Speaking Volumes: The Bin Laden bookshelf

(Published in the Business Standard, May 2011)

“We pray that you do not take these statements out of turn or consider them to step outside the bounds of etiquette.” In 1994, the words of the late Osama bin Laden were measured, almost diffident, as he began to articulate his sense that the Muslim world was under siege.

Just two years later, in 1996, Osama bin Laden had found his voice, as Steve Coll records in Ghost Wars. In August, he issued his declaration of jihad on America, and accompanied this with a poem to the US Secretary of Defense, William Perry: “O William, tomorrow you will be informed/ As to which young man will face your swaggering brother/ A youngster enters the midst of battle smiling, and/ Retreats with his spearhead stained with blood.”

On Monday, news spread of the assassination of bin Laden in the quiet Pakistani town of Abbottabad. Looking back at the two decades the world’s most wanted man shaped and defined, is it possible now to understand the forces that created and shaped him? The profusion of books on bin Laden included several cut-and-paste biographies, collections of quotes and speeches and other detritus. There were interesting asides—among the books Osama was said to have enjoyed were John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, for instance. But these are the books about bin Laden, and the perspectives, that have lasted.

Steve Coll, The Ghost Wars (2004): Ahmed Rashid, no mean expert himself, said of Coll’s magnum opus: “No one else I know of has been able to bring such a broad perspective to bear on the rise of bin Laden; the CIA itself would be hard put to beat his grasp of global events.” It was Coll’s insider knowledge, both of the workings of the US government and of the Af-Pak area, that made The Ghost Wars so good, as he explained the entwined connections between the CIA, Afghan warlords and Pakistani intelligence, and explored what made the region the perfect headquarters for bin Laden.

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (2006): Wright began his quest to understand Al-Qaeda and bin Laden in 1948, with the journey made by Sayyid Qutb, the man who inspired Al-Qaeda, “Western in so many ways”. And yet, Qutb hated America, seeing Americans as “a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money”. Wright tracks the radicalization of bin Laden and attempts to understand his interpretation and version of Islam—perhaps the most definitive book yet on the rise and philosophy of Al-Qaeda.

Ahmed Rashid: Taliban, Descent Into Chaos and Jihad: In November 2010, Rashid wrote a prescient article on the worsening relationship between the US and Pakistan, noting in parantheses that the Pakistan Army had not gone after Al Qaeda in the country since 2006. And in 2006, Rashid had guessed that bin Laden was “probably just a few hours drive away” from Islamabad.

Rashid emerged as an early expert on the Taliban, and then Al-Qaeda as well as the US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan very early on, drawing from his own experience as a (disillusioned) revolutionary who attempted a failed rebellion against Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. He has often been criticized by the likes of Tariq Ali for his hawkish stance—Tariq is a strong critic of the US military presence in Afghanistan, and his politics differ sharply from Rashid’s perspective. (It should be noted that Rashid slams the incompetence, incoherence and indifference towards Af-Pak that the US and Europe have demonstrated, in Descent Into Chaos.)

But it is impossible to understand the shifts in contemporary Islam and the global corporate politics that contributed to the rise of the Taliban, or that helped someone like bin Laden spin hatred into terrorism, without reading Rashid. If anyone could have predicted the plot twists in the bin Laden saga, it would have been Rashid; and if anyone understood how the son of a Saudi billionaire came to wage a religious war against the US, it would be Rashid, again.

Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden (2011): Scheuer is a former senior CIA operative who followed Osama bin Laden’s life and career for just over two decades, making this one of the most interesting and definitive of the bin Laden biographies. Setting aside Scheuer’s biases, what comes into play is simply the unusual relationship, so to speak, between the spook and his assigned object of obsession.

He makes the case for the late bin Laden being the product of a sophisticated background, an education buttressed by immersion in the Wahhabi culture, which Scheuer marks as aggressive, misogynistic and intolerant in the Saudi Arabia of Osama’s youth.

In his version, Osama bin Laden emerges less as the bogeyman of Western imagination and more as the sophisticated, often urbane and yet unpredictable adversary. This is a surprisingly intimate, if not always convincing, portrait; perhaps no one gets to know a terrorist better than a man whose objective is to bring about his destruction.





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