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. Why a bumblebee, I asked?
'Because there is no aerodynamic reason for a bumblebee to fly, yet fly it does.' "
Bin Laden eventually picked up on that sense of religious outrage and made it a part of his network's platform. He preached against the United States for supporting an illegitimate regime and against a religious elite that turns a blind eye to the royals' revelry.
But that was after he grew up, and, Randal reports, became a devoutly religious young man. Bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan, as many Arab youth did in the 1980s, to fight the Soviet occupation. (Randal was also there covering it.) That's where bin Laden proved his fighting prowess and turned into a troublemaker cum terror leader, according to Randal.
He fought in the trenches alongside his jihadis and to this day, as legend has it, still carries the assault rifle he took away from a Russian general.
Bin Laden was known in this period, Randal writes, as a devout Muslim who rigorously practiced the tenets of his faith and cared deeply for his soldiers. He was known for walking around among the fallen, passing out English chocolates while taking their names and making sure their families received news as well as financial compensation.
But bin Laden also showed another side, Randal writes.
"There was something of the fop about him; his shalwar kameez costume (a loose tunic over pants) was tailored from the best imported English cloth, and he wore bespoke [custom-made] Beel Brothers boots from London."
Nor did Osama forgo "the Taliban prohibitions on such symbols of modernity as computers, television sets, audio- and videotapes, which were ritually draped by the religious police from trees as satanic works of the infidels."
Randal also ties in many of his own opinions about US relations with the countries in Osama's sphere. He isn't exactly kind about most US actions. But he does assess blame equally to both Democratic and Republican administrations.
For example, he snipes at the Clinton administration for trying to show bin Laden that it, too, could launch attacks against two different cities simultaneously (Tomahawk cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan).
And he slams the Bush administration for trying to "airbrush Osama from its official consciousness as artlessly as had Stalin's propagandists removed those fallen from grace from official photographs."
Aside from these polemic moments, though, the book is very worthwhile, illuminating without being alarmist. It adds to the very slim universe of literature that aims to promote understanding of America's adversary and the nation's interactions with his region.
• Faye Bowers is a Monitor reporter in Washington.