Osama, that is. The author, Michael Scheuer, was the chief of the CIA's unit that was searching for The Elusive One for a period of four years, and has remained in the field of "Osama watchers" thereafter. He is definitely opinionated, speaks his mind, sometimes shrilly so. And he has accumulated his share of enemies, including the Israeli lobby in the United States. He has attempted what he considers to be a realistic portrait of the man, and in his preface, makes it quite clear: "...my intention is not to praise Osama bin Laden but to help bury him."
In Scheuer's initial chapter he groups various other "Osama watchers" into categories and then critiques their portraits of him. There is the "old hand" narrative that proposes that he is simply one of a long line of individuals or groups who use terrorism for political purposes. There is the "former comrades" narrative; that is, those who once supported him, but have fallen out. There is the "Riyadh narrative," pushed by the Saudis who are embarrassed by the actions of a man who used to be one of their own, and would like to blame it all on that evil Egyptian, Al-Zawahiri. American think tanks and the neo-cons push the "imperialist narrative," that is the coming of a world-wide Caliphate. And there are the "bin Laden experts" themselves, who ignore what he actually says, and relies on what others say about him. Scheuer draws American analogies to underscore his points, and says that it is equivalent to writing a biography of George Washington by relying exclusively on the works of his political rivals: American Tories, King George III and British army officers.
With that as an introduction to his approach, the author describes various phases in bin Laden's life, starting with his birth and education in Saudi Arabia, and then his support of the Afghan forces opposed to the Soviet army of occupation in the `80's, his life in the Sudan thereafter, then his return to Afghanistan and his declaration of war on the West, in particular the United States. Overall, I felt the author's iconoclast approach has considerable merit; willing to acknowledge the strengths, and even virtues of bin Laden, such as "piety, generosity, personal bravery, strategic ability, charisma, and patience" instead of taking the easy road of denouncing him as the personification of all evil. And I think Scheuer's observation that "Of all who played into bin Laden's post-9/11 hands, none has done so as completely and mindlessly as the U.S government" is spot-on. But then within a couple of sentences he says: "In both places, it has fielded a slow-moving, over-equipped, and casualty-averse army that failed to win under careerist generals drawing advice from New Age social scientists bent on pursuing hearts and minds and avoiding blood and iron." WHAT? How much is there to dislike in that sentence and that attitude? Should we "bomb them back into the Stone Age, a la General Curtis Lemay? Should we not be a casualty-averse army? Are "hearts and minds" only for sissies?
There is the usual caveat of the Vine program that this is an advance copy. I DO hope additional proofing is done, but that is unlikely. There are at least several mistakes: the Afghan war against the Soviet Union did not start in 1972 (p. 4); bin Laden was born in the al-Malaz district of Riyadh, not al-Maz (p.21); the French did NOT "design and manage the recapture of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, and Trofimov makes that clear in his book, The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine
which is the one cited by Scheuer (p. 51); and Taif and Abha are NOT in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, but rather the west (p. 79). Scheuer's sources are equally troubling, since they run the entire gamut from serious, thoughtful and accurate to highly dubious. Coll, for example, is a respected award-winning journalist who makes a real effort to be factual correct. But one of bin Laden's former wives is repeatedly quoted, uncritically, as though her statements carried the weight of a Hadith. Why do CIA types seem to set their critical facilities aside and accept, for example, the assertions of Rafid Ahmed Alwan, a/k/a "curveball" concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and not realize the real "bottom line" is a green card? Ditto that for his former wife. Did bin Laden really give speeches warning of the Iraq Army walking into Kuwait (p. 81)?
To Scheuer's credit, he does admit mixing up Muhammad and Sayyed Qutb in a previous book. This is a very common complaint of the Arabs; that Westerners have difficulty keeping their names straight. The author advances the theory that bin Laden was not influenced by Zawahiri, rather it was the other way around. Always possible, even though the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares: Rise of the Politics of Fear - An Adam Curtis Film [Clamshell Case
] presents a plausible case for the reverse. The author is also rather dogmatic concerning Al Qaeda, convinced that it is a strict hierarchical structure instead of a loose franchise, but then will make statements such as "bin Laden endorsed the action of those who bombed the U.S. warship in the Yemeni port of Aden (p118)? Does this mean he did NOT order it?
Overall, a thoughtful, provocative, and flawed book addressing one of the central issues of our times: the elusive Osama, and all that he represents. We need a truer portrait still. 3.5 stars, rounded up.
Update: May 02. As is now well-known, he is elusive no longer. Al Humdullah. - JPJ
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on April 08, 2011)