Politics & Society

The best books on Osama bin Laden

recommended by Peter Bergen

The Osama bin Laden I know by Peter Bergen

The Osama bin Laden I know
by Peter Bergen


Many thought that 9/11 was the start of an Al-Qaeda assault on the West, but it turned out to be Bin Laden’s Pearl Harbor – a victory that led to strategic defeat – says Peter Bergen, one of the few reporters who met the Saudi-born militant.

Interview by Eve Gerber

The Osama bin Laden I know by Peter Bergen

The Osama bin Laden I know
by Peter Bergen

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Four years before 9/11 and four years after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, you met Bin Laden in Afghanistan. What was that like?

It took a long time to find Bin Laden, even four years before the 9/11 attacks. I spent many, many weeks of hanging out with people associated with Bin Laden in London and then travelling to Pakistan and into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where he was then living. It was a very lengthy, cloak-and-dagger process, because Bin Laden didn’t wake up on September 12 2001 saying I suddenly need to careful – he had been quite careful for a long time. Getting access to him was an adventure. When we met with him, in 1997, we didn’t know very much about him. It was through our interview that he declared war on the United States for the first time to a Western audience. Unfortunately, the rest is history.

Is there anything that you could tell us about him by being in his presence that we couldn’t learn from the tape?

I expected someone like Sheikh [Omar Abdel-] Rahman, the blind cleric – somebody who was table-thumping. He was extremely cool, quite tall and thin. If you didn’t understand his words you’d think he was reading a phone book. He delivered a message rife with raw hatred of the United States but he delivered it in a very low-key manner.

After 9/11 you explained the worldview of Osama bin Laden to others in Holy War Inc.

Please give us a précis of what you told readers in that book.

No one cared about Osama bin Laden when I started writing it, so I wrote it as a travelogue because I assumed that that was the only way to get people interested in the subject. I handed the manuscript in 10 days before 9/11. Of course the tone of the travelogue no longer seemed appropriate. Holy War, Inc tried to point out that this was a pretty organised group that operated in a global manner and that, unfortunately, attracted the best and the brightest from around the world. Look at the lead hijacker, Mohammed Atta – he had a PhD from Germany, in urban planning ironically. He was not untypical of the kind of people that they recruited. I tried to tell the history of the organisation and the story of how it formed based on court documents and travelling to Pakistan and Yemen.

When he announced to you and your crew his intention to make war on the United States, was there real reason to take him seriously?

I didn’t take it seriously enough and I wasn’t alone, obviously. A year later they invited me to come back to have another discussion, which turned into a kind of press conference. I didn’t go because I thought that although he sounded serious the people around him didn’t seem to be doing anything. That press conference happened in late May of 1998 and then several weeks later two American embassies blew up simultaneously, killing more than 200 people, including a lot of Africans and Muslims. That’s how he demonstrated that the rhetoric was serious. Until that happened Al-Qaeda hadn’t really done anything that we knew of. Bin Laden claimed in 1997 that Al-Qaeda had some role in training Somalis that attacked the United States in 1993. We now know from some of Al-Qaeda’s internal documents that they were sending people into Somalia to attack American soldiers there. But when we met with him that wasn’t so clear.

Did he have anything to do with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing?

The short answer is: Bin Laden wasn’t directly involved in the first Trade Center attack. People that were involved trained in Al-Qaeda camps. So he had peripheral involvement. He was the leader of this organisation, which was doing these kinds of things.

The reason I got involved with him was that the one thing that linked almost everybody in the 93 Trade Center bombing is that they were all on the periphery of the Afghan Jihad. Fundraising, working as medics – they had something to do with it. I went to make a documentary in 1993 basically saying that Afghanistan is going to become a cradle for terrorism because the conflict in Afghanistan attracted a pan-Islamic international gathering that hadn’t dispersed. Unfortunately, that turned out to be an accurate assessment. When Bin Laden’s name surfaced publicly for the first time in 96, in a New York Times article by Judy Miller and Jeff Gerth, I said maybe this guy is responsible because the people who attacked the Trade Center the first time were an organised group. That’s why I went to my bosses at CNN and said let’s try to interview this guy. They had no idea who Bin Laden was because he had no profile at the time.

