Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden

Article excerpt

Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden

Peter L. Bergen

The Free Press, 2001

One of the paradoxes of war is that two diametrically opposite perceptions of the opponent need to be held simultaneously. On the one hand, there is both the natural urge and the practical imperative to demonize and dehumanize the opponent. In the case of Osama bin Laden and the radical Islamists he leads, the carnage of September 11 has enraged the American people, who have been reminded in the most graphic way that retribution is essential to justice and who yearn to return to the life without fear that has been one of the implicit values of their society. This merges easily into a satisfaction of the need for anger as a spur to action. Subtlety is not a hallmark of the emotion that leads masses of people to bear gladly or even stoically the sacrifices and dangers of war.

On the other hand, there is a need to understand the enemy and the causes of the conflict, looking ahead to the transcendence that ultimately will have to be reached if the world is to return to normal. Rational understanding is the opposite of caricature. Declamations about the pure evil of the opponent give way, here, to facts and analysis - and hopefully to some comprehension of what moves the opponent as a human being.

In this book, Peter Bergen has sought to achieve a balance between these opposites. It isn't likely that anything he says will strike a false chord with the rage and fear and need for action. His reportage informs and arms those emotions. At the same time, the same panoramic sweep of facts and analysis provides a useful source for rational understanding. The book is full of information, not caricature.

Bergen ranks among the more qualified individuals in the world to provide that reportage. In 1983 he filmed a documentary about Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion, and between 1990 and 1999 worked for CNN, focusing on the Middle East. In 1993 he travelled to Afghanistan to investigate the background of the bombing, that year, of the World Trade Center. Four years later, he produced the first televised interview with Osama bin Laden. He is now CNN's terrorism analyst. If in the course of all this he has developed any biases, they don't show too obviously; his book is an example of journalism at its best.

Although its publication date was moved up from the summer of 2002 because of the events of September 11, the book is not one of those "quickie" efforts rushed into print to exploit a surge of public feeling. The manuscript was finished and in to the publisher a month before the attacks. The few changes serve only to update it to the current situation.

Bergen gives a tapestry of factual detail about bin Laden himself, the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, radical Islamism as it exists in many societies, Islam as a religion, several specific individuals integral to the Islamist movement, and specifically about the many acts of terror against the United States and others during recent decades. Unless the book is to be replicated here, the best that can be done is to draw from it selectively to give attention to certain highlights:

1. Most Americans were shocked into awareness of the terror on September 11, but in fact a war had been underway against the United States for several years. A mob had burned down the United States' embassy in Pakistan in 1979. In 1983, 241 Marines died in the suicide truck bombing of their barracks in Lebanon. Rabbi Meir Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian-American in Manhattan in 1990. The first World Trade Center bombing occurred in 1993, seeking a disaster even worse than that of September 11. Eighteen American soldiers were killed in Somalia in 1993, and Osama bin Laden claims his people had a hand in that. A United States facility was car-bombed in Riyadh in 1995. This was followed by the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, killing 19 U.S. …