Articles

Feb 12, 2001

Understanding the elusive bin Laden

Copyright 2001 Times Publishing Company

St. Petersburg Times

December 02, 2001, Sunday

SECTION: PERSPECTIVE; BOOKS; Pg. 5D

LENGTH: 909 words

HEADLINE: Understanding the elusive bin Laden

BYLINE: STEVE WEINBERG

BODY:
HOLY WAR, INC.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden

By Peter L. Bergen

Free Press, $ 25, 283 pp

Reviewed by STEVE WEINBERG

Even the most attentive of post-Sept. 11 media junkies will learn something new from reading journalist Peter L. Bergen’s just-published biography of Osama bin Laden.

Published in October, the biography was not a quickie book. Bergen started reporting about Afghanistan in 1983, producing a documentary about the millions of refugees fleeing to Pakistan after the Soviet military invaded. He traveled to Afghanistan for CNN in 1993 after the bombing of the World Trade Center; based on what Bergen learned about the masterminds behind that terrorist attack, he decided to write a biography of Osama bin Laden. In 1997, after complicated, dangerous negotiations, Bergen met the normally unapproachable bin Laden at his remote, heavily guarded Afghanistan hideaway. Bergen turned in his manuscript in August, figuring he would have time for leisurely revising before the originally scheduled publication date of mid-summer 2002. Sept. 11 changed those plans.

“It became imperative to get this book into people’s hands at a moment when information – while abundant, given the sensational nature of the crimes – often lacked the context that I have struggled here to provide. Over a furious and exhausting two weeks, I and many other people have worked not only to improve the book that originally existed, but to bring it into the terrible present.”

Despite the rushed schedule, the book reflects the relatively unhurried, careful reporting of Bergen over many years. Most authors who try to understand shadowy subjects in worlds so different from their own rely heavily on hearsay, on rumors. Bergen does rely on hearsay and rumors from time to time, but warns readers of those potential information pitfalls in his copious end notes. No lifelong scholar of Afghanistan, evangelical Islam or terrorism could have done better than Bergen has. The book proves, once again, what is so rarely recognized inside academia: Journalism, when done with care, can be scholarly and readable.

Occasionally, Bergen lets his disgust with bin Laden show, as in this commentary:

“To understand why bin Laden makes the leap from opposition to American policies to killing thousands of U.S. civilians, one must grasp that in his mind the United States has been equally violent in its treatment of Muslim civilians. On the al-Qaeda videotape circulating around the Middle East during the summer of 2001, bin Laden repeatedly returns to the theme of Muslim civilians under attack in countries from Israel to Iraq, for which he blames the United States. He rages over pictures of dying children in Iraq, saying, “More than a million Iraqis die because they are Muslims,’ and refers to President Clinton as a “slaughterer.’ For bin Laden it’s quite simple – attacks against American citizens are necessary so that they can “taste the bitter fruit’ that Muslim civilians have long tasted.

“Strange that this “holy’ man’s holy war should come down to simple lust for revenge.”

Usually, however, Bergen keeps his commentary off the page, playing it straight as he delves into bin Laden’s complicated family history in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; the uses to which Osama put his father’s construction company wealth; the doctrines of the men who guided Osama’s fundamentalist religious development after the premature death of the bin Laden family patriarch; Osama’s exposure to guerrilla warfare as he elected to surrender his pampered existence to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan; the methods Osama uses to attract warriors from all over the world to devote their lives to the holy war against the U.S. government.

While bin Laden is always the villain at center stage, Bergen sometimes places U.S. military and civilian officials in the wings. Even the most attentive media consumers will probably be surprised – shocked, perhaps – at the misguided decisions made year after year on behalf of the U.S. government. How many, for example, already understood the disastrous consequences of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency disseminating $ 3-billion of taxpayer money to Pakistani sources, who in turn used at least $ 600-million of the total to support Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, an Islamist zealot controlling one of Afghanistan’s seven political parties? Instead of fighting Soviet invaders effectively, Bergen reports, Hekmatyar used the new-found wealth to kill his Afghan opponents, while simultaneously training anti-American terrorists who would later assist bin Laden.

This review merely hints at the dozens of revelations in Bergen’s text. But readers should be warned that the book rarely provides definitive answers – definitive answers are difficult to determine when the elusive bin Laden is involved. A poignant reminder of this comes early in the book, as Bergen seeks bin Laden for a promised interview. Bergen understands that he could be murdered on a whim, so he is always on guard. Yet when he and his journalistic crew enter the city of Jalalabad, nobody in charge of the Afghan outpost asks the reason for the journey. “Either the Taliban were incompetent,” Bergen finds himself thinking, “or they knew of our mission and had sanctioned the interview at the highest level. Like so many things in Afghanistan, this was never really clear.”

Steve Weinberg is an investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo.

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