The Man Behind the Al Qaeda Network ; before the World Began Telling Stories about Bin Laden, He Was Creating His Own Myths

By Bowers, Faye | The Christian Science Monitor, August 31, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Man Behind the Al Qaeda Network ; before the World Began Telling Stories about Bin Laden, He Was Creating His Own Myths


Bowers, Faye, The Christian Science Monitor


When two Russian passenger jets slammed into the ground nearly simultaneously last week, the first word government officials uttered was "terrorism."

These days, that word means one thing: Osama bin Laden. He is linked to every terror attack in the past decade, either for issuing orders or for providing inspiration. There is little doubt that he has single-handedly changed the course of human events.

Still, although just about everyone now knows him on a first- name basis, few know more than a little about the man himself, the world he came from, or how events in that part of the world helped shape who he's become. This newly released book could change that. Jonathan Randal, a former Washington Post reporter who spent 40 years covering and living in Middle East hot spots, has written "Osama: The Making of a Terrorist."

Although unable to meet with the Al Qaeda leader personally, Randal ably weaves together what's been reported about Osama's early and middle years, creating a much fuller portrayal of a person deeply affected by familial relationships and the struggle for peace in the Middle East.

At the same time, Randal punctures much of the Osama myth. He shows how bin Laden not only grew as a human being but capably reinvented himself time and again, playing the media as deftly as any polished politician.

Still, the title of the book is a bit misleading. It is not so much a bin Laden biography as a primer on the past 40 years of the region's history and its entangled relations with the United States. Each chapter characterizes a period in bin Laden's life: one on the ultrareligious Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden grew up; another on Afghanistan, where bin Laden honed his fighting and leadership skills; another on the Sudan, where bin Laden based his operations for a short period; and another on Algeria, where jihadists have long struggled for an Islamic state.

The beauty of Randal's narrative is how richly it's rooted in his reporting experiences. He peppers telling anecdotes throughout - sometimes from Osama's era, sometimes from an earlier, but still relevant period.

He tells one, for example, in an effort to explain the convoluted relationship that began in the 1940s between Saudi Arabia and the United States based on reasonably priced oil in return for military protection - one of the major reasons that bin Laden turned against the West.

As this relationship grew and cash began to flow freely into Saudi Arabia, the revelry that broke out among the ruling royal family, renowned keepers of the two holiest Muslim shrines, was considered apostasy by the religious leaders, the royals' supposed partners in government. But the monarchy continued to thrive.

Randal relates a conversation he had back in the 1970s, during those days of high living, with an American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who tried to explain how this strange marriage of convenience worked.

The ambassador, Randall says, "compared the regime King Abdulaziz bin al-Saud created to a bumblebee. …

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