How Osama bin Laden Became a Global Celebrity
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
The Free Press - HOLY WAR, INC.
Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden
By Peter L. Bergen - 283 pages. The Free Press. $26.
CNN's terrorism analyst, Peter L. Bergen, observes in his new book on Osama bin Laden that the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "the deadliest salvo" yet in a holy war against the United States that began "almost a decade earlier with the little-noticed bombing of a Yemen hotel that housed American soldiers." "An Australian tourist was the sole casualty of that assault," he writes, "but with every passing year the attacks became more sophisticated and more deadly."
Mr. Bergen was part of the CNN team, along with the veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett and the cameraman Peter Jouvenal, that interviewed Mr. bin Laden in 1997, and he tries to cover a lot of ground in this book. In addition to a portrait of the world's most wanted man, he sketches in the history of Al Qaeda as a terrorist organization, profiles its leaders and more prominent members and examines its evolution into a global network that has attracted followers around the world, including in the United States (in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Florida, Virginia and California).
Though much of this book will be familiar to readers who have followed the many reports about Al Qaeda in newspapers and on television in the last two months and though it sheds little new light on the youth and formative experiences of Mr. bin Laden, Mr. Bergen does a succinct job of pulling together a wealth of information into a coherent if sometimes subjective narrative.
It is a narrative that impresses upon the reader the crucial role that the Afghan- Soviet conflict played in radicalizing many Islamic militants, enabling men like Mr. bin Laden to meet important figures from other terrorist organizations, leaving them with the confidence that they could defeat a superpower and replacing the notion of Arab nationalism with that of a larger Islamist movement. It is also a narrative that underscores mistakes made by the Central Intelligence Agency and the United States government in initially assessing the threat posed by Al Qaeda and their miscalculations in dealing with the Afghan-Soviet conflict, most notably, Mr. Bergen contends, in deciding to provide the Mujahedeen with American Stinger missiles and in allowing the Pakistanis to "disproportionately fund the most Islamist factions" in the war and funnel "hundreds of millions of dollars to anti-Western Afghan factions."
Some of Mr. Bergen's findings ¯ along with his grating penchant for describing Mr. bin Laden in flippant terms like a "Pied Piper of jihad" ¯ are bound to provoke controversy. He contests the suggestion made by some writers that Mr. bin Laden went through a period of womanizing and drinking in his youth, arguing that such reports probably confused the young Osama with one of his 20 or so half-brothers.
Mr. Bergen questions the suspicion voiced by some observers that Iraq was involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and plays down the significance of Mohamed Atta's meeting with an Iraqi intelligence agent a year before the Sept. 11 attacks. And he belittles the National Security Agency's expenditure of "billions of dollars every year" to intercept phone calls, arguing that Mr. bin Laden has long been aware of such intercepts and since 1997 has stopped using satellite phones, preferring to deliver his orders via radio or in person.
As for attempts by the United States government to go after Mr. bin Laden's money, Mr. Bergen writes that they have been "largely feel-good measures, with little impact on his finances," since the terrorist leader does not use conventional banks. The new measures to freeze his assets announced by President Bush, he writes, "are no more likely to succeed than those taken by President Clinton three years earlier, following the embassy bombing attacks in Africa."
Like Mary Anne Weaver, who wrote an article about Mr. bin Laden in The New Yorker in January 2000, Mr. Bergen argues that the Clinton administration's reaction to those embassy bombings ¯ including missile attacks on suspected bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan and on an alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan, as well as indictments of Mr. bin Laden ¯ helped mythologize him, turning him "from a marginal figure in the Muslim world into a global celebrity."
Mr. bin Laden, Mr. Bergen writes, differs from the Arab terrorist leaders of the 70's and 80's not only in his worldwide fame ¯ which his followers have assiduously promulgated by using the Internet to spread his message and recruit followers ¯ but also in espousing a "philosophy that went beyond opposition to Israel and calls for a Palestinian state," a "somewhat coherent ideology of anti-Americanism and opposition to Middle Eastern governments he deems `un-Islamic.' "
Judging from Mr. bin Laden's silence about Hollywood movies and the Western use of drugs and alcohol, Mr. Bergen argues, he "cares little about such cultural issues": "what he condemns the United States for is simple: its policies in the Middle East," namely, "the continued U.S. military presence in Arabia; U.S. support for Israel; its continued bombing of Iraq; and its support for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that bin Laden regards as apostates from Islam."
"Bin Laden is at war with the United States," Mr. Bergen goes on, "but his is a political war, justified by his own understanding of Islam, directed at the symbols and institutions of American political power. The hijackers who came to America did not attack the headquarters of a major brewery or AOL Time Warner or Coca-Cola, nor did they attack Las Vegas or Manhattan's West Village or even the Supreme Court. They attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, pre-eminent symbols of the United States' military and economic might. And that fits the patterns of previous Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies, military installations and warships."
Would capturing or killing Mr. bin Laden help bring down Al Qaeda? Though Mr. Bergen says the loss of this terrorist's charismatic leadership and business skills would be a blow, he sounds dubious about the organization's demise: "There are others who would replace him. Standing in the wings are the *minence grise of the group, Ayman al- Zawahiri, as well as his colleague Abu Hafs, Al Qaeda's Egyptian military commander. The latter is now father-in-law of bin Laden's son, Mohammed, who himself might one day lead Al Qaeda. And behind them are the many thousands of members and affiliates of Al Qaeda, not only in Afghanistan but in 60 countries around the world: a Hydra-headed monster."
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