Holy War, Inc. by Peter L. Bergen
Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden
by Peter L. Bergen
Free Press. 304 pp. $26.00
Osama Bin Laden is the man who dared to wage war against a superpower, and a cottage industry of analysts and reporters has been racing to explain him to the public. At the head of the pack is Peter Bergen, a CNN producer whose team interviewed bin Laden in 1997 and who has now written a biography that promises to take us “inside the secret world” of the al Qaeda terrorist network.
Bergen begins his narrative with an extended account of the travails he endured to secure his 1997 audience: meetings with three intermediaries in London, a perilous passage through Pakistan, glimpses into the sufferings of everyday life in Afghanistan under the fanatical Taliban, and the gauntlet of arcane security measures imposed by bin Laden’s palace guard to protect the secrecy of their charge’s location. In the interview itself, bin Laden declared that one of his objectives was to “drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries,” and he also spoke menacingly of his future plans:
You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.
Born in 1957, seventeenth among the more than 50 children produced by the many wives of a multimillionaire Saudi construction magnate, bin Laden, according to Bergen, owes his own radical brand of Islam to the years he spent at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah. There he fell under the influence of Islamists dedicated to the proposition that the obligation to wage jihad extends not only to defensive battles against attacking infidels but also to offensive warfare against all enemies of Islam, and that it must conclude with the restoration of the caliphate, a government that will reign supreme over the entire Muslim world.
With this ideology pulsing in his blood, bin Laden began raising money to help the Afghan resistance defeat the Soviet invader. By 1986, he had moved to the Pakistani city of Peshawar and worked to finance and operate guesthouses for the so-called Afghan Arabs, volunteers from across the Middle East who had come to join the jihad. In this endeavor, he collaborated closely with, among others, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the chief of Saudi intelligence, who was keen to funnel his kingdom’s funds to the effort, and also with Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, an anti-American fundamentalist to whom Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), channeled the lion’s share of U.S. arms and money intended to support the Afghan resistance.
In these years, as Bergen recounts, bin Laden’s broader network began to take shape. Peshawar had become a breeding ground for aspiring and established jihadists alike, and bin Laden exploited his presence there to establish contacts with men of violent disposition from several countries. They included Ayman al-Zawahiri, a key leader of Egyptian Jihad who later became his right-hand man in al Qaeda, and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who would come to play a key role in the 1993 plot to bomb New York City landmarks. By the close of the decade, bin Laden had founded al Qaeda, which Bergen likens to a terrorist holding company that owns a partial or controlling interest in terrorist affiliates around the world.
Bin Laden’s plans were interrupted in 1989 when the new government of Benazir Bhutto forced him to leave Pakistan. He returned to Saudi Arabia for a spell, but ran afoul of the regime because of his radical Islamist politics and had to flee to Sudan. Drawing upon his own considerable wealth as well as donations from sympathizers, and with the blessings of the Sudanese government, bin Laden proceeded to professionalize and further globalize al Qaeda, setting up training camps and establishing ties with like-minded Islamic radicals in such far-flung lands as India, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Bosnia.
In short order, as Bergen shows, the foot soldiers of his organization were inducted into the paramilitary arts. Also in short order, a string of bloody terrorist operations was set in motion in which bin Laden had either an indirect or leading hand: two hotel bombings in Yemen in 1992; attacks on U.S. troops in Somalia and the truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; the killing of five Americans in a car bombing in Saudi Arabia and the truck bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan in 1995; and the truck bombing of the Khobar Towers, killing nineteen Americans, in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
By the time of this last attack, Sudan had come under intense pressure from Egypt and the United States for continuing to harbor bin Laden, and he once again had to take flight. This time he went to Afghanistan, where the Taliban offered to protect him as an honored guest. From his new sanctuary, bin Laden issued a public call for Allah to visit anger upon the Americans and their allies and “to send whom He has from the sky to kill them.” What followed were many more attacks, including the truck bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and the mass destruction “from the sky” of September 11, 2001.
Holy War, Inc. offers a lively narrative of bin Laden’s life and accomplishments, such as they are, but as both a piece of writing and a piece of research it has some significant shortcomings.
To begin with less serious matters, Bergen displays a tiresome penchant for elaborate and heavyhanded descriptions of the exotic locales in which he has found himself. Here he is, for example, on Afghanistan:
The very word is an incantation. I will never get over the thrill of seeing the country. In my imagination it has always seemed like something out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It promises mystery, a movement back into a time of medieval chivalry and medieval cruelty, an absence of the modern world that is both thrilling and disturbing.
And so forth and so on.