You have chosen five books by others that widen the picture. Bin Laden’s back story seems like the place to start, beginning with the rise of the Yemeni bricklayer whose wife gave birth to Osama. Tell us about Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.

It’s not just about the Bin Laden family. It’s as much about how Saudi Arabia developed and interacted with the United States over time. Steve tells the Saudi-US story through the Bin Laden family, who played an important role in how Saudi Arabia developed as a modern state. The Bin Ladens were integrally involved in creating the infrastructure of the kingdom, and they became very rich as a result.

The main character in the book is Mohammed Bin Laden, the patriarch of the family. He was a penniless labourer, a construction worker, when he came from Yemen in 1930. He had good timing. Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 and the Saudi monarchy made its first agreement with an American oil company right around that time. Mohammed was a talented businessman who the king came to trust as he built up the country. As a result Mohammed was able to erect a construction conglomerate.

One of the interesting things in the book is that Bin Laden had 53 siblings none of whom went down the route that he went. Steve’s book is a portrait of this family, many of whom took opposed approaches to life. One of the key characters is Salem bin Laden, Osama’s oldest brother, who died in a microlight aircraft accident near San Antonio, Texas in 1988. He was a playboy and pro-American. He was a pilot, he dated all sorts of Western women, he married into the English upper class and, like a lot of Saudis, he had a house in Orlando.

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What the book shows is that there are a lot of different paths that Bin Laden could have taken. Of the 53 siblings I think a quarter studied in the United States and many had houses in the United States. The book, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in biography, is an amazing group portrait of this family and the different paths that they took, and Osama Bin Laden’s path was only one of them.

Does the book tell us anything about why he turned out so differently to his 53 siblings?

It does explain that there was a religious wing of the family to which Bin Laden belonged, but Bin Laden was the only ultra-fundamentalist. He became a fundamentalist as a teen and that hardened into fanaticism because of his involvement in the Afghan war against the Soviets in his twenties. The struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan made him start thinking about founding the group which became Al-Qaeda – the Soviet War experience turned Bin Laden from a religious guy with a couple of wives working in a family business into somebody willing to engage in violence and somebody who began to believe in his own leadership capabilities.

Next you selected a 2009 memoir from Najwa bin Laden, the first wife of the world’s most famous terrorist, and their fourth son, Omar bin Laden. Please tell us about Growing Up Bin Laden, which was written with the assistance of the American author, Jean Sasson.

Osama bin Laden does not come out as “Dad of the Year”. Najwa bin Laden, Bin Laden’s first wife who bore him 11 kids, married him when he was 17 and she was 15. When she married him she was a young Syrian girl with no education and certainly had no understanding of her husband’s militant activities. Omar bin Laden, the son, seems to be animated with quite a lot of anger about the way his father treated him and his siblings.

I wish I had had that book when I was writing The Osama bin Laden I Know because there are so many interesting first-person anecdotes – I’ll give you one example. Omar bin Laden complains about his dad taking him on 12-hour hikes through the mountains of Tora Bora, which his dad loved doing and the kid dreaded doing. That’s one of the reasons, I believe, Bin Laden was able to escape the battle of Tora Bora because he was instilling toughness in his kids by forcing them to do these practice hikes. Then another anecdote from his wife: He, the son of a billionaire, moved his whole family into Tora Bora, where they lived like medieval peasants, in a place with no electricity.

How have the Bin Ladens fared post 9/11? Are they still living the lives of millionaires?

They probably remain the most important construction company in the Middle East and they continue to be the most important construction company in Saudi Arabia. The family is doing pretty well and in fact the United States government, when it was rebuilding a US base in Saudi Arabia, relied on the Bin Laden group.

Did Najwa and Omar observe the metamorphosis Osama was undergoing?

Neither was in the best position to do that. Omar was too young and Najwa was completely excluded from his militant activities.

