And what we see is the mind of a conventional wannabe foreign policy wonk.
Sure, the 39 books include lots of out-there, conspiracy-minded works. There are books about the coming apocalypse, the rigged global financial system the Illuminati, and even 9/11 truther works, odd considering bin Laden likely had a good grasp on what really happened. He also had a few works on Islam — a history of Christianity and Islam in Spain, a Rand Corporation study on the divides in contemporary Islam and even a quick Islam explainer book.
But less expected and more revelatory are the well-known, well-reviewed and entirely respectable books on his list — the kind of titles one would find on the shelves of Washington national-security experts, government officials and journalists. “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul Kennedy. “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward. “The Oxford History of Modern War” by Charles Townsend. These are obligatory reads in the foreign policy canon. Bin Laden’s books also included a volume titled “International Relations Theory and the Asia Pacific,” edited by Princeton political scientist G. John Ikenberry. Now that’s impressive. No one — seriously, no one — reads edited volumes on international relations. (Well, except maybe graduate students. Or the authors of the chapters in the book.)
Even some of bin Laden’s dissident writers have fairly establishment backgrounds, such as MIT linguist and foreign-policy scold Noam Chomsky, one of only two writers snagging multiple entries in the Osama bookshelf, with “Hegemony or Survival” and “Necessary Illusions.” (Congrats!) Bin Laden also had “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” a 2004 bestseller contending that an insidious “corporatocracy” uses the World Bank and other agencies as fronts to deploy bribes, loans and assassins around the world. (False but cool, and classic fodder for the anti-IMF/WTO crowd.) Also on the al-Qaeda leader’s list was “Imperial Hubris” by Michael Scheuer, the former CIA intelligence officer devoted to tracking bin Laden before Sept. 11, 2001. The book, which argues that the Bush administration’s counterterrorism efforts had backfired and only fueled more anti-Americanism, was basically blurbed by bin Laden in 2007: “If you would like to get to know some of the reasons for your losing the war against us,” the al-Qaeda leader said in a video, “then read the book of Michael Scheuer.”
The collection suggests that bin Laden was partaking of many of the same popular theories, narratives and debates as the rest of the foreign-policy wonk community. It makes him seem less distant, and maybe less fearsome, too. He even had a 2008 book titled “Unfinished Business: U.S. Overseas Military Presence in the 21st Century” authored by the ubiquitous foreign policy wonk Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and published by the Center for a New American Security, one of the top miltary think tanks in Washington. When you’re reading CNAS books by O’Hanlon, you’re not straying far from the Washington conversation.
Many of us have played the “which books would you want on a deserted island” game. But chances are we haven’t played the “which books would you want when you’re the world’s most wanted man and are hiding out in Pakistan while trying to run a global terrorist network that may or may not be slipping out of your control” game. The stakes are higher there: Those books may be the last thing you read before a drone strike, or a SEAL raid.
Of course, we don’t know that bin Laden actually read all these works. They were in electronic form, so there’s probably not a lot of bin Laden marginalia to go on. Who knows, they may have been unwanted gifts from underlings trying to impress. (“Osama, happy September 11 anniversary! Have you read ‘Secrets of the Federal Reserve’ by Eustace Mullins?” Bin Laden: “Sigh…”)
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