May 2, 2011, 3:15 pm

A Survey of Books About Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda


Since 9/11, there has been an outpouring of books about Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Below is an annotated list of some of the more useful ones.
Some of these books are primarily concerned with giving the reader a bildungsroman-like account of Bin Laden’s transformation into a charismatic leader from a callow young man who “couldn’t lead eight ducks across the street,” as Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington, once said. They underscore the unresolved Oedipal problems (not unlike those of George W. Bush) that he had with his powerful and wealthy father, while exploring the role that older mentors played in his growing radicalization.

“The Bin Ladens,” by Steve Coll, also adds new details to our understanding of how the young Bin Laden evolved from a loyal family adjutant into an angry black sheep lashing out at some of the very connections his father and brothers had cultivated in their business dealings for years.

An earlier book by Mr. Coll, “Ghost Wars” (2004), traveled back in time to explore the role the C.I.A. played in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and how America’s abandonment of that country after the Soviet withdrawal left behind a chaotic land with heavily armed, feuding warlords: conditions that created a perfect environment for the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Jonathan Randal’s “Osama” and Michael Scheuer’s “Osama bin Laden” also examine America’s unwittingly role in the ascendance of these radical groups.

As for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of these books agree that it was a terrible misstep that played into Bin Laden’s hands, fueling Qaeda recruitment efforts and diverting critical military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan, which in turn led to the resurgence there of the Taliban. Peter L. Bergen’s new book, “The Longest War,” provides a devastating indictment of the Bush administration on many levels, from its failure to heed warnings about a terrorist threat, to its determination to conduct the war in Afghanistan on the cheap, to its costly, unnecessary and inept occupation of Iraq.

Both “The Longest War” and Lawrence Wright’s “Looming Tower” give readers a visceral sense of what day-to-day life was like in Qaeda training camps. Mr. Wright, noting that Bin Laden was not opposed to the United States because of its culture or ideas but because of its political and military actions in the Islamic world, observes that Qaeda trainees often watched Hollywood thrillers at night (Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were particular favorites) in an effort to gather tactical tips.

Mr. Bergen, for his part, observes that Al Qaeda became a highly bureaucratic organization with bylaws dealing with matters like salary levels, furniture allowances and vacation schedules.
“The Looming Tower” and “The Bin Ladens,” among other books, suggest that Bin Laden’s turn to war against the United States was not inevitable: bad luck, events in his life, politics in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, decisions made by the United States government and absurd turf wars between the C.I.A. and F.B.I. all contributed to Al Qaeda’s pulling off the Sept. 11 attacks. During the period when he was living in the Sudan, Mr. Wright says, Bin Laden “was wavering — the lure of peace being as strong as the battle cry of jihad”: agriculture “captivated his imagination,” and he reportedly told friends he was thinking of quitting Al Qaeda and becoming a farmer. The continuing presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia (after the first gulf war), however, angered Bin Laden, and the movement of American troops into Somalia in √1992 (on a humanitarian relief mission) made Al Qaeda feel increasingly encircled. In meetings held at the end of 1992, Mr. Wright says, the group “turned from being the anti-Communist Islamic army that Bin Laden originally envisioned into a terrorist organization bent on attacking the United States.”

THE LONGEST WAR: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda (2011). By Peter L. Bergen. This volume by CNN’s national security analyst provides a succinct overview of the war on terror, giving the reader a sharply observed portrait of Bin Laden, whom Mr. Bergen interviewed in 1997, and an intimate understanding of how the organization operates on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Bergen argues that Bin Laden over-reached with the 9/11 attacks and that Al Qaeda has a growing list of enemies including Muslims who don’t share its “ultra-fundamentalist worldview.” The book also provides a harrowing account of Bin Laden’s escape from American forces at Tora Bora in December 2001, after the C.I.A.’s request for more troops was turned down by the Pentagon.