The Looming Tower, by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, tells the story of what led to 9/11 by following the interwoven narratives of Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the FBI’s former counterterrorism chief, John O’Neill, and the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal. Tell us about it.

The Looming Tower is like A Bright Shining Lie, which is about Vietnam. The hero of A Bright Shining Lie, as you may recall, is John Paul Vann, somebody within the US military structure who tried to convince others that the strategy in Vietnam was not working. The book begins by describing his funeral. He was killed in Vietnam.

John O’Neill, who died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11, is the hero of The Looming Tower. He ran the New York field office for the FBI in the pre-9/11 time period and played a central part in trying to take Al-Qaeda apart. He was one of the principal people in the US government saying Al-Qaeda is a big problem. It’s a wonderful read. Larry is an amazing writer. It won the Pulitzer, deservedly so. I don’t agree with everything in it but in a book of that size and scope that wouldn’t be surprising.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, once the number two and now top man in Al-Qaeda, is also a central character in The Looming Tower. How did Osama and al-Zawahiri make common cause and could they have succeeded without the failures of the international intelligence service?

This book is also, I think, the best account of Zawahiri. They had a symbiotic relationship: Larry views Ayman al-Zawahiri as the brains of the operation and Bin Laden as somebody who went along, but I’ve come to disagree. That was true in the eighties when Zawahiri first met Bin Laden – Bin Laden was an obscure guy who had some money. Zawahiri had been a jihadi since he was 15; he was older than Bin Laden, and he was a very serious revolutionary. But by the nineties Bin Laden was somebody who founded Al-Qaeda without Zawahiri really being around. By that time Bin Laden had become the leader. Zawahiri, in the mid-nineties, had no serious organisation behind him and he basically hitched his wagon to Bin Laden. Importantly, it was Bin Laden who really came up with the idea of attacking the United States. Zawahiri was very focused on overthrowing the Egyptian government. Bin Laden didn’t tell Zawahiri about the 9/11 attacks until the summer of 2001, even though the planning had been going on for years.

Your next choice is Mike Scheuer’s biography of Bin Laden. In 2007 Osama bin Laden named two Western writers he held in high regard – Noam Chomsky and former CIA officer Michael Scheuer.

Mike was the leader of the Bin Laden unit when it was founded in 1995. His biography gets the story of the Zawahiri/Bin Laden relationship right. Over time it changed. Bin Laden really became the leader and Zawahiri the follower.

Scheuer made the case that Bin Laden remained extremely dangerous and influential only months before US military personnel killed him. How important was Bin Laden, both as executive leader and symbolic figurehead in 2011? And how is Al-Qaeda getting along today?

Al-Qaeda is on life support or possibly even dead. It’s mostly out of business. Bin Laden founded Al-Qaeda. The idea of attacking the United States in a large-scale fashion – 9/11 – was his idea. He ran Al-Qaeda as a dictatorship, not as a democracy. There are obviously huge differences between the Nazi Party and Al-Qaeda but there is one similarity: When you joined the Nazi party you swore a personal oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Similarly, joining Al-Qaeda entailed swearing a personal oath of allegiance to Bin Laden. So Al-Qaeda became a very typical charismatic organisation led by a charismatic leader, and killing him was a final nail in the coffin. Al-Qaeda had been losing the war of ideas for years. They were absent in the Arab Spring. When Bin Laden was killed no one was carrying pictures of him in Cairo or Benghazi. His death is a punctuation point for the story of Al-Qaeda’s decline over many years.

Zawahiri is still living. Does he exert any real control or is he merely a titular head on the run? How does Al-Qaeda function today, if at all? Is Al-Qaeda merely a brand name that’s lost its meaning?

Clearly some people have taken up that brand name. The memos found in the compound where Bin Laden was living demonstrate that he was keenly aware that the Al-Qaeda brand had suffered, particularly because of Al-Qaeda’s activities in Iraq where they killed so many Muslims and civilians. He was telling groups that were thinking of using the name that it could be bad for fundraising and attract a lot of negative attention.

