21st Century Terrorist

CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen comes to New Orleans with Holy War Inc., a close-up view of Osama bin Laden.



At a time when Osama bin Laden was not yet a household name, journalist Peter Bergen was traveling halfway around the world for a mysterious midnight encounter with him. The first Western television journalist to interview bin Laden, Bergen was spurred by the two biggest unanswered questions of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993: who was the architect of the operation and who paid for it? His search led him to a group of huts in the lofty mountain passes of Afghanistan where, on a cold March night in 1997, Bergen was served tea -- and a call for jihad -- by the mild-mannered man who would one day be responsible for the horror of Sept. 11.

Bergen's prescient, powerful New York Times bestseller Holy War Inc. (Touchstone) details his encounter with bin Laden and delves into the labyrinthine world of al-Qaeda, a network he likens to that of a multinational holding company employing "twenty-first-century communications and weapons technology in the service of the most extreme, retrograde reading of holy war." The CNN terrorism analyst uses his experiences on the ground and his familiarity with bin Laden and his ilk to create an illuminating analysis. The dual strengths of Holy War Inc. are Bergen's intelligent, measured reporting and his engaging prose.

The intrepid field reporter writes most affectingly of Afghanistan. "The very word is an incantation. ... 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, a place of extraordinary natural beauty that opens the mind to contemplation."

Sadly, what Bergen must go on to contemplate is a barbarously bellicose message and its most extraordinary messenger. "When bin Laden declared war on Americans in 1996, he described U.S. soldiers stationed in the Middle East as 'the Crusaders,' as if crusades of the Middle Ages were still being fought," Bergen writes, "and signed his declaration 'from the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan,' a place barely touched by the modern world. That declaration of war was written on an Apple computer and then faxed or e-mailed to supporters in Pakistan and Britain, who in turn made it available to Arabic newspapers based in London, which subsequently beamed the text, via satellite, to printing centers all over the Middle East and in New York. Thus, a premodern message was delivered by postmodern means."

Many motivations have been ascribed to bin Laden since 9/11, including a hatred of Western values, a dislike for U.S. policy regarding Israel and the wrath of a have-not in a globalization climate. After providing the context of a nicely nuanced bin Laden biography, Bergen cuts to the real bone of contention. "What he condemns the United States for is simple: its policies in the Middle East. Those are, to recap briefly: the continued American military presence in Arabia, U.S. support for Israel, its continued campaign against Iraq, and its support for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that bin Laden regards at apostates from Islam. Bin Laden is at war with the United States, but his is a political war, justified by his own understanding of Islam, and directed at the symbols and institutions of American power." A straightforward enough statement of purpose, but one unfortunately not dominant in contemporary commentary.

Bergen challenges the oft-heard notion that bin Laden and his early cohorts were somehow products of the CIA, armed and trained during the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. He takes great pains to elucidate the complicated -- and fascinating -- dance that was American involvement in that bloodiest of confrontations. He leaves, however, little doubt that the conflict with the Soviets was the crucible that tested bin Laden and many other Islamist militants. (The war in Bosnia also receives multiple mentions as a breeding ground of sorts, both practically and philosophically, leaving the reader to wonder if the West largely ignored that clash to its own peril.) Bergen continues on, giving startling insight into the degree of subterfuge and assimilation employed within our own borders, indeed within our very state. One al-Qaeda operative is described as a one-time officer in the U.S. Army, who taught courses at Fort Bragg in the late 1980s; another bin Laden loyalist, Wadih el-Hage, spent eight years in the late 1970s studying at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, later graduating to serve as bin Laden's personal secretary during his seminal stint in the Sudan.

Still, Bergen manages to be simultaneously informative and oddly reassuring, even unexpectedly so. Perhaps the devil you know a little more is preferable to the devil you know not at all.


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