Michael Scheuer was the first head of the CIA's 'Osama bin Laden unit', from 1996 to 1999. His previous book, Imperial Hubris, explained why the West was losing the 'War on Terrorism' and was praised by bin Laden himself in his 6 September 2007 video. Scheuer is therefore well placed to write what is arguably the first scholarly biography of al-Qaeda's founder. In this short work (187 pages of text), Scheuer tries to be rational rather than offering a simplistic condemnation of the man. Scheuer believes the problem with the Americans is that they, understandably, portray bin Laden as a mindless homicidal maniac. While he sympathises with the reasons why Americans wish to do this, Scheuer believes that not only is this not true of bin Laden but that by failing to correctly perceive him for what he really is, they were no closer to defeating him or his organisation. Scheuer offers his own assessment of bin Laden that is sure to shock many: "pious, brave, generous, intelligent, charismatic, patient, visionary, stubborn, egalitarian, and realistic".
Scheuer also debunks many popular misconceptions about bin Laden, alot of them stemming from propaganda from bin Laden's native land, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis for obvious reasons wish to lay the blame for bin Laden's terrorism on the evil influence of Egyptian Islamists. Before that, they claim, bin Laden was a normal, good Saudi boy. Scheuer shows from the evidence that bin Laden was pious and devout from early on and that his ideas have been largely consistent. Although this will be uncomfortable for many Western liberals who believe that Islam is the religion of peace, Scheuer provides evidence to show how bin Laden's views on jihad were firmly based on traditional Islamic scholarship. Bin Laden had extensive knowledge of the Quran and sunnah, and consciously took the Prophet Muhammad as his example.
This book is firmly based on bin Laden's own writings and speeches in order to accurately explain what he believes and why. Although this sounds obvious, Scheuer demonstrates how little many of the popular books on bin Laden and al-Qaeda actually cite bin Laden's own words. Many authors instead cite bin Laden's various enemies in order to portray him, but Scheuer sensibly argues that no one would write a biography of George Washington that neglected his works but instead was sourced exclusively from King George III, British army officers and American loyalists. In order to defeat bin Laden, you must truly understand him.
As to the question of whether al-Qaeda exists, Scheuer is clear not only that it exists and was founded by bin Laden and his friends, but that "to this day they direct its operations" (p. 71). It was founded in 1988 as an insurgency organisation to carry on the jihad elsewhere after the anticipated defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan. It was a terrorist group unlike any other, however, in that it was not based in one country but had operatives across the world.
Bin Laden's aims in declaring defensive jihad in the 1990s were clear: the American presence in the Arabian Peninsula to be withdrawn completely in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad's deathbed wish that the Peninsula be cleansed of infidels; an end to American support for anti-Islamic dictators in Muslim countries; an end to America's support for Israel; an end to America's support for anti-Muslim countries such as Russia, China and India; an end to Western exploitation of Muslim countries' economies (including oil); and an end to the American military's presence in all Muslim countries (p. 113). Then will come the destruction of Israel by united Islamic forces and after this a showdown with Shia Muslims, whom he considers heretics.
The failure of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden believed, was due to the Islamic armies bleeding the Soviet economy dry and therefore causing the eventual collapse of Communism. Bin Laden wished to provoke America into invading a Muslim country in order to do the same thing to them: cause them to get bogged down in a war, thereby causing the collapse of their economy as they attempted to spend increasing amounts of money to prosecute it. This in turn would stop the American funding of Israel and the dictators, and thereby advance an Islamic awakening and revival.
Although the son of a billionaire, bin Laden in his construction business was prepared to work alongside his employees as a manual labourer. He fought and led his own forces in Afghanistan. He regarded luxuries as weakening a soldier's resolve: Spartan-style austerity was his preferred lifestyle. No doubt this is why living in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan not only was possible, but suited him.
Scheuer supports Mark Huband's assertion that after 9/11 al-Qaeda was not destroyed by the American invasion of Afghanistan but instead moved to the tribal zone on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and that bin Laden was probably not just a figure head reduced to issuing statements. Scheuer asserts that the evidence points to bin Laden retaining leadership of al-Qaeda, which has a clear hierarchical structure with command and control capabilities. Furthermore, Bin Laden knew the Pakistani border would be a safe haven for him because it was under the control of the Frontier Corps, nominally under a Pakistani army general but in reality the troops were drawn from local tribes and took orders from their chiefs. In 1998 bin Laden said he and al-Qaeda had received "a sympathetic and giving people in Pakistan who exceed all our expectations by their sympathy with us" (p. 131).
Of course some of this book is now outdated but this is not Scheuer's fault, and no doubt the paperback edition will be updated. As everyone knows, bin Laden was found and killed by a specialist team of Americans in May 2011. This outcome was always likely: bin Laden's former anti-Soviet colleague, Sheikh Musa al-Qarni, said in 2006: "Usama is a man who loves death, seeks it, and would like to be martyred" (p. 54).
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This book clears up the myths and theories about Bin Laden and al-queda, and explains Who the man was and what he intended to achieve. An interesting book for anyone interested in current affairs. It was published a couple of years before his death so his final years are not covered, but this book is well worth reading.
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)
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Osama bin Laden's jihad against the West continued years after September 11, 2001. While he remained a fugitive, his ideas and his al-Qaeda cells flourished despite global opposition and a relentless manhunt. Now that he is dead, how much continuing influence will his legacy have? Apparently, his machinations still threaten the US, the West, Israel, Christians in Arab lands, Jews, some Muslims and Arab efforts at building democracies. Michael Scheuer, who led the CIA's bin Laden desk from 1996 to 1999, eloquently explains that defeating al-Qaeda requires understanding jihad's history and deadly goals, like driving "infidels" out of Arab lands. Scheuer deeply criticizes US actions and policy - often controversially - but his analysis is engrossing, as is his informed, historical perspective on bin Laden, a lethally skilled leader who murdered ruthlessly in pursuit of his political and theological goals. While the opinions in this provocative, disturbing book are entirely the author's, getAbstract recommends this revealing, fully annotated work as a valuable reference, whatever your politics (for readers may well be throwing things before Scheuer is done, enraged by his criticisms or, depending on their views, by policymakers' decisions). Little did he know that two months after his book's publication, the US Navy would slide Osama bin Laden's dead body into the trackless sea - where the dark ripples still circle.
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