OSAMA: The Making of a Terrorist (2004). By Jonathan Randal. This book by a former Washington Post correspondent is less a biography of Al Qaeda’s mastermind than a history of the contemporary jihadi movement, which Mr. Randal argues was inadvertently strengthened by American hubris, ignorance and missteps in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Mr. Randal chronicles Bin Laden’s combat experiences as an anti-Soviet jihadi, his growing radicalization and the role that various mentors and surrogate father figures played in his evolution.

THE BIN LADENS: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008). By Steve Coll. In this family epic, Mr. Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, creates a psychologically detailed portrait of Bin Laden and his relationships with his father, Muhammad, who made a fortune in Saudi Arabia as the king’s principal builder; and his older brother Salem, a British-educated, music-loving playboy, who used to organize family expeditions to Las Vegas. Mr. Coll suggests that Bin Laden’s turn to war against the United States was not inevitable, but the result of many factors. Those included his worsening relationships with the Saudi royal family and his own relatives as well as growing anger at America, which had pressured the government of Sudan to expel him from the country (where he raised horses and sunflowers on a farm while training jihadis) and send him into exile in Afghanistan in 1996.

HOLY WAR, INC.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (2001). By Peter L. Bergen. In an early study of Al Qaeda, this CNN analyst emphasizes the crucial role that the Afghan-Soviet conflict played in radicalizing many Islamic militants in the 1980s, giving fighters like Bin Laden the confidence that they could defeat a superpower and replacing the notion of Arab nationalism with that of a larger Islamist movement. Mr. Bergen argues here that Bin Laden’s anger at the United States has little to do with Western culture — say, movies or drug and alcohol use — but rather stems from American policies in the Middle East, namely “the continued U.S. military presence in Arabia; U.S. support for Israel; its continued bombing of Iraq; and its support for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that bin Laden regards as apostates from Islam.”

OSAMA BIN LADEN (2011). By Michael Scheuer. Mr. Scheuer, who once headed the C.I.A.’s Osama bin Laden unit, dissects the puritanical religious views that informed Bin Laden’s thinking. As he did in earlier books like “Imperial Hubris,” Mr. Scheuer contends that Bin Laden was not an irrational terrorist, but a shrewd strategist and tactician who wanted to lure the United States into a financially draining quagmire in the Middle East. He regards the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a recruiting bonanza for Al Qaeda and a great gift for Bin Laden.

THE LOOMING TOWER: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006). By Lawrence Wright. Based on more than 500 interviews, this book gives readers a searing view of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and how that tragic day came about. Mr. Wright, a writer for The New Yorker, suggests that the emergence of Al Qaeda “depended on a unique conjunction of personalities” — that is, Bin Laden, whose global vision and charismatic leadership would hold together the organization; and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, who promoted the apocalyptic idea that only violence could change history. In Mr. Wright’s account, we see how a shy young Osama bin Laden, who loved the American television series “Bonanza,” became a solemn religious adolescent, and how under the Machiavellian tutelage of Mr. Zawahri, he grew increasingly radicalized.

IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES: America’s War in Afghanistan (2009). By Seth G. Jones. This book by an adjunct professor at Georgetown University charts several decades of relations between the United States and Afghanistan, focusing on what went awry after America’s successful routing of the Taliban in late 2001. Mr. Jones blames the invasion of Iraq for diverting resources and attention from the war in Afghanistan, and notes that as the situation deteriorated, there was a spillover effect in Pakistan, which offered a haven to many Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. Among Mr. Jones’s conclusions is that the United States must “persuade Pakistani military and civilian leaders to conduct a sustained campaign against militants mounting attacks in Afghanistan and the region” and threatening the foundations of “the nuclear-armed Pakistani state.”

GHOST WARS: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004). By Steve Coll. Mapping the long, mistake-filled road to 9/11, this book examines the C.I.A.’s covert role during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and America’s later neglect of the country during the post-cold war ’90s, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda took advantage of the political vacuum. Mr. Coll chronicles the failures of both the Clinton and Bush administrations to mount a serious attack on Al Qaeda and to implement a coherent counterterrorism strategy.

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