OSAMA BIN LADEN
By Michael Scheuer (Oxford University Press 278pp £14.99)
MICHAEL SCHEUER SPENT twenty-two years in the CIA. From 1996 to 1999 he was head of the Agency’s bin Laden unit . This was c a l l ed ‘Alec S t a t i on’, a f t e r Scheuer’s son. During these years bin Laden embarked on his exodus from Sudan, and established himself in Jalalabad and Kandahar among the Afghan Taleban loyal to Mullah Omar. When Alec Station was closed down and its staff reassigned, Scheuer resigned from the CIA to become a private-sector expert on US foreign policy and Islamist terrorism.
Rather, Scheuer insists that his work is the first syst ematically t o explore b i n Laden’s t heolog i c a l l y informed strategic objectives. Although the book provides few significant new details about the world’s most wanted fugitive, it usefully connects the different stages of bin Laden’s career and describes the skills that have helped him along the path he has chosen. For example, during his time managing projects for his family’s construction firm, bin Laden learned how to muck in with the multinational workforce, an exper ience that has helped him to run a polyglot ter ror ist organisation. Although the organisation has internal resentments and tensions (for example, between Egyptians and Yemenis), this has never enabled Western intelligence services to prise it apart. Bin Laden’s experiences leading foreign jihadists in Afghanistan also proved valuable to al-Qaeda, which learned never to emphasise their prowess on the
Scheuer’s f o r t h r i ght v i ews have brought him trouble. He believes that US foreign policy is largely to blame for the West’s problems with the Muslim world and that al-Qaeda is merely an extreme manifestation of a much wider Islamist insurgency. More specifically, Scheuer thinks that uncritical US support for Israel is the root of the problem. Among his more outlandish claims are that American Jews have divided loyalties. He bases this assertion on the decis ion in 1991 by Rahm Emmanuel – President Obama’s former chief of staff – t o s e r ve i n I s r a e l ’s a r med f o rc e s , although, as a US citizen, he might have chosen t o pa r t i c i pa t e i n Operation Deser t S t o r m. Such v i ews l ed t o Scheuer’s abrupt resignation from the influential Jamestown Foundation, a major think tank specialising in foreign policy and counter-terrorism. He still instructs NCOs, junior marines and US army officers in the wiles of America’s foremost enemy.
Bin Laden: project manager battlefields at the expense of the larger contr ibution of local jihadis. His one major mistake was to allow the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to do exactly that, as well as to terrorise Iraqi Sunnis and Shias. This enabled the US to forge a coalition that has hammered al-Qaeda in Iraq, even as it opened the door to enhanced Iranian influence in that country. According to Scheuer, bin Laden will be seeking to establish al-Qaeda in the more peripheral provinces of Iraq, with a view to funnelling South Asian f i ghter s i n t o Gaza and s outher n Lebanon. One character i s t i c of b i n Laden that Scheuer emphasises is his total implacability in implementing his strateg ic vision, which is to expel all deleterious ‘foreign’ influences – notably Israel – from the entire region.
This vision involves substituting the distant enemy (the US) for the local Middle Eastern autocrats who exercised
Scheuer’s book is not a full biography of the Saudi terrorist chief, although Scheuer is presumably well placed to write one. It is a much slighter book than both Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens, which appeared in 2008, and Jason Burke’s classic Al-Qaeda. Nor is it yet another attempt to work out where bin Laden might be hiding, although Scheuer does show how bin Laden, an experienced mountain walker who apparently memorised every rock and gully of Tora Bora, could have slipped away with the help of the Pashtun tribes he had armed t o f i ght t he Soviets and Pakistani In t e r -Ser v i ce s men like his deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Starting with the 1998 East African embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, bin Laden sought to draw the US into fighting on a battlefield of his choosing, in order to replicate the defeat the jihadis claimed to have inflicted on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The attacks on 9/11 served that purpose. Together with a war in Afghanistan that costs over a hundred billion US dollars a year, all subsequent terrorist gambits have been designed to further drain the US domestic economy, while making the American (and European) public both permanently fearful and ready to scale back their global commitments. Once that has happened, vulnerable autocrats throughout the Middle
LITERARY REVIEW March 2011