If you don’t know the difference between al-Qaeda and the Taliban (and before September 11 ? 01, I sure did not) or if you’re a little fuzzy about where Yemen is in relation to Afghanistan, this is an excellent book. Peter Bergen is CNN’s terrorism analyst and an experienced reporter. He uses a wide range of sources including his own experience to describe the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. There’s even a map of the Middle East that you can refer to as you read. But those with some expertise in the world of the mindless jihad masters and the issuance of pretentious fatwas will find this rather limited, I would imagine.
We don’t really get “Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden,” but rather are provided with a narrative distilled from numerous news accounts augmented with Bergen’s interviews and travel experiences. Essentially, we stay outside the organization (but so did the CIA). Furthermore, Bergen’s “Holy War, Inc. ” characterization of al-Qaeda as a kind of multinational corporation is exactly the sort of catchy, but superficial and misleading designation that irritates the cognoscenti. Al-Qaeda does not turn a profit, nor does it look to turn a monetary profit.
It exists on funds raised from charities, from donations from Muslim fat cat businessmen, from bin Laden’s inheritance and from funds siphoned from various commercial enterprises, both legal and illegal, and from what it can beg, borrow and steal. Bergen does emphasize the enormous wealth of this notorious figure’s family, which – as is well-known – has had various ties to the fortune of the Bush family. “By the mid-1990s, the bin Laden group of companies had grown into a colossus whose worth was estimated at $5 billion.
” This economic behemoth was “the distributor for Snapple drinks and Porsche and Volkswagen cars in the Middle East and is licensed by Disney to produce a wide range of Arabic books. ” Osama bin Laden was able to draw upon this fortune when he began his de facto collaboration with the US in undermining the pre-Taliban government in Afghanistan, backed by the former USSR. The author argues that the “war against the Soviets in Afghanistan surely” was a just jihad,” but since this conflict was the seedbed for 9/11, it is hard to accept the author’s reasoning.
Additionally Bergen is lacking the exploration of the opium trade and the opportunity this ’cash‘ business creates to fund global terrorism. Nonetheless, to Bergen’s credit this is not the usual sort of ’rush to judgment‘ volume churned out by book publishers to take advantage of a major news event. Bergen had the book finished in August and apparently was working on the proofs when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center buildings on September 11.
At that point of course the book was reshaped and spun to tie in with that event so that Bergen’s interview with bin Laden (aired on CNN May 10, 1997) forms part of a Prologue entitled, “How to Find the World’s Most Wanted Man. ” The strength of the book is in its readability and in the sense that Bergen gives us a view of what it is like to be an international journalist today (and for those out in the field, it is dangerous to be sure). Characteristically, Bergen describes his trek to and into Afghanistan including the wearing of blindfolds during the last leg to bin Laden’s hideout.
This personal experience view continues throughout the book and is one of the book’s strengths–although of course Bergen does want to make sure we understand that he is more than a ’put on the makeup and read the cue cards’ sort of journalist. What Bergen notices, and what he reports to us, tell us as much about Bergen as about the world of the terrorist. He reports on the food and what the taxi drivers say. He notices the terrain, the weapons, the dress of the men he meets, and he gives us a good feel for the conditions he and other journalists encounter.
What is missing, at least from my point of view, is a cohesive overall understanding or perspective. Perhaps the events are so new and mesmerizingly vivid (much like George St. Pierre lost to Matt Serra) that it is impossible as of yet to discern the larger picture. But Bergen does attempt a larger understanding. He compares al-Qaeda to the infamous Assassins, founded as an Ismailian sect in what was then Persia in 1090. Supposedly under the influence of hashish, the Assassins brought death and destruction on Christian Crusaders for upwards of two hundred years.
(It remains to be seen how long al-Qaeda lasts. ) I found it revealing to learn that the head of the Assassins was referred to as “the old man of the mountain”, just the sort of person that bin Laden would idolize and try to emulate. Bergen also attempts a little political philosophy by critiquing Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis in the afterward, but not very successfully, I might say, since the tribal and fundamentalist world view of the Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters really is in a monumental collision with Western modernity.
Bottom line: this is a good book, a little superficial and a little thin, but then, so is the news. The enclosed depicts Bergen’s main themes, strengths and weaknesses throughout the book, now I intent to highlight some of the areas where Bergen is lacking. Most notably the lack of insight on the funding of global terrorism in such unexplored areas as: the opium trade. Also Bergen paints quite the picture to the average western reader on what a Jihad is; described as a “struggle or holy war” rooted in violence.
