In Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc, the reader is ushered through a head-spinning trip around the globe that serves to highlight the far-reaching effects of Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization that Bergen likens to a Multi-national holding company. While Bergen makes reference to similarities between the management of a Multi-national Corporation and that of al-Qaeda, it is seemingly not the primary focus of the book nor does it serve as a particularly suitable metaphor, especially in light of the events that have transpired since the book was released.
Despite the title of the book, Bergen does a fine job setting a backdrop to the organization and illustrating how it operates in an increasingly technologically intertwined world system, as well as outlining factors contributed by the West. It seems there are few people on the planet who are as qualified as Peter Bergen to tackle as complex a task as explaining al-Qaeda to the masses. It is a feat he has clearly accomplished though, evidenced by the fact that the book became a New York Times best seller, was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2001 by The Washington Post, and has been translated into eighteen different languages.
Bergen has traveled extensively through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to report on bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. In 1997 Bergen brought the Western world bin Laden’s first television interview as a producer for CNN. It was in this interview that Western audiences first heard bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States (1). Due to his extensive travel and research, Bergen displays an understanding and empathy, if not flat out admiration and sympathy for the Muslim struggle.
He spends virtually no effort in further vilifying the terrorists, but concentrates rather on explaining the history and motivation behind the attacks with vocabulary that is, at times, nearly poetic. This ranges from the description of the “hopelessly brave warriors who…suffered so much for their faith” during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, to the moving experience of watching Muslim men at prayer. He reflects on how “the act of collective worship woven into the fabric of daily life is something we have almost entirely lost in the West (2).
My personal favorite however, is his description of Pakistan during Ramadan where the “mornings were chilly, but by midday the sun had warmed the velvet breezes that blew the turning leaves off the trees” (3). Apart from the eloquence employed in his writing, it is still most surprising the great lengths Bergen went through to assemble a case of innocence for Khaled al-Fawwaz, the man who had first arranged CNN’s meeting with bin Laden and who was incidentally arrested by British authorities while Bergen was in London.
Khaled is still being held in Britain fighting extradition to the U. S. for his involvement in the bombings of the two U. S. embassies in East Africa despite Bergen’s construct of innocence (4). Bergen does not excuse the terrorist acts performed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but certainly works to explain to the Western world the factors and policies that have contributed to their justification for violence. He is critical of the U. S. Government from the outset of the book where he examines U. S.
culpability for placing extremists in power and for providing an arsenal of weapons still employed by Afghan extremists today. During the brutal Afghan war, the U. S. provided political and financial support as well as stinger missiles (via the Pakistani government) to the Hizb party headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic extremist who “consistently placed the long-term goal of Islamic revolution over resistance to the Soviets”(5). Bergen identifies Ahmed Shah Massoud, a moderate Islamic general as having been a better choice of leaders, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
More importantly, Bergen seeks to establish the ignorance on which the United States’ policies have been formed. An Army Supervisor told Bergen that in his eight years in the Middle East that he had heard daily of how U. S. policy was “dead wrong”. Though these are not Bergen’s own words, it seems this is the overriding message he seeks to convey. He makes it abundantly clear that the Muslim world has not made war on our culture, but rather on our politics, particularly pertaining to the occupation of Saudi Arabia.
He explains the fundamental difference between U. S. and Islamic thought: the concept of the ability to separate the sacred and secular. In a land where the “separation of church and state” is held as a value, it is difficult to conceive a system where politics and religion are one in the same. As difficult as it is for us to imagine policy being dictated by religion, it is equally as difficult for them to perceive an occupation as anything less than an attack directly on Islam itself.
In fact, our policies are rarely grounded on moral principal, much less religion, unless there are first grounded in national interest. In the eyes of al-Qaeda, U. S. occupation of Saudi Arabia, a most holy place in the Islamic faith, is akin to “sending Jihad to the Vatican” (6). Every military move the West has made in light of the Saudi occupation only furthers the belief that the U. S. seeks to dominate the Muslim world. This includes military activity in Somalia and other predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, to the support of Israel, to the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
A little more than a year after this book was released, the U. S. and Saudi Arabia agreed that it was in both nations’ best interest for U. S. forces to leave the area. It does not seem, however, that this is having the effect on bin Laden that Bergen and U. S. policy makers had hoped for. According to the BBC’s Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi, bin Laden will not be satisfied until all Muslim societies are “liberated from foreign troops and what they see as ungodly secular rulers” (7).
