OSAMAThe Making of a TerroristBy Jonathan RandalKnopf -- 339 pp -- $26.95
GHOST WARSThe Secret History of the CIA,Afghanistan, and bin Laden,from the Soviet Invasionto September 10, 2001By Steve CollPenguin Press -- 695 pp -- $29.95
Three years after the September 11 attacks, volumes that greatly deepen our understanding of the earth-shaking events are starting to appear. Two of these, Jonathan Randal's Osama and Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, were begun well before the attacks on America. Both are well worth the wait.
The two books complement each other. Randal, a retired foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, enriches the still-sketchy picture that most of us have of bin Laden and his family. For the first time, in Osama, we hear a lot about bin Laden's mother, who, according to some informants, was a concubine and had roots in the Syrian Alawite sect, whose mystical beliefs are considered heretical by many Muslims -- including the puritanical Saudis. But corralling such fascinating details isn't Randal's only forte. Better than any previous author, he explains the volatile regional milieu that enabled a minor son of a Saudi contracting potentate to become a hero to many Muslims.
Randal focuses his story on the Arabian peninsula, where bin Laden was born and educated. In contrast, Coll, South Asia bureau chief for the Post from 1989 to 1992 and now its managing editor, ranges in his reporting across the Sudan; Afghanistan, where bin Laden found sanctuary; and Pakistan, whose military and intelligence Establishment supported bin Laden's noxious hosts, the Taliban. Coll's narrative benefits from rare access to the handful of CIA agents who were aware of the dangers bin Laden posed in the late 1990s but who lacked the support of their bosses in Washington to act effectively against him. Of course, notes Coll, the no-holds-barred covert war that the CIA and Pakistan sponsored against the Soviets in the 1980s helped create the violent environment that eventually led to September 11.
Coll more than compensates for his limited knowledge of the Arab world with a first-rate work on intelligence operations and their unintended consequences. If Randal falls short, it is in failing to get inside bin Laden's head to figure out just how he made the leap from religious young man to bloodthirsty militant. But Randal excels at pulling together the strands that may have contributed.
In the West, bin Laden was, prior to September 11, an unknown to all but a small group of cognoscenti. Not so in the Arab world, where deeds such as the near-simultaneous truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 earned him esteem. "In many Muslim eyes those operations had transformed and vaulted him into the exalted status of desert ascetic, Che Guevara, Robin Hood, Saladin, and Avenging Angel of Death rolled into one," Randal writes.
Bin Laden also has a gift for eloquence that Randal compares to that of the charismatic Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose radio speeches aroused revolutionary fervor across the region in the 1950s and '60s. "Osama's low-key, classical Arabic had a similar mesmerizing impact on a younger generation," he writes.
It's not clear when or how these skills emerged. As a youth, bin Laden seems to have made little impression on many of his acquaintances. A Palestinian engineer who worked with him on one of the family company's road projects "figured he was not tough enough to be a leader," writes Randal. Another longtime acquaintance describes him as "average plus, not average minus, but just average."
Osama would fool them all, including his billionaire family -- owners of the largest Saudi contracting outfit -- whose members he manipulated and whose reputation he sullied. Bin Laden was one of 54 children produced by the more than 20 wives of Mohammed bin Laden, an illiterate but savvy and hard-working Yemeni immigrant who persuaded the House of Saud to entrust him with its most sensitive projects -- from palaces to roads and air bases.
One enticing subplot is how the House of Saud nurtured a viper in its nest. In the early 1980s, the royal family tapped each prominent clan to nominate a member to a committee raising funds for the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The ultrareligious Osama was born for the job, and he also had a talent for self-promotion. He is mostly remembered as doing things far from the front, but he managed to see some action in a battle called Jaji -- though his role there seems to have been exaggerated. Still, with the help of the Saudi press, he inflated himself into a war hero. By the late 1980s, Randal writes: "Osama, not yet 30, had turned himself into something of a religious pop star in a land hungering for inspirational role models."
The Al-Saud were slow to figure out what a loose cannon Osama had become. He irritated them by meddling in the affairs of their southern neighbor, Yemen, and alarmed them by repeatedly warning about Saddam Hussein, whom he called an "apostate." When Saddam proved him right by invading Kuwait, Osama used family connections to win an audience with Defense Minister Prince Sultan and pleaded that he could defend the kingdom from Saddam with a crew of Afghan veterans. When the Al-Saud decided that the U.S. military was a better bet, the die was cast. "As it turned out, the Al-Saud never found an effective way of dealing with Osama," Randal writes. "Nor did anyone else."
That ineffectiveness is the subject of much of Coll's book. Perhaps the best chance of grabbing Osama was during his stay in Sudan, where he moved in 1994. The U.S. was becoming aware of bin Laden's deadly activities. "At a White House briefing early in 1995, CIA analysts described bin Laden's Khartoum headquarters as the Ford Foundation of Sunni Islamic terrorism," Coll writes. The Sudanese were probably ready to betray bin Laden in 1996, yet neither the Saudis, who thought him a hot potato, nor the U.S., which lacked enough evidence for an indictment, wanted to take him. Soon he was off to Afghanistan, where he was much harder to nab.
That doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of wasted motion. In 1999 and 2000, Coll says, George J. Tenet, then CIA director, made getting bin Laden a personal mission. But it wound up an exercise in frustration. All sorts of plans were made to take out bin Laden with snatch operations or drones. But at key junctures, Washington was reluctant to pull the trigger -- partly because the military was never sure bin Laden was in the intended target area.
Bin Laden, Randal says, liked to characterize the American military as a paper tiger, but he was soon to discover he was mistaken. The U.S. quickly toppled the Taliban -- although without corralling Osama.
But Randal sees a more important American weakness in the nation's efforts to cope with the Islamic world. "The Americans' failing," he says, "was