The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qaeda's Leader Hardcover – 9 Jan 2006
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The antithesis of the ideologically driven cant spouted by..."terrorism experts"...Bergen provides useful commentaries synthesizing and explaining the material -- Guardian
About the Author
Peter Bergen, a British journalist, is a veteran of print and television journalism and has done extensive reporting about al-Qaeda for more than a decade. He has appeared on the BBC, Channel 4, CNN, and NBC. His work has been cited hundreds of times by leading magazines and newspapers around the world. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
This is not an unformed fanatic sitting in a mountain fastness mumbling lunacies. He is a well-educated, well-informed leader with a keen appreciation for the way Westerners think. He is, however, our enemy, and surely it is essential for us to begin to understand how he thinks and what his aims are. For as sure as shooting he understands us.
In some ways the conclusions to be drawn from this important book are similar to those drawn out by Michael Sheuer in his excellent'Imperial Hubris'. Sheuer, who was for many years the CIA expert on Bin Laden, considers Qaeda essentially to have primarily political not religious aims derived from two grievances. First Palestine. Second the corruption of the Ssaudi government. This view is implicitly strongly supported by the Bin Laden quoted in this book.
Two quotations spring out from 'The Bin Laden I know':
'I say to you that security is an important pillar of human life, and that free people do not compromise their security. Contrary to what Bush says and claims, that we hate your freedom. Why did we not attack Sweden?'
And for those who see Iraq as 'a front on the 'War on Terror' Bin Laden calls it 'A Golden and Unique opportunity'.
If the West does not read what this man says, we can be very sure the Islamic world does. We need to know what our enemy is saying, and this book goes some way to telling us that.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is different than most books out there for one reason and one reason only: Peter Bergen gets it. The reality is that Bin Laden is demonized to no end, to the point where fact and fiction become blurred for the average man or woman trying to learn about him. Bin Laden is a bad person, I'm not arguing otherwise. However he's not the personification of evil like people wish to paint him as. Those people do all of us a disservice because it forces us to rely on politicians to educate us. While I'm sure I will come off as an anti-Government nut job, the truth is that the politicians don't want you or I to truly understand the nature of our enemy. They benefit from demonizing him because it wins them elections, it boosts poll numbers and brings campaign donations. The facts though are far more disturbing than what politicians, from both sides of the aisle, lead us to believe. This book is invaluable because it does exactly the opposite of what the media and our Government does. It states the facts and lets them stand on their own so that you and I can judge on our own because the facts are damning enough, there is no need for rhetoric that only serves to help those who wish to remain and obtain power, or in the case of the media, get ratings.
Bin Laden isn't insane. He's not even evil. He believes in everything he is doing and that is the real motivation behind it, not this thirst for bloodshed. In the eyes of his supporters they look at him no differently than we look at our founding Fathers. He truly believes, with all of his heart, that this is his duty. If he were fighting for a different cause, one that you or I looked at as being truly noble, I have no doubt that he would fight for that cause with the same dedication and sense of moral obligation as he does with his cause today. While I hate to stir debate with a fellow reviewer, Michael Scheuer is correct in stating that Bin Laden is "a great man". If you are able to look at it from the point of view of Bin Laden and his followers, he is a great man. He is different from Hitler and other murderers because they knew what they were doing was wrong and immoral. Bin Laden believes in what he does and passionately so, to the point where he will give up his own life. Another thing that makes Bin Laden completely different than Hitler is that Hitler initiated the conflict and violence which he was guilty of, while Bin Laden, wrong or right, believes that he is merely responding to attacks on Islam. This book helps explain all of that, minus the comparison to Hitler, without coming off as being sympathetic to his cause or to him. It gives you a portrait of how Bin Laden sees himself and how he sees us. At the end you will see why the facts are far more disturbing than the myth put out by Governments... Bin Laden is very human in every sense of the word and he truly doesn't believe what he is doing is wrong or immoral. That, to me, is far more scary than "the crazy Arab evil doer" rhetoric. This man started his anti-American movement first by boycotting American goods and doing away with friendly regimes of America. With the help of those closest to him, some whom are truly nothing more than blood thirsty savages (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would qualify as blood thirsty savages in my opinion, though they are not people I am referring to here), he morphed into what he is today. That is very startling because how many other people are out there that are following in those footsteps?
