Craig P. Beatty
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Holy War Inc. Book Review
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...
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