When he turns from local color to substance, the writing gets better, but the analysis is often either incomplete or misleading. An example of the former is Bergen’s treatment of al Qaeda’s relationship with Pakistan. Bergen is of the view that the United States government made a major error in the 1980′s in relying on Pakistan’s ISI to manage the resources meant for the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. Much of what our government dispensed through this channel, he shows, ended up in the hands of the anti-American Hekmatyar, who used it for his own purposes and seldom sent fighters to battle the Soviets.
Bergen is largely on track here, but misses a related and more consequential point. Over the past decade, it was the ISI that forged the link between bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, and it also played a central role in developing the al Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan and integrating its fighting forces with the Taliban military. The agency’s involvement raises profound questions about our alliance with Pakistan in the war against terrorism, particularly as long as the Pakistani intelligence service remains unpurged of its pro-Taliban, pro-al Qaeda elements.
Examining U.S. policy toward bin Laden in the 1990′s, Bergen does a competent but again incomplete job with the central historical question of the era: did the Clinton administration actually fail to notice that a formidable enemy was conducting a war against the United States, or did the President fail to mobilize an appropriate response? It is not a contradiction to say that the answer seems to be both.
In this connection, though, Bergen oddly omits mentioning the moment when bin Laden was forced to leave Sudan in 1996 and the Clinton administration let slip a major opportunity to take him into custody. To this day, senior Clinton administration officials defend themselves by saying that the U.S. had no legal basis on which to hold bin Laden at that point. But this argument is itself damning evidence that they were blind to the growing threat and were thinking about the terrorist danger not in strategic but only in narrow legal terms.
By 1998, when the administration did finally retaliate against bin Laden for his attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, it acted with insufficient force. Bergen provides a vivid account of Clinton’s feckless cruise-missile strikes against al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan: the salvo killed about twenty terrorists-in-training, but the destroyed mud-and-straw structures were rebuilt and back in business within weeks. Undoubtedly, this limited strike served primarily to confirm bin Laden in his view that the U.S. was cowardly and weak and could be struck again with relative impunity
Not so much incomplete as misleading is Bergen’s take on bin Laden’s motives and intentions. The bin Laden he presents is a man driven primarily by a dream of expelling the American infidels from Saudi soil. When it comes to anything beyond that, Bergen is dismissive, characterizing bin Laden’s ambition to unite the Muslim world under a restored caliphate as mostly a “rhetorical device” to mobilize supporters and as having “about as much chance as the Holy Roman Empire suddenly reappearing in Europe.”
But the evidence favors a more expansive reading of bin Laden’s will to power: that in fomenting terrorism his hope was to provoke a response that, unleashing turmoil in the Muslim world, would mobilize elite and mass opinion, destabilize Saudi Arabia, and allow him to control its oil wealth for use toward his wider goals. Nor was this sequence entirely a pipe dream. The key here lay in bin Laden’s connections to the Saudi regime, which were far thicker than the financial linkages to which Bergen confines himself.
As is well known, the Saudi regime has walked on eggshells in the current crisis, not only because fifteen of the nineteen hijackers of September 11 are thought to have been Saudi nationals, but also because an influential segment of the Saudi political elite—including important figures in the royal family—has itself been aligned with the terrorist leader. In this, Prince Turki—whose ties to bin Laden (and to Mullah Omar) were never broken and who was dismissed from his intelligence post only after September 11—was far from alone. Indeed, the widespread sympathy for bin Laden in Saudi Arabia suggests that even if al Qaeda is completely wiped out in Afghanistan, serious troubles are yet to come. In other words, the final tally of the damage to global stability wrought by bin Laden is still not in. He may, posthumously at least, achieve some of his goals.
Finally, when Bergen turns to the relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq, he cavalierly downplays the confirmed contact between Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders of September 11, and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in June 2000. “[O]ne meeting,” he writes, “does not an al Qaeda-Iraqi conspiracy make.” He also quotes an unnamed U.S. counterterrorism official to the effect that “no one has drawn any conclusion of any sort about that meeting.”
But others have convincingly argued that close ties between al Qaeda and Iraq date back to the years when bin Laden operated in Sudan, where senior Iraqi intelligence officials were also present. It seems, moreover, that Iraqi intelligence officers met with Atta on more than that one occasion in 2000. The last meeting, again in Prague, occurred in April 2001, and considering the risk of compromise involved, it would almost certainly not have taken place so close to the World Trade Center/Pentagon mission were it not of operational significance.
The superficiality of Holy War, Inc. in some instances, and its incompleteness in others, suggest the need for caution in approaching any book promising to take us “inside the secret world” of a clandestine organization. It is likely that the secret world of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda will really begin to emerge only after the interrogation of prisoners and the translation of the treasure trove of documents captured with the fall of the Taliban.