Articles

Feb 19, 2006

Miami Herald review of OBL I KNow

NONFICTION

The world’s ‘most wanted’ is a likable guy

The author is one of the few Western reporters to interview Osama bin Laden, and he talks to others who know him.

BY FRANK DAVIES

THE OSAMA BIN LADEN

I KNOW.

Peter Bergen. Free Press. 432 pages. $26.

The world’s most wanted and deadly terrorist worries about public relations, watches Larry King Live and carefully cultivates the image of soft-spoken, thoughtful cleric. But he has no real strategy left — just the tactic of extreme violence. And while he may be a legend in the Muslim world after overseeing the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 Americans, he also miscalculated the impact of those attacks and has become a divisive figure among even Muslim radicals.

Those are some of the conclusions of Peter Bergen’s revealing, in-depth portrait of Osama bin Laden, the once shy Saudi millionaire who turned small skirmishes against the Soviets in Afghanistan into a PR bonanza. He lured young Muslims to his private army, joined forces with Egyptian extremists, exploited the Taliban’s hospitality, lived an ascetic life that inspired his followers and created al Qaeda, now at war with the United States for at least eight years.

”He’s not a genius, he’s not charismatic, he is not very intelligent, but he is the most dedicated and self-sacrificing person to a degree that is unparalleled,” said a Pakistani who fought with bin Laden against the Soviets in an interview with Bergen.

The editor of an Arab newspaper, Abdel Bari Atwan, interviewed bin Laden and recalls: “To be honest, the man is likable. You don’t think he’s the most dangerous man in the world. He doesn’t try to impress you. Maybe this is his strength. Maybe this is his style.”

In 1997, Bergen was one of the few Western reporters to interview bin Laden, who is 49, and he found him so low-key that ”you would have thought he was talking about the weather” when he vented his rage against the United States. That interview and his early reporting on Afghanistan led to Bergen’s Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, one of the best books about al Qaeda.

The strength of this new book is that Bergen relies on many sources, including dozens of associates, teachers, other journalists and even a boyhood friend who remembers that the devout teenage bin Laden liked American Westerns and Bruce Lee movies.

His conclusions are clear-eyed and credible. He reports that bin Laden badly misjudged the U.S. response to 9/11, expecting either a withdrawal from the region or a massive Soviet-style, conventional invasion of Afghanistan. Instead the attacks sharply divided Muslim extremists, and the U.S. counterattack has left al Qaeda decimated and bin Laden on the run.

Along the way, Bergen puts several myths to rest, such as reports of CIA sponsorship of bin Laden against the Soviets in the 1980s, or an al Qaeda-Iraq connection. In several interviews bin Laden declares his hatred of Saddam Hussein.

Bergen doesn’t think the terrorist mastermind will be taken alive; his bodyguards have orders to kill him rather then allow his capture. In hiding, bin Laden is no longer the operational leader that he was before 9/11. But it’s a big mistake to underestimate him. The Iraq war was a gift and a recruitment tool that bin Laden’s allies are using to gather a new generation of jihadist fighters, gaining experience against U.S. forces, Bergen writes.

For bin Laden and the jihadists, 9/11 was a ”tactical victory but a strategic disaster,” Bergen concludes. But even crippled and isolated, his patience matches his ruthlessness, and he remains a lethal threat. His most recent audiotape, released last month, talks of more attacks to come on U.S. soil. Such warnings should not be disregarded. In 1998, when bin Laden told ABC interviewers that he was declaring war on the United States, John Miller, now an FBI spokesman, recalled his thought: ”Yeah, you and what army?” Two months later, al Qaeda destroyed two U.S. embassies in east Africa. Three years later, the World Trade Center towers were brought down.

Frank Davies was a Washington correspondent for The Miami Herald during the 9/11 attacks.

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