America's most wanted
The first post-Sept. 11 biography of Osama bin Laden lacks depth and independent sources
The publishing industry's first salvo on Osama bin Laden since the Sept. 11 attacks sheds more heat than light. "Holy War, Inc.," by Peter Bergen, does an adequate job assembling a profile of Mr. bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. Details of his life are scattered throughout the book, such as his age (44), his college degree (economics and public administration from King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), and his family's Yemeni origins and wealth. Bergen also traces Al Qaeda's escalation of violence, including the 1992 bombing of a tourist hotel in Yemen, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1998 destruction of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, and other attacks in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.Skip to next paragraph
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Bergen, CNN's terrorism analyst, produced the first televised interview of bin Laden in 1997, the year after bin Laden first issued a call to Muslims to attack US military targets. In 1983, the Oxford-educated Bergen made a documentary about the millions of Afghan refugees crossing the border into Pakistan. In 1993, he traveled to Afghanistan to explore the links between the mujahedin, the CIA-funded Afghan rebels who fought the Soviets, and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
The book's title comes from Bergen's premise that Al Qaeda operates much like a multinational corporation, relying on e-mail, faxes, and a recruitment video available on the Internet.
The most useful part of the book is the afterword, in which Bergen finally gets to some brief analysis: "Bin Laden is not some 'AY-rab' who woke up one morning in a bad mood, his turban all in a twist, only to decide America was THE ENEMY. He has reasons for hating the United States, and if we understand those reasons [which Bergen mentions only in passing], we will have a glimmer of insight into what provoked the terrible events of September 11."
Bergen's concludes that a) bin Laden is planning another attack on US targets, b) Al Qaeda would collapse without bin Laden, and c) the US needs to have a plan.
Bergen's view on the strength of Al Qaeda contradicts that of some journalists and scholars, including others who have also interviewed bin Laden. Those critics argue that terrorism will continue to flourish without the exiled Saudi until inequities between the world's haves and have-nots are addressed.
Although "Holy War, Inc." is the first book on bin Laden published since Sept. 11, a stream of similar books is in the works. In addition, several solid studies of the Middle East, terrorism, and US foreign policy have been written in the past 10 years that provide much-needed context to current events. For a Middle East view, there's "Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban," by Lebanese author As'Ad Abukhalil. For a historical, scholarly perspective, check out "Afghanistan's Endless War," by Larry Goodson. For a global perspective, see "Jihad vs. McWorld," by Benjamin Barber.
Journalism has been called the first draft of history, and Bergen's book is a good example. Still, his sources are disturbing, both for who they are and who they are not. Of the more than 160 personal interviews listed in the endnotes, more than half are with anonymous sources. Many of the interviews are with other journalists or CIA operatives. Bergen's secondary sources, such as USA Today and government press releases, also are an indication of the depth of information in this book.
His acknowledgements, like the endnotes, display a heavy reliance on Western sources. Of his 260 thank yous, slightly more than a dozen of the names are of obvious Middle Eastern origin.
Several issues that Bergen mentions only in passing are worthy of more in-depth treatment. They include the origins of the Taliban, the various meanings of jihad, and the failure of US intelligence to preempt the recent attacks.
Puzzling is Bergen's assertion that the CIA did not fund bin Laden or the opposition fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the late 1970s and 1980s, while later admitting that the CIA did fund the Pakistani secret service, which in turn, funded the mujahedin.
In the end, "Holy War, Inc." is a political snack, somewhat satisfying, but only for a brief moment. Bergen might consider a more fulfilling sequel, like "Holy War, Inc. II," an examination of the US government's use of public relations and other corporate-inspired tactics to galvanize public opinion to fight the bad guys.
Char Simons has lived in Turkey and now teaches writing at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.