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