But historically ’struggles‘ are not always dealt with through violence. Take for example the revolutions lead by Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, both successful to say the least, but violence was not a theme in these revolutionaries’ visions. So does the difference between leaders like Bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr. lie within their religious and cultural beliefs? Or is Bin Laden just a product of his upbringing, constantly fighting for his beliefs rooted in his religious values?
Also unexplored by Bergen is the non-violent jihad groups of the Middle East, and why their movement has not gained the popularity, media attention or relevance in Bergen’s book that al-Qaeda and Taliban have. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but in the Middle East it grows on a little plant called lachryma papaveris. Bergen touches on the funds raised from charities, donations from wealthy Muslim businessmen, from bin Laden’s inheritance and from funds siphoned from various commercial enterprises, both legal and illegal, and from what it can beg, borrow and steal.
Yet Bergen fails to explore the huge revenues from the heroin trade. Considering this is not a legal commodity it’s hard to put a value on its production, like we would a publicly traded company on the New York Stock exchange. Yet we can make a direct correlation to a product the entire world is familiar with, oil. “While a ton of crude oil costs less than $290, a ton of heroin costs $67 million in Europe and between $360 million and $900 million in New York, according to estimates based on recent Drug Enforcement Administration figures (Stop The Afghan Drug Trade, Stop Terrorism).
”Those numbers are staggering, and this ’cash‘ business provides more than enough money to fund the most sophisticated weapons, training camps, operational and even public relations funds, and plenty of bribes to local tribes’ chieftains and politicians. How could this relationship between the funding of global terrorism and the opium trade go unexplored by Bergen when Afghan opium production was 7,200 tons in 2008, and accounted for 97% of the country’s per-capita annual GDP, or $303 of $310 million (The Afghan Drug Trade, Stop Terrorism)?
The link between this cash crop and terrorism is far from rocket science. I find it amazing that Bergen doesn’t even discuss the influences it has on funding global terrorism when the quantitative data is reflected in GDP figures. The president of Afghanistan even comments on the issue, “The fight against drugs is actually the fight for Afghanistan,” said Afghan President Hamid Karzai when he took office in 2002. In a culture deeply rooted in bribes and payoffs it only makes sense that his cash business would thrive.
I feel this is an important avenue that went untraveled by Bergen because it helps to paint a clearer picture to the average western reader on where the funds are allocated and dispersed to the terrorist cells that exist throughout the world. Last time I checked drug lords don’t pay taxes and avoid western means of money transfers like the plague. So in order to win, “the link between narcotics and terrorism must be severed. That is the necessary condition for a successful strategy to undermine the growing influence of al-Qaida, the Taliban and radical Muslim groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan (The Afghan Drug Trade, Stop Terrorism).
” Jihad or “struggle” can be viewed in several different ways. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader to millions of African Americans that were experiencing a struggle. His non violent approach to reform is legendary, both in his implementation and execution of creating a peaceful way to mend the fences between the black and white races in the United States of America. Bergen however only paints the picture of violence in association to Jihad, and fails to credit many non violent ways of Islamic reform that currently exist today.
For example, the United States, is trying to combat terrorism, but must understand the difference between Wahhabists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both streams of Sunni Islamism claim to carry out jihad in the name of Islam, so researchers and authors (Bergen) often mistakenly lump them together. In reality, the Muslim Brotherhood’s jihad is not the same as that of the Wahhabists. These two separate understandings of jihad may share several important similarities, but they also have significant differences and are sometimes even contradictory.
Understanding how each group comprehends jihad is, therefore, paramount for policymakers or western readers concerned with terrorism. Bergen fails to distinguish between these two groups resulting in misconstrued ideas on what a jihad is, I think understanding the difference is important, yet feel that being aware that not all Jihads are violent in nature is vital in forming an educated view. In Bergen’s book he fails to do either which is a major piece of the overall puzzle he is lacking. . Works Cited Bergen, Peter L. Holy war, Inc.
: inside the secret world of Osama bin Laden. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations. ” 1993. Robert Farkasch. 15 Mar. 2010 . “Jihad. ” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 15 Mar. 2010 . “Opium. ” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. . “Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide. ” Foreign Policy Research Institute. Sept. 2009. Samuel Helfont. 15 Mar. 2010 . “Stop the Afghan Drug trade, stop terrorism. ” Forbes. com. 26 Feb. 2009. Rachel Ehrenfeld. 16 Mar. 2010 .