Articles

Nov 17, 2001

REVIEW THE TERROR OF HIS WAYS

Copyright 2001 The Scotsman Publications Ltd.
The Scotsman

November 17, 2001, Saturday

SECTION: Pg. 5

LENGTH: 821 words

HEADLINE: REVIEW THE TERROR OF HIS WAYS

BYLINE: Tim Cornwell

BODY:

Holy War Peter Bergen Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 18.99

Bin Laden: Behind The Mask Of The Terrorist Adam Robinson Mainstream pounds 7.99

Bin Laden: The man who declared war on America Yossef Badansky Random House pounds 12.99

How do we in the West, non-Muslims and non-Arab speakers for the most part, go about understanding Osama bin Laden? Is he at heart somebody like us – a shy rich kid who discovered booze and sex but then got religion, angry with the Americans but really angry with his Dad? Or is the holy warrior bin Laden an expression of the “Arab street”, or a “Muslim persecution complex”, in the words of Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, a phenomenon almost entirely beyond our ken?

For the armchair reader on Islamic terrorism, struggling to probe this conundrum, the non-fiction titles probing bin Laden and his works are rapidly stacking up. They range from the high-minded to the doggedly tabloid. This week alone, three titles were rushed on to the bookshop shelves. Easily the best of the bunch is Holy War Inc by the CNN terrorist analyst Peter Bergen. After four years reporting and two years writing on a subject clearly close to his heart, Bergen delivered a first manuscript to his publishers in August. “I looked forward to a civilised period of editing,” he writes, “before publication about a year later.” What he got was two weeks of crash rewriting. But the book comes with the guarantee that it is a fresh product, not merely rushed into print.

Not so with Bin Laden: the man who declared war on America by Yossef Bodansky, proudly billed as director of the US Congress’s Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. It was first published in 1999, to remarkably little acclaim, given the weighty credentials of its author. The rapid re-issue has now soared up the American paperback best-seller list.

Edinburgh’s Mainstream Publishing, meanwhile, is not to be left out, with Bin Laden: Behind The Mask of the Terrorist by Adam Robinson.

Given that the book promises “the first real insight into the life of the renegade prophet”, based on “new information provided by members of his family”, we might want to know just who the penetrating Adam Robinson is. There’s not a word that describes this insightful fellow, in either a preface or the back cover, nothing on his sources or his notes. Ahem.

Bergen’s interest in the region that is now bin Laden’s lair date back to his student days at Oxford nearly 20 years ago, when he researched a documentary on Afghan refugees in Pakistan. American-born but British educated, Bergen would return to Pakistan as a CNN producer of a programme about the CIA’s support for mujahideen rebels. It was in 1997, with CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, that he travelled to Afghanistan to film bin Laden’s first interview with western television.

“And then suddenly, stretched out before us, was Afghanistan,” he writes of that trip. “The very word is an incantation.” It was a place out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, of medieval chivalry and cruelty, with a light that is pure and crystalline and a place, while at war, where “one can find a species of personal tranquillity rarely experienced in the West”.

Was the young Osama a bit of a Jack the lad? A secret tippler? Mainstream’s bin Laden book devotes an entire chapter to the teen bin Laden. Unleashed on the fleshpots of Beirut, the wealthy Saudi skimming in his sports car from the Casbah to the Crazy Horse, where “the Champagne flowed freely as Osama took in the dancers, the hostesses and the prostitutes.” It also has close descriptions of weepy scenes with his mother, scorned by his father’s family.

Bergen’s research is voluminous and carefully referenced, his writing fluent, although it rings a little of television rather than print journalism. For the record, he spurns the stories of bin Laden as brawler and womaniser in Beirut; those who know him, he says, “describe a deeply religious teenager who married at the age of 17.” Bin Laden was attracted to older, radical men, but regarded his father as the true inspiration, who had been “very keen that one of his sons should fight the enemies of Islam”.

Likewise, Bergen insists a claim that the CIA helped build an underground camp in Afghanistan for bin Laden in his anti-Soviet days “defies common sense.” American officials did not venture into Afghanistan for fear of capture by the Soviets, he says; the camp was built with Arab funding.

The killing or capture of bin Laden, he concludes, will not put an end to his network. There are others who would replace him, including the eminence grise, Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the father-in-law of bin Laden’s son, Mohammed, who himself might take over. “And behind them are the many thousands of members and affiliates of al-Qaeda, not only in Afghanistan but in 60 countries of the world: a Hydra-headed monster.”

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