These groups will linger, there are people who will find Al-Qaeda’s ideas attractive, but the groups are under tremendous pressure from the United States and pretty much every other country in the world. Al-Qaeda hasn’t succeeded in attacking the United States in a decade plus. Even Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which people say is a problem – all their plots against the United States have been foiled.

For your last choice you name Jason Burke’s 2004 book Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam. I thought this book’s central thesis was that Al-Qaeda was much more than Osama. So is Burke right or Scheuer? And why did you name this one?

Burke is one of the leading foreign correspondents in the world. He was posted in Pakistan and spent a lot of time in Iraq. This is a very deeply reported book but I don’t agree with its analysis of Al-Qaeda’s structure. Burke sees Al-Qaeda as more of a disorganised movement, which grew up organically in Afghanistan. I think that that is incorrect. Just to give you one example, a draft of Al-Qaeda’s bylaws runs to 36 pages in English. So Al-Qaeda was, in fact, bureaucratised.

When Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior leader of Al-Qaeda, was recently confirmed killed in a CIA drone strike, you wrote: “This further underlines that Al-Qaeda is more or less out of business.” What do you think of the long-term implications of the use of drones to assassinate Al-Qaeda leaders and obviously others in AfPak and elsewhere too?

As a tactic it’s been successful but I think it can be overused. If the success of the drone programme means that we have 180 million people in Pakistan who are irate at the United States that seems like a high price to pay. The drone programme pisses off Pakistanis across the ideological spectrum. This is about their national sovereignty and the perception that these attacks kill many civilians, which is not very true. If Canada was routinely killing mafia members in Buffalo, New York, there would be some Americans who would be pissed off that Canada was invading our air space.

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Leftists in the United States and elsewhere have been surprisingly muted about the drone programme. I think there’s a pretty simple reason for that. There was a great deal of human outcry about a lack of due process at Guantanamo. There’s no greater lack of due process than for the Obama administration to act as judge and juror and just kill militants. There’s a cognitive dissonance about Obama and his embrace of covert power, whether it’s drones or Special Forces or cyber attacks.

Do you view what people characterise as the drone war as being in the long-term strategic interest of the United States or will Obama live to regret it?

It’s a very complicated question because some of the people killed in these were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Pakistanis. I think there is an argument to be made for judicious use of drones, particularly when they’re in the common interest of Pakistan and the United States. The counter-argument is that we’re creating a precedent that other countries will feel justified in following. It won’t be long before we have several countries that have armed drones and that could be something we come to rue.

Finally, how will Osama bin Laden go down in history? What will books say about him in the West and the East?

He undoubtedly changed history to some degree. Certainly 9/11 had a broad effect on the United States, and through that Afghanistan and Iraq. But the further we get away from the event, the more we can see that Bin Laden’s ideas were not widely accepted in the Muslim world. It was telling that the protests that marked Bin Laden’s death were incredibly small. He became more irrelevant over time. His ideas were proved to be wanting. He had a negative agenda, and no agenda on how to deal with political and economic problems of the Arab world.

One of the points I make in my book, Manhunt, is that 9/11 appeared to be the beginning of something – the beginning of Al-Qaeda’s assault on the West which would change the world. But in fact it was really the climax of Al-Qaeda’s activity. It was a kamikaze attack by Al-Qaeda that essentially destroyed their base – and Al-Qaeda means “the base”. The goal of getting the United States out of the Middle East didn’t happen. Quite the reverse. 9/11 was Osama’s Pearl Harbor – a victory that led to strategic defeat.

Interview by Eve Gerber

June 21, 2012

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Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN, and the author of four books. He has been travelling to Pakistan for nearly 30 years, and has written for publications including The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and Vanity Fair. In 1994 Bergen won the Overseas Press Club’s award for best foreign affairs documentary. His new book is Manhunt

Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN, and the author of four books. He has been travelling to Pakistan for nearly 30 years, and has written for publications including The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and Vanity Fair. In 1994 Bergen won the Overseas Press Club’s award for best foreign affairs documentary. His new book is Manhunt