Articles

Nov 21, 2001

The holy warrior

The holy warrior

The most entertaining of current books on Osama bin Laden paints him as a devout, charismatic CEO of worldwide terror.

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By Laura Miller
Nov. 21, 2001 | Without a doubt, Peter Bergen’s “Holy War, Inc.” is the most entertaining of the currently available books on Osama bin Laden. It’s also the only one to deal with the Sept. 11 attacks; as he explains in an author’s note, Bergen had just handed in his manuscript, six years in the making, in August 2001, and he and his publisher worked frantically to update the book after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit. Bergen is currently CNN’s terrorism analyst and he produced the first televised interview with bin Laden for that network in 1997. He’s also worked for ABC News and written articles for the New Republic and Vanity Fair. Unlike the wonks who wrote the bin Laden books published before Sept. 11, he’s used to speaking to a general audience and he has a newsman’s investment in accuracy and solid sourcing. He also seems free of the kind of murky agenda that drives Yossef Bodansky, author of “Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America,” a book that became a bestseller after the attacks
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For bin Laden watchers, “Holy War, Inc.” is mostly familiar terrain, but Bergen keeps things interesting by debunking various rumors and theories regarding the dissident Saudi millionaire. Have you heard the one about bin Laden’s “playboy years” of drinking and womanizing in Beirut? Well, Bergen counters, “those who know bin Laden ? describe a deeply religious teenager who married at the age of 17.” He similarly dismisses stories about bin Laden receiving an engineering degree from a university in the U.S., living in London, teaming up with Iraq to plot the 1998 African embassy bombings and receiving funds from the C.I.A. To reports of bin Laden’s imminent demise from one of several terminal illnesses, he responds that the Saudi was given “months to live” all the way back in 1998. (He describes bin Laden as suffering from low blood pressure and diabetes, both controllable diseases.)

The less apocryphal aspects of bin Laden’s life are all here. The 17th of about 50 children sired by a Yemeni porter who moved to Saudi Arabia and made good in the construction industry, bin Laden showed an early piety that deepened during his college years at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, where he encountered the man who would become his mentor, Abdullah Azzam. Bergen describes the charismatic Azzam, a Palestinian, as “the ideological godfather and global recruiter par excellence of Muslims drawn to the Afghan jihad.” Azzam worked tirelessly to rustle up men and money for the cause, frequently visiting Broooklyn’s infamous Alkhifa center — a major fund-raising and recruiting center for the Afghan jihad — in search of both. If he truly was the godfather of the “Afghan Arab” phenomenon, then he’s also the godfather of many of the international terrorist groups plaguing the West today.

For bin Laden and the rest of the “Afghan Arabs” (a term used for foreign Islamists of all nationalities who came to fight the Soviets), the war was a galvanizing experience. Though they were “no more than extras” in a war won “primarily with the blood of the Afghans and secondarily with the treasure of the United States and Saudi Arabia,” most of them, like bin Laden, felt the war was “an extraordinary spiritual experience.” Victory, in their minds, proved that Allah was on their side. “What we benefited from most,” said bin Laden to CNN, “was [that] the glory and myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind, but also in all of Muslims.”

Unlike some other chroniclers of al-Qaida, Bergen never loses sight of the way religion infuses his subject’s view of the world; bin Laden genuinely believes this stuff. He’s David Koresh with $250 million and a small army of devoted and well-armed followers. If his religious fanaticism doesn’t quite make bin Laden crazy, it often does make his motives and his interpretation of events a bit opaque to the secular West. For example, when bin Laden’s agitation against his one-time friends, the royal family of Saudi Arabia, over the stationing of U.S. troops on the Arabian peninsula forced him to leave his homeland for Sudan, and then further pressure from both the Saudis and the Americans compelled the Sudanese to ask him to leave five years later, bin Laden didn’t see himself as becoming an increasingly unpopular outlaw. Instead, his flight, according to Bergen, “recalled for him the Prophet Muhammad’s emigration, or hijra, from Mecca to Medina in the 7th century.” From Medina, Muhammed waged a holy war for years until he “retook mecca from the unbelievers.” As a result, bin Laden saw his exile in Afghanistan as having a “profound spiritual importance” and as containing a promise of future triumph, however unlikely that may sound to you or me.
Bin Laden, like most idealistic radicals, makes a practice of finding hope and encouragement in daunting situations. Bergen, whose 1997 interview featured bin Laden’s unprecedented claim that “Arabs affiliated with his group were involved in killing American troops in Somalia in 1993,” says he finds the Saudi’s boast uncharacteristic and “surprising.” Bin Laden, after all, had “repeatedly dismissed efforts to link him to attacks on American soldiers in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996 and has denied any direct role in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998,” all actions in which his operatives played more decisive roles. What Bergen misses is that the fighting in Somalia actually worked. It led to the withdrawal of American troops from that nation — the kind of result that none of his other schemes has produced.

Still, Bergen’s aversion to speculation makes it good to have his bracingly down-to-earth evaluation of the notion that the CIA “created” Bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs. He labels such charges “overblown” and “not supported by evidence.” What the CIA did do, however, was commit “a significant tactical error”; that is, it allowed Pakistan’s intelligence agency — the ISI, a warm, moist breeding ground for Islamist militancy — to distribute something like $3 billion to the Afghan resistance during the war with the Soviets. This made sense in an elementary way; the Pakistanis knew Afghanistan far better than the CIA did, after all. But the ISI, serving its own purposes, funneled the aid to the most virulently anti-Western mujahedin factions, particularly to the dreaded Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a one-time cohort of bin Laden’s now said to be contemplating an Afghan comeback.

In short, the CIA was — as we are now finding so much of America’s intelligence industry to be — pretty clueless. Still, it’s hard to spy out a smarter course of action amid the usual shifting mess of Afghan tribal politics, despite Bergen’s confidence that such a course existed. “Was there an alternative to Hekmatyar, to whom American support might have been better directed?” Bergen asks. “The answer is a resounding yes. The Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was a moderate Islamist and a brilliant general, who never received American aid proportionate to his battlefield exploits.”
This does appear to be true (Hekmatyar is said to have killed more Afghans than Soviets), but as Ahmed Rashid has pointed out in his book “Taliban,” Massoud was an inept politician — and it would have required a master to convince the Pakistanis to back a Tajik like Massoud over a fellow Pashtun. (A side note: It would be nice to learn more from Afghanistan experts about the Tajik commander Ismail Khan, who currently has control of Herat in western Afghanistan. He seems to have the best civic reputation of all the “warlords” currently returning to power.)

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