Osama bin Laden, by Michael Scheuer, OUP, RRP£14.99, 304 pages
One of the many uplifting things about the tide of revolution that has started to course through Arab lands is that nowhere in their Manichean prospectus did Osama bin Laden and his ilk see it coming. These Islamist messiahs, who have taken it upon themselves to redeem their fallen world by blood and fire, were, quite simply, nowhere.
They have had other setbacks but, depending how the new Arab awakening proceeds, this one could be decisive.
Bin Laden, a merchant prince of Saudi Arabia, got his start in life as an itinerant holy warrior in the US-backed and Saudi-bankrolled jihad against the Soviet Union in the last decade of the cold war. After that, thousands of Arab volunteers returned home fired up with belief. If religious zeal, attached to western rocketry, could humble a superpower, surely they could bring down infidel tyrants at home? It turned out they could not.
They launched insurgencies in Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egyptian intelligence reckoned at the height of the jihadist challenge in the mid-1990s that 43 cells of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, the main insurgent group, were led by “Arab Afghan” veterans. Yet they all failed to break the iron grip of the Arab security state. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Islamic Jihad, the group that assassinated Anwar Sadat, predecessor to Hosni Mubarak, folded his Egyptian tent and went off to join bin Laden and (as it subsequently became known) al-Qaeda.
Bin Laden had a global strategy but Zawahiri influenced the tactics of 9/11: strike “the far enemy”, induce ferocious western reprisals in Arab and Muslim lands, which will trigger Islamist uprisings to overthrow Arab rulers. That didn’t happen either. The attacks on New York and Washington did not – at least then – lure enough infidel troops into al-Qaeda’s Afghan sanctuary. But George W Bush, and his acolyte Tony Blair, subsequently remedied this with their unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003. For bin Laden, it must have seemed as if all his Eids had come at once. Michael Scheuer writes indignantly in his new book how “US officials have been labouring to do bin Laden’s work. ... and generally created a better and blinder antagonist for bin Laden than any he could have built to meet his needs”.
Scheuer is the former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency’s unit dedicated to tracking bin Laden. This book, and his previous (anonymously written), 2004 broadside against the obtuse policies of the “war on terror”, Imperial Hubris, are steeped in detailed knowledge of the Saudi jihadist. It is a needed corrective to most of the airy generalisations about bin Laden and his followers.
The Iraq war was a godsend for al-Qaeda, enabling it to build an emirate in central Iraq, whereas before it had no more than a small bridgehead in (US-protected) Kurdistan. As state and society crumbled under invasion and occupation, Iraq became a magnet for jihadis from across the world seeking glory and martyrdom.
Among Scheuer’s most striking passages are those on how triumph nearly turned into disaster for al-Qaeda in Iraq, under the leadership of the sanguinary Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Bin Laden and the central leadership struggled to restrain this fanatic, whose belief in takfiri or absolute monotheism was totalitarian. Zarqawi subordinated what had been a remarkably successful struggle against the Americans to the slaughter of the idolatrous Shia, the majority Muslim sect in Iraq, for whom Sunni supremacists reserve the lowest circle of hell. The Sunni tribes of central Iraq, the backbone of the insurgency, turned against al-Qaeda and, as the sahwa, or Sunni awakening, switched sides and became the real success of the US military “surge” of 2007-08. “One of al-Qaeda’s own all but mortally wounded the organisation and helped save Washington and its allies from even greater disaster in Iraq,” Scheuer writes. “The even greater irony is that the US military’s killing of al-Zarqawi [in 2006] slowed al-Qaeda’s decline in Iraq, giving it the chance to rebuild its organisation there.” And rebuild it has.
The bombings and slaughter continue, with Iraqi civilian deaths still exceeding those in Afghanistan, on whose lawless border with Pakistan bin Laden and his followers still enjoy refuge.
The way bin Laden managed Iraq, Scheuer argues, highlights his ability to prioritise: defeat America; topple local tyrants; and only then settle the score with the heretical Shia. Above all, Scheuer is concerned to demonstrate that al-Qaeda remains a mortal threat to the west.
Bin Laden himself emerges as courageous and charismatic, lyrical and media-savvy. He is “as comfortable with the poor and the indigent as he is with the rich and powerful”, ruthless and a formidable organiser, a man who in his contempt for “earthly flags” lives already partly in the afterlife. The legends of his survival against vastly superior Soviet forces at Jaji in 1987, and the awesome might of America at Tora Bora in 2001, will have led many Muslims to divine that Allah is on his side.
Much of this short but dense book is spent scoring points off other students of bin Laden. The underlying thesis is that, because we have gratuitously misunderstood and caricatured him, we have wilfully disarmed ourselves in the fight against global jihadism. He has a plan: to restore the glory of the worldwide ummah of Muslim believers, and bring down the west’s infidel clients.
As long as the west did not impose its “decadence” on Islamic land, Muslims would “live and let live”. Few Muslims “were or are willing to die in a jihad against congressional elections, gender equality, R-rated movies, or Budweiser”, says Scheuer, reasonably enough. He adds that western leaders’ insistence that bin Laden is moved by such motives “is the main reason the West is losing to the Islamists”. I am not so sure.
The west’s policies have indeed been jihadism’s most reliable ally. True, the “they-hate-us-for-our-freedoms” industry that captured western policy after 9/11 was not only mendacious but a blind alley. If Muslims hate us it is because we collude with rulers who deny them the freedoms we claim for ourselves.
It is a tribute to the power of democratic ideas that young, urban, middle-class demonstrators, unarmed but networked, can bring down tyrants in Tunis, Cairo and surely elsewhere. If the west gets on the side of freedom in the Arab world, there is every chance of preventing jihadism from entering the Muslim mainstream.
I suspect, and hope, Scheuer is wrong when he says: “As each year passes, [bin Laden’s] status as a contemporary Islamic hero grows, as does the Saladin-like legend he will eventually leave in the annals of Islam’s history.” That accolade justly belongs to the heroes of Tahrir Square.
David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor and author of ‘Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance’ (IB Tauris)