism far outshines an academic's work. One can only hope that Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want will prove the last shriek from the academy's antiquated terrorism experts, who are reluctant to admit that al-Qaeda poses a unique menace. Richardson, the executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, lustily sings the "nothing is new under the terrorism sun" song; her book leads readers on an erudite if irrelevant tour of the histories of the 1st-century Jewish millenarian sect called the Zealots, the 7th-century Hindu Thug cult, the 12th-century Shiite Muslim sect known as the Assassins, the fin-de-siècle Russian anarchists, and such 20th-century terrorist groups as the IRA, the Red Brigades and Shining Path, among others.

But none of these posed a national security threat to the United States; none is remotely comparable to al-Qaeda and its allies. Traditional terrorist groups have limited agendas, allure and bloodlust; groups such as the IRA, whose deadliest attacks left just dozens dead, are a lethal nuisance. On the other hand, al-Qaeda -- with its potent ideology, its divine sanction for unlimited murder, its operational sophistication and its ambition to create a regional caliphate -- is a genuine strategic threat. Compare a fertilizer-based bomb in Belfast to a nuclear bomb in Houston.

Richardson's academic objectivity also fails her in these pages. Her review of U.S. counterterrorism policy correctly criticizes George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, but the book's index has no entry for Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Al Gore, George Tenet or Sandy Berger. In an era when the leaders of both political parties have been monumental failures in the fight against al-Qaeda, that oversight can only be seen as partisan.

Worse, Richardson also claims that we do not understand al-Qaeda's strength, appeal and goals. "If we don't even know what our enemies are fighting for," she writes, "we cannot hope to counter them effectively." But Richardson seems to have missed a decade of al-Qaeda studies -- including Atwan's -- that provide exactly that data. The careful works of Bruce Hoffman, Peter L. Bergen, Daniel Byman, Paul Pillar and Daniel Benjamin irrefutably demonstrate that al-Qaeda is no mere terrorist group -- in terms of its size, organizational ingenuity, operational sophistication, geographical reach, educated membership, leadership skills and determination to defeat its foe rather than just use random violence to signal anger. Al-Qaeda is a worldwide insurgency against which the old law-enforcement-based counterterrorism doctrine is nearly useless; indeed, relying on the old tactics ensures defeat. The new breed of al-Qaeda scholars also suggests that bin Laden has emerged as a leader whose charisma, words and deeds are harnessing what history shows to be the extraordinary mobilizing and motivating power of Islam at times when Muslims believe -- as many do today -- that they and their faith are under infidel attack. That makes it impossible to achieve Richardson's central counterterrorism goal of containing al-Qaeda by separating the group from the wider Muslim hinterland for which it claims to speak. Bin Laden has created something that mystifies many of the West's secular academics by relying on a vibrant theology whose followers regard their revealed faith as worth dying to defend. ยท

Michael Scheuer, the founding head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, is the author of "Imperial Hubris" and "Through Our Enemies' Eyes."

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