OSAMA

The Making of a Terrorist

By Jonathan Randal. Knopf. 339 pp. $26.95

In the 1980s, in the course of my own reporting, I ran into Jonathan Randal occasionally in places like Sudan and Pakistan. The now-retired foreign correspondent for The Washington Post represented a breed of journalist now gradually going extinct: the seasoned, multilingual man or woman of the world who lives overseas and has an intimate, inside-baseball knowledge of dozens upon dozens of countries and their politics, with the added advantage of being able to write about it all at reasonable length, rather than having to reduce it to television sound bites.

Osama is Randal's third book, and even if it contains relatively little new about Osama bin Laden himself, there are enough interesting asides drawn from a lifetime of reporting in the Middle East to make it a worthwhile venture. "If there is an answer to such an enduring phenomenon as terrorism," Randal writes, "I suspect it lies in needlework, that time-consuming, patient, dull, professional accumulation of detail." In that spirit, he posits that the tactical goal of the United States should be not to stamp out terrorism in its entirety but to confine it to the peripheries of the Third World. For if suicide bombers fail to launch new spectacular assaults on the United States and other major Western countries, "the attraction of jihad may wane."

Randal is at his best when intuiting the nuances of terrorism and the particular Middle Eastern culture from whence it springs, and at his worst when characterizing the United States, which he has visited but not lived in for decades, and which he occasionally reduces to cliches of the very kind he abjures about the Middle East.

He understands how suicidal terrorists desperately need to memorialize themselves as a revenge for their own failures in life, how such failed men often have a need to reinvent themselves, how they are "prone to quarrels, splintering, and new groupings" and how they live drifters' lives in low-end suburbs of the West, divorced from their own cultures. Whether they fall into a productive immigrant existence or an al Qaeda cell is as much a matter of happenstance as it is of personal character, he suggests.

Randal also describes well the panoramic milieu of violence from which, for instance, the Algerian cohorts of al Qaeda have sprung: the beheadings, the kidnappings, the utter anarchy that was rife across the Algeria of the 1990s. Algeria was a country that, as he notes, "Most pale-skinned Westerners had long since deserted." It is a wonder that more immigrants, after coming from such a place and then being thrown into the alienating flotsam and jetsam of immigrant life in the West, do not join al Qaeda. Terrorism, alas, is a vile germ of modernity.

The author also takes us to Sudan, whose capital, Khartoum, became a "rest-and-recreation center for extremist Muslims" in the 1990s, much as Beirut had been the decade before. The impresario of the infamous rise of Khartoum was one Hasan al-Turabi, a well-manicured, Park Avenue ayatollah of sorts, even if he was a Sunni. I interviewed Turabi once in 1984, and Randal describes him perfectly: an "in-your-face" politician full of "intellectual arrogance," who proved too clever by half. Turabi hosted bin Laden and then later sought a rapprochement with the United States by turning over information about him after the terrorist became too hot to handle. The author faults the Clinton administration for not sufficiently following up on such leads.

In addition to geographic scope, Randal explores the many sub-issues that are often more important than the so-called big issues in the Middle East. Like other authors, he notes that Palestine had never been much of an obsession to bin Laden. What bin Laden really cared about -- and what the Saudi establishment did, too -- was the fate of South Yemen, a Marxist satellite that bin Laden wanted to lay low but which the Al-Saud family wanted to preserve because of their fear of North and South Yemeni unification. In fact, it was bin Laden's meddling in his homeland of South Yemen that first brought him to the attention of the Saudi intelligence establishment in the 1980s. Unification happened anyway in 1990, and now Yemen, the volatile and dynamic demographic core of the Arabian peninsula, is where the political future of the region may likely be written.

The problem with Randal's book is that while there are enough useful insights to make it a worthwhile read, its lack of understanding or empathy for the realities in which any American administration -- Republican or Democratic -- is forced to deal reduces the text in many places to the same old, tired criticisms of American policy that, while perhaps justified, insufficiently advance the reader's knowledge or understanding. The author inveighs against the hypocrisy of American support for authoritarian regimes, even as the United States calls for more democracy in the Arab world. The remark shows insufficient understanding of how great powers, even when they seek to advance universalist goals, must also deal with the world as it is. Moreover, if some of those repressive regimes were to collapse, even more turmoil and consequent human suffering might ensue.

Randal frowns upon the dispatch of U.S. troops to places like Yemen and the Philippines, perhaps not realizing that the number of American Marines and Army Special Forces sent to those places has been exceedingly small and used in humanitarian exercises or for the training of local militaries in new democracies that are under siege. His careful and painstakingly sympathetic reportage of places like Algeria too often gives way to easy, broad-brush judgments when he turns to the United States.

Randal the seasoned man-of-the-world is more insightful than Randal the expatriate. Nevertheless, American policymakers would do well to excuse the latter in order to glean perceptions from the former. *

Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is the author of 10 books on travel and foreign affairs, most recently "Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece."