Osama bin Laden once gassed his son’s puppies. As Peter Bergen tells us in The Longest War, his informative survey of the war on terror, an al-Qaeda video from 1996 shows a small white dog being experimented on with chemical weapons. Omar bin Laden apparently begged his father to spare the rest of the litter. His pleas were ignored.
Several of the hallmarks of al-Qaeda’s later atrocities were already present: the interest in deadly Western technology; the obsession with recording death; and a lack of human sympathy. When Bergen, CNN’s national security correspondent, met bin Laden in 1997 the al-Qaeda leader’s ideology was already fully formed.
His interview shows bin Laden relaxed and sipping tea. “The arrogance of the United States regime has reached the point that they have occupied Arabia,” he said. “For this and other acts of aggression we have declared holy war against the United States.”
The attacks of September 11 2001 were supposed to bring down the US empire. But, as Bergen says, al-Qaeda may have gained a tactical victory with its televised mass murder, but ultimately 9/11 was a strategic failure.
The US removed its sole protector – the Taliban. Training camps were closed and many of its leaders killed. Now bin Laden is trapped in a cave somewhere in Pakistan, his dream of “sweeping away governments from Cairo to Riyadh with Taliban-style rule” more distant than ever.
Yet the publicity given to his ideas and their attraction among some Muslims have released a terrorist virus: before 9/11 suicide bombings were restricted to the Tamil Tigers and Palestinian militants. Now even British citizens suffering little more than immigrant alienation have carried bombs onto the Underground and blown themselves up.
How did it get out of control so fast? Al-Qaeda was born out of political repression in the Middle East. The dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria crushed all Islamist opposition so well that the violence was pushed to easier secondary targets such as the US.
After the relative success against the Taliban, the US invasion of Iraq, says Bergen, “breathed new life into bin Laden’s holy war”. Fighters on the run from Afghanistan made their way to Iraq and helped spark a sectarian war that at one point was costing 3,000 civilian lives a month.
Bergen also documents how Pakistan, 10 years ago relatively prosperous and stable, has been corrupted by al-Qaeda ideologues and by the $11bn of US military support which has done little to foster democracy. Now it too is plagued with suicide bombings and the murder of politicians who dare to defend Christians.
Based on dozens of interviews and thousands of documents, this book is a well-researched introduction to the subject; more detailed accounts can be found in the work of Bob Woodward, Lawrence Wright and Ahmed Rashid. Bergen makes some valuable points. Despite the scare stories, al-Qaeda, he argues, is unlikely to get hold of nuclear weapons. The most they can hope for is a “dirty bomb” made with nuclear waste that would not cause much more damage than a conventional one – except in propaganda terms.
Al-Qaeda has moved on to softer targets: other Muslims, mostly civilians. This does not bode well for its future. Though Bergen concludes it would be naive to think this war is ending, the nihilism of bin Laden’s ideology will surely destroy the organisation. During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the people challenged corrupt leaders in the name of democracy and freedom. Bin Laden’s name was absent from protesters’ chants and he has been silent on the Arab Spring. Probably because he has nothing to say.
The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict between America and al-Qaeda
by Peter L Bergen
473PP, Simon & Schuster, £17.99
Buy now for £15.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) from Telegraph Books
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