Bergen further discourages American occupation by making note of Afghan history, marked by numerous foreign invasions that have consistently, and brutally been averted by Afghan warriors to the demise of their attackers. Bergen states that the “British came to realize that to occupy Afghanistan was to invite disaster (8)”, a sentiment echoed last year by Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal in his assessment of the Obama Administration’s goal to extract U. S. troops from Afghanistan. He states, “Nobody, throughout history, has ever succeeded in [conquering Afghanistan].
Go back to Alexandrian times and more recently to Soviet times. Afghanistan has always been the deathbed of invading armies. “(9). Support is given to these ideas rather than to the title, which I imagine was cooked up by Bergen’s publisher as a means to sell books to its target market, the capitalist West. There is no doubt that bin Laden and his family have been extraordinarily successful in their business ventures, funneling a great amount of the resulting wealth into terrorist organizations.
To say, however, that al-Qaeda acts as a “multi-national holding company” is a stretch, at best. Bergen himself defines the structure of a holding company as “controlling partial or complete interests in other companies”(10). Even this limited definition does not seem to apply to al-Qaeda’s methods, but when the definition is extended out further, it seems to become even less applicable. A holding company provides a means of concentrating control of several companies with a minimum of investment and risk to the holding company.
This would suggest that the product, which in this case would be varying brands of Jihad, are simply managed and controlled by al-Qaeda, when in fact they are the organization doing the exporting of a particular brand of Jihad. Bergen contradicts his own thesis in his discussion about the nature of the organization in regards to intelligence gathering. He states, “The bin Laden network is by contrast a loosely affiliated transnational group with a more diffuse organizational structure that makes it hard to penetrate”(11).
Bin Laden knows business and has surely employed many of his organizational management skills to al-Quaeda, but that does not a business make. It is true that al-Quaeda is “as globally minded as any other national company” (12) and has attracted a “polyglot” of followers (a word Bergen employs multiple times) but what this really speaks to his observation that “bin Laden’s organization…is as much a creation of globalization as a response to it” (13). Bergen acknowledges that umma the world community of Muslims, is a value long held by the Islamic faith.
Globalization has simply shored up that value. If al-Quaeda were the top-down corporation that Bergen suggests, it would be a machine whose components could be easily disabled. In 2009, Bergen gave testimony before the U. S. house of representatives that “Al Qaeda has sustained and can continue to sustain enormous blows that would put other organizations out of business because the members of the group firmly believe that they are doing God’s work and tactical setbacks do not matter in the short run.
(14)” Perhaps the organization is approaching the point that Bergen predicted in the closing of the book, where our victory in the war on terror is defined by a reversion of terrorist threats similar to the “status-quo of pre-9/11, where terrorism was an irritant for American Policy Makers, but not the major national security concern”(15). Or perhaps as he suggests it is “devolving into local franchises” (16), though it seems this metaphor would have been more fitting from the beginning.
In fact, in Bergen’s Senate testimony he says of the organization: Indeed, it is my assessment that the al Qaeda organization today no longer poses a direct national security threat to the United States itself, but rather poses a second-order threat in which the worst case scenario would be an al Qaeda- trained or -inspired terrorist managing to pull off an attack on the scale of something in between the 1993 Trade Center attack, which killed six, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, which killed 168.
While this, of course, would be tragic, it would not constitute a mass casualty attack sufficiently large in scale to reorient American national security policy completely as the 9/11 attacks did (17). This suggests al-Quaeda as something less of a franchise but rather more of an inspiring business model. While there are still terrorists who have been directly trained by al-Qaeda, or employees if you will, the preeminent threat stems from those who are inspired by the group’s successes. To carry the corporate metaphor out further, these are the people who decide to open their own shoe store after learning about the successes of Nordstrom.
I would most certainly suggest this book to others, particularly Americans who tend to be apathetic toward foreign policy. A move toward understanding the collective psychology of the group is infinitely more productive that blind defiance. It is a superbly written book especially in light of the intertwined cast of characters who were often difficult to keep track of, given their travel in and out of regions and with lengthy names consisting of strings of consonants unfamiliar to the English-speaking world.
It would be difficult to put these globe-trotting, name-dropping narratives could together in any less complicated manner though, unless one were to rename individuals such as “Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman” as “Abe” for instance, but I suppose that would wholly undermine the book’s authenticity. When certain individuals reemerge in the plot, Bergen is often kind enough to remind the reader that of where they had first appeared, such as the case of Ramzi Yousef who was mentioned briefly in two chapters.
Bergen reminds that reader that he was the fellow who had an early mishap with some explosives he was experimenting with, resulting in smoke pouring from his Manila apartment (18). Given all the Arab names in the book, the Oh-I-remember-that-guy-now tactic proves rather helpful. Bergen leaves the reader with quite a lot to chew on and digest in regards to foreign policy and trade by expressing a liberally optimistic worldview. Any hope seems to lie in closing the gap of ignorance in the West toward Islam as well as the Islamic world’s blissful denial of the damage done to the West by Islamic radicalism.
For instance, the results of the poll of Muslim countries cited by Bergen found that the U. S. attacks on Afghanistan were perceived as unjustified. It was a bit more revealing that the same poll showed that the terror attacks on the U. S. were perceived as equally unjustified and that 61 percent did not even believe that Arab terrorists carried out the 9/11 attacks (19). Bergen seems confident though that the Democratic Islamic Movement holds potential stating that, “any number of political models are possible in an Islamic environment” (20) and that as long as governments are stabilized, extremism will hold less appeal.
I don’t know that Bergen would have written this book has he thought the West could not have a positive role in creating that stabilization. He admonishes the U. S. government and Middle Eastern countries for working in cooperation against al-Quaeda and for establishing trade policies that benefit unstable regions. This type of cooperation is paramount in his view. Bergen closes along the real thesis of the book, which has nothing to do with terrorism as a multinational corporation, and everything to do with explaining Muslim sensibilities and how deeply the U.
S. continues to offend them. His exhortation is for the U. S. to behave in a manner that looks toward peace rather than ignorantly and haughtily labeling the entire region as an “axis of evil”. Readers of this book will hopefully walk away with an understanding of the motivation behind al-Quaeda as well as our own national propensity toward the pride that has motivated unthinkable offenses toward the Muslim people. Bibliography (1) “Biography. ” PeterBergen. com. Web. 18 Mar. 2010. . (2) Bergen, Peter.
Holy War, Inc. . New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002. p. 153. (3) Holy War, Inc. p. 150. (4) “US Most Wanted Terrorist Suspect in New Extradition Fight in Britain – Telegraph. ” Telegraph. co. uk: News, Business, Sport, the Daily Telegraph Newspaper, Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph. Web. 17 Mar. 2010. . (5) Holy War, Inc. p. 72. (6) Holy War, Inc. p. 101. (7) “BBC NEWS | Middle East | US Pulls out of Saudi Arabia. ” BBC NEWS | News Front Page. Web. 17 Mar. 2010. . (8) Holy War, Inc. p. 53.
Bibliography (Cont. ) (9) “Cornell Chronicle: Saudi Prince on U. S. -Saudi Relations. ” Cornell Chronicle Online. Web. 17 Mar. 2010. http://www. news. cornell. edu/stories/April09/PrinceTurkiCover. gl. html (10) Holy War, Inc. p. 32. (11) Holy War, Inc. p. 120. (12) Holy War, Inc. p. 83. (13) Holy War, Inc. p. 200. (14) “Articles – Congressional Testimony: Reassessing the Evolving Al Qaeda Threat to the Homeland. ” PeterBergen. com. Web. 18 Mar. 2010. . (15) Holy War, Inc. p. 245. (16) Holy War, Inc. p.
238. Bibliography (Cont. ) (17) “Articles – Congressional Testimony: Reassessing the Evolving Al Qaeda Threat to the Homeland. ” PeterBergen. com. Web. 18 Mar. 2010. . (18) Holy War, Inc. p. 222. (19) Holy War, Inc. p. 227. (20) Holy War, Inc. p. 238. http://www. peterbergen. com/articles/details. aspx? id=411 Cornell University, Chronicle Online. April 24, 2009. Saudi Prince Hopes Obama Will End Region’s conflicts. George Lowery http://www. news. cornell. edu/stories/April09/PrinceTurkiCover. gl. html