Bergen does a excellent job separating the facts and his opinions so that you are able to tell between the two. He's also written this book in an approachable manner that will not intimidate you or overwhelm you, such as may be the case with Steve Coll's excellent "Ghost Wars". He also offers a rare opportunity to learn from one of the few Westerners who have met the man and spoken with him about his beliefs. While this alone doesn't offer the book unquestionable credibility it does give the book a feeling of authenticity that you do not get from most books on the subject.
If you have not read "Holy War, INC" I would recommend you read that first, though Bergen does a good job of writing the book so that you can follow it and understand it without having read his previous book. Just leave your preconceived notions behind and read the book with an open mind. Soak it up, take it in and then compare it to what you used to think. I think you'll realize that the man you thought he is is far more different, and ultimately, in my opinion, far more dangerous.
I think it helps to know that Osama fasts every Monday and Thursday, that he arises before sunrise every day for prayer in a private mosque, that he prays five times a day, that he listens to no music, watches no television except the news, and he keeps no photographs or paintings of any type. It helps to know that he has four wives but that he has only divorced one of them.
It helps to know that he believes his father's generation is weak and that his constant refrain to his followers is "Unless we, the new generation, change and become stronger and more educated and more dedicated, we will never reclaim Palestine."
It helps to know that he counsels his followers not to wear shorts or short sleeve shirts. It helps to know that he is soft spoken and seldom "preaches", preferring to lead by example. It helps to know that his followers tend to follow the example he sets.
It helps to know that he reveres his father, a one-eyed laborer who started a construction empire that built the mosques at Islam's three most holy sites, Mecca, Medina, and the Dome of the Rock (which he deliberately bid at below cost, donating a large portion of the construction money). It helps to know that Osama was enraged when the Saudi Government drove tanks into the mosque at Mecca. The tank treads desecrated the building his father had built.
It helps to know that his father had his private jet take him to all three holy sites in a single day, so he could pray at each, and that he did this twice a month.
It helps to know that when Osama entered his father's road contstruction business, he worked from dawn to sunset in the desert, pausing only to have lunch with the workers. He was dedicated to being know as a worker, not as the spoiled son of a rich and powerful businessman.
How does knowing some of Osama's personal background help? When you know that Osama doesn't listen to music because it is forbidden, you understand the depth of John Walker Lindh's committment to Islam when he destroyed his album collection. When you know that Osama forbids homosexuality you understand Lindh's rejection of his father's committment to the gay lifestyle, and the younger Lindh's decision to leave California and study in Yemen. It also helps you understand why Lindh joined the Taliban and chose to fight against the U.S. when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
When you know that Osama keeps "no graven image" you understand why Muslims rioted at the depiction of Mohammad in a series of Dutch cartoons. Depiction of the Prophet violates the Second Commandment against making a graven image of anything on earth.
Other cult figures, like Hitler, have been dedicated to austere personal lives. Hitler was a vegetarian, non-smoker, anti-hunter, and animal rights activist. You may not believe any of those things about him, but they appear to be true. These traits were part of his mystique.
Other reviewers have critized this book's literary failings. Whatever literary failings it has are common to oral histories which are, by nature, anecdotal. I would rather praise this book's educational value, which is great.
I doubt that you will be disappointed.
The book opens with a cast of characters and ends with a "where are they now" listing. It also provides a timeline, but a limitation of this book is that it focuses on Bin Laden alone.
I have a number of notes from this excellent book:
1) The 1967 war in which Israel won was vital in showing the Arabs that it was their own inept and corrupt regimes that were leaving the Zionists in power. Also this book, at the end, where the Sykes Picot 1916 agreement highlighted in the Lawrence of Arabia epic movie, is clearly identified by Bin Laden as the start of the current "crusade" against Islam.
2) Bin Laden was a shy and polite, very religious person with a good education--the classic revolutionary (contrary to conventional wisdom, the rebels are the smart ones that see through the facades).
3) The 1979 invasion by Saudi forces to recapture the Al Haram mosque radicalized Bin Laden, as did the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The writings of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb on Islam as a complete way of life, when COMBINED with the corrupt and often decadent lifestyles of the Saudi, Egyptian, and other Arab rules, were in tandem a foundation for the radicalization of youth across the region.
4) The Pakistani cleric Abdullah Azzam was a major influence and enabler for jihadists seeking to fight the Soviets by entering via Pakistan, and the clearly untold story, in this book or any other, is the deep and constant relations between the Pakistani intelligence service, the Taliban, and Bin Laden.
5) In Afghanistan the back story is Bin Laden the theocrat versus Massoud the tolerant secularist in the Northern Alliance.
6) Soviet invasion of Afghanistan produced 6 million refugees, half to Pakistan and half to Iran.
7) The open sources of information available on Bin Laden and anti-Israel and anti-us plans are legion, and the author is extremely effective in cataloging all of the overt information that the U.S. Intelligence Community simply ignored from 1988, when the Commandant of the Marine Corps and I first made terrorism, and the use of open sources to understand terrorism, a national issue.
8) In 1996 Jamal Al Fadl walked in to a US Embassy (probably Sudan) with plans for attacks on US by Bin Laden, and also in 1996 Bin Laden announced on CNN, ABC News and in Al Jazeera that he was declaring war on the US. My comment: in the US, only Steve Emerson ("American Jihad") and Yossef Bodansky "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America") took the declaration seriously.
9) Clinton and Bush BOTH were happy to deal with the Taliban, and the Taliban understood that the Americans, regardless of party, wanted a pipeline from Caspian energy to Pakistan (rather naively assuming Pakistan would be able to protect it), as well as bases against China and Iran.
10) This book makes it clear that every time George W. Bush talks about them attacking us for our way of life he is simply demonstrating either his idiocy or his hypocrisy. Bin Laden, over and over and over again, has specified Israeli and US behaviors, actions, and policies as the basis for his challenge.
11) In 1998 US rebuked Taliban and Bin Laden raised the ante, also focusing on the jailed Sheikh Abdel Rahman, the only religious figure to have blessed Bin Laden's lay fatwa with a commanding fatwa of his own. This individual, in US custody, has inspired violence from 1981 onwards, and US appears to have not understood his potency.
12) Quote on page 211: Zawahiri was to Osama Bin Laden what Karl Rove is to the White House."
13) Bin Laden explicitly cites Nagasaki and Hiroshima as justifications for targeting US civilians. While the author of this book discounts Bin Laden's having nuclear suitcase bombs, he acknowledges that nuclear waste is easily acquired.
14) On 10 June 1998 ABC aired an exclusive interview with Bin Laden and introduced him as the wan who had declared war on the US. No one noticed. (Steve Emerson's PBS broadcast in 1994 also got blown off).
15) The book toasts the Clinton Administration for both incompetence at getting Bin Laden (but then, the Saudis tried to assassinate Bin Laden several times and also failed), and for lionizing Bin Laden with the Tomahawk missile strike (which another book I have reviewed says included several that did not explode and enriched Bin Laden with $10 million from their sale to the Chinese).
16) The author recounts Bin Laden's illnesses witnessed by others as being Soviet gas impact on breathing, back pain, low blood pressure, foot wound, and NOT kidney failure.
17) Al Qaeda started looking for WMD after they noticed US beating that drum, and probably got their first chemicals from Uzbeckistan.
18) First references to airplanes attacking buildings were in Egyptian press 12 Aug 00.
19) Cheney and Franks both lied to US public about Bin Laden not being at Tora Bora (see my reviews of "JAWBREAKER" and "First In").
20) Al Qaeda's general guidance to all is to first, cause the West pain, and second, seek to arouse all Muslims.
21) Iraq is teaching foreign fighters and Iraqis who will likely become foreign fighters elsewhere, how to use IEDs, suicide bombs, and urban warfare against the West elsewhere.
Bottom line: has we stayed in Afghanistan, and dropped Rangers on Bin Laden as he walked from Tora Bora to Pakistan, it would have been "game over," and even if we had not caught him, he would have been marginalized. The author concludes that everything the US has done, both in the Clinton and the current Administrations, has served to empower Bin Laden and inspire millions of others to support terrorism as a tactic against the Israel, the US, the West, and the corrupt Arab regimes.
In my opinion, pretty much all the other books on the topic are trash. They are either superficial or laced with conspiracy theories (my advice to readers out there, if a book about al-Qaeda claims that Bin Laden was behind the TWA-800 crash or Oklahoma City don't buy it). I reserve special contempt for Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA Bin Laden Group and author of "Imperial Hubris" and "Through the Eyes of the Enemy."
The fact that someone in the position that he occupied at the CIA could state that "Without the connotation good or bad, bin Laden's a great man in the sense that he's influenced the course of history" is deeply disturbing to me. And for Scheuer's apologists, they should think how they'd react if someone said the same thing about Hitler.
"The Osama Bin Laden I Know" is a very worthy companion book to "Holy War Incorporated." Bergen obviously did an enormous amount of research and it clearly shows. What's more: it's all documented.
The book's title is a bit misleading (no problem) in that there is no single "I." Instead, Bergen recounts the observations of the many people who knew Bin Laden at different stages of his life. He also provides new and interesting material about the evolution of al-Qaeda.
The most interesting passages for me have been the ones that talk about the Bin Laden family, Bin Laden's time in Sudan, and his relationship with Abdullah Azzam. There is also a fascinating extract from the "Encyclopedia of Jihad" that details a hypothetical kidnapping operation conducted by al-Qaeda.
For me the best part of the book is the fact that it shows that people like Bin Laden have bad days too. You don't get that from much of the media coverage of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror (i.e. the war against Islamic fanatics). Reading typical news coverage, you would get the impression that everything that the terrorists do is part of some grand design that unfolds. Bergen's book shows that to be a ludicrous overestimation of the enemy. For example, after Bin Laden lost his Saudi citizenship in 1994, he lost much of his access to funds. Al-Qaeda was facing lean times that did not change until Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan. In fact one of Bin Laden's men even embezzled from the organization.
This being said, the book is not perfect. There are a few passages that are pointless (like an al-Qaeda man talking about how he bought a plane for the organization). Another problem is that Bergen's "witnesses" are almost all people who admired, loved, or respected Bin Laden. So we don't get too much about stuff that might cast him in an unflattering light. Bin Laden is undoubtedly a monster, but I am sure that he is a monster who has quirks and traits that make him "human" as much as anyone else is.
Finally, Bergen states that if the US hadn't invaded Iraq, that the jihadi movement would have fallen apart. He really doesn't offer anything in the way of evidence to support that. Frankly, I don't have much for speculative history because it is inherently "speculative." One could just as easily posit a scenario where if the US had not invaded Iraq perhaps Saddam and Bin Laden would have overcome their mutual disdain for each other and actually had some sort of operational partnership. Or one could just as easily argue that the invasion of Iraq has had a sort of "flypaper" effect where a lot of Islamic terrorists who would be going elsewhere to cause trouble are instead coming to Iraq where they face over 100,000 heavily armed American soldiers (as opposed to innocent civilians like those killed in the US, Spain, London, Bali, and elsewhere).
But nothing in this world is perfect, and I recommend people read this book if they want to understand a little bit better what they are up against
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