[This book review was published in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Winter 2001, pp. 763-766.]


Book Review


Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden

Peter L. Bergen

The Free Press, 2001 


            One of the paradoxes of war is that two diametrically opposite perceptions of the opponent need to be held simultaneously.  On the one hand, there is both the natural urge and the practical imperative to demonize and dehumanize the opponent.  In the case of Osama bin Laden and the radical Islamists he leads, the carnage of September 11 has enraged the American people, who have been reminded in the most graphic way that retribution is essential to justice and who yearn to return to the life without fear that has been one of the implicit values of their society.  This merges easily into a satisfaction of the need for anger as a spur to action.  Subtlety is not a hallmark of the emotion that leads masses of people to bear gladly or even stoically the sacrifices and dangers of war.

            On the other hand, there is a need to understand the enemy and the causes of the conflict, looking ahead to the transcendence that ultimately will have to be reached if the world is to return to normal.  Rational understanding is the opposite of caricature.  Declamations about the pure evil of the opponent give way, here, to facts and analysis and hopefully to some comprehension of what moves the opponent as a human being.

            In this book, Peter Bergen has struck a perfect balance between these opposites.  It isn't likely that anything he says will strike a false chord with the rage and fear and need for action.  His reportage informs and arms those emotions.  At the same time, the same panoramic sweep of facts and analysis provides an excellent source for rational understanding.  The book is full of information, not caricature.

            Bergen ranks among the more qualified individuals in the world to provide that reportage.  In 1983 he filmed a documentary about Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion, and between 1990 and 1999 worked for CNN, focusing on the Middle East. In 1993 he traveled to Afghanistan to investigate the background of the bombing, that year, of the World Trade Center.  Four years later, he produced the first televised interview with Osama bin Laden.  He is now CNN's terrorism analyst. If in the course of all this he has developed any biases, they don't show; his book is an example of journalism at its best.

            Although its publication date was moved up from the summer of 2002 because of the events of September 11, the book is not one of those "quickie" efforts rushed into print to exploit a surge of public feeling.  The manuscript was finished and in to the publisher a month before the attacks.  The few changes serve only to update it to the current situation.

            Bergen gives a tapestry of factual detail about bin Laden himself, the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, radical Islamism as it exists in many societies, Islam as a religion, several specific individuals integral to the Islamist movement, and specifically about the many acts of terror against the United States and others during recent decades.  Unless the book is to be replicated here, the best that can be done is to draw from it selectively to give attention to certain highlights:

            1.  Most Americans were shocked into awareness of the terror on September 11, but in fact a war had been underway against the United States for several years.  A mob had burned down the United States' embassy in Pakistan in 1979.  In 1983, 241 Marines died in the suicide truck bombing of their barracks in Lebanon.  Rabbi Meir Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian-American in Manhattan in 1990.  The first World Trade Center bombing occurred in 1993, seeking a disaster even worse than that of September 11.  Eighteen American soldiers were killed in Somalia in 1993, and Osama bin Laden claims his people had a hand in that.  A United States facility was car-bombed in Riyadh in 1995.  This was followed by the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, killing 19 U.S. servicemen and injuring hundreds of others.  In that year, Osama bin Laden made his first call for attacks against American military targets.  He later dropped the distinction between military and civilian targets, so that the 1998 declaration announcing the formation of the "World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders" called upon Muslims to "kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilian or military."  The U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed simultaneously in 1998, with massive casualties.  On October 12, 2000, a hole was blown in the side of the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.  All along, there were foiled attempts that hardly received any public attention, such as the attempts in Yemen and New Delhi in June 2001.

            This list is far from exhaustive; and other countries, not just the United States, have been targets, as anyone who remembers the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics recalls.  The Egyptian Jihad group, for example, has been at war with the Egyptian government for 25 years, and has been working closely with Osama bin Laden since the early 1990s.

            2.  Certain events have provided the "compact experience" that has triggered the radical Islamist movement.  Of course, if we go back far enough, we see that the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire into a number of artificially constructed states at the end of World War I set the stage for much of what has since transpired in the Middle East.  Among the results of that break-up were the British protectorate over Palestine, the eventual creation of the state of Israel after World War II, and the more than half-century of violence that has ensued between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  That conflict, and the perceived continuing injustices to Palestinians, is one of the core stimuli for the radical Islamist movement. 

            As Bergen points out, 1979 was a seminal year.  Among other things, the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in Iran, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of the "Brezhnev Doctrine" that wouldn't permit a Communist regime to be overthrown.  Thousands of Muslims trekked to Afghanistan to fight, becoming known as the "Afghan Arabs."  This served much the same role for radical Islamism as the Spanish Civil War did, several decades before, for the world Left.  It radicalized them, gave them military training and experience, and instilled solidarity.

            For Osama bin Laden, 1991 was almost equally pivotal.  He opposed Saddam Hussein in Iraq, whom he saw as not truly a Muslim leader; but he also took violent exception to the American presence in the Arabian peninsula, the "holiest place in Islam."  That presence is now in its eleventh year.

            3.  The result is that there is now a radical Islamist movement committed to the methods of "asymmetrical warfare" in a great many countries.  It is no longer dependent upon state sponsors, such as Syria, Iran and Libya.  Its adherents come from diverse parts of Islam, and not simply from one fundamentalist sect.  Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, is Shia, whereas Osama bin Laden himself is a neo-fundamentalist Sunni.

            What is perhaps of the highest importance is to realize that this is not coterminous with the vast world of Islam itself, even though it receives considerable sympathy from a great many Muslims.  Islam is by no means a monolith; "there are as many Islams," Bergen says, "as there are Christianities."  Many Islamic factions fight bitterly against other Islamic factions.  The dominant political groups and governments within most countries "have their own reasons for cracking down on Islamist militant groups that threaten their security."  The fact is, as Bergen tells us, that "most Middle Eastern governments are implacably opposed to al-Qaeda and its affiliates."  At the same time, moderate Islam gained progressively in strength prior to September 11, except in Palestine. 

            The existence of major potential allies against radical Islamism within the Islamic world is, of course, a fact of the utmost significance in the on-going "war against terror."  Unless the United States conducts that war stupidly, there is no reason to fight the billion or more Muslims the world over.  As this is written, a fierce debate is underway within the Bush administration and elsewhere between those (such as the 41 signers of the neo-conservative "open letter" in late September 2001 who would, in effect, have the United States go to war against all of Israel's enemies) and those who favor, instead, Secretary of State Powell's striving for an anti-terror coalition.  Patrick Buchanan has written that "the final decision Bush makes will be as historically crucial as Truman's decision to let MacArthur advance to the Yalu, and FDR's decision to hold up Eisenhower's armies and let Stalin take Berlin."

            4.  It is noteworthy that Osama bin Laden himself has little interest in the divide between the modern cosmopolitanism and secularism of the West and the culture of Islam.  Political and religious factors are much more important to him: he funded the Afghan Arabs in their war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; opposes the presence of "infidels" in the Arabian peninsula; once called for a boycott against American goods because of the United States' support of Israel; and believes that the United States, through such interventions as the one in Somalia, is attempting to take over parts of the Islamic world.

            5.  This relates to Bergen's rejection of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis.  Bergen sees the on-going conflict as born out of such things as nationalism, power politics and "the narcissism of minor differences," and not out of broad civilizational clashes.  He points to the mutual slaughter among the Hutus and Tutsis, the clan warfare in Somalia, and the tribal conflict that has long plagued Afghanistan.

            Bergen's point here is certainly to be taken seriously.  He has much to cite to support his interpretation.  We may be inclined, however, to think that Bergen's and Huntington's observations are not in fact mutually exclusive; they speak, rather, at a different level of generality. To say that nine distinct civilizations constitute self-assertive centers of power and belief, as Huntington does, is not to say that there are not, as well, many other sources of conflict.  Those who would understand today's world will do well to read both Holy War, Inc., and The Clash of Civilizations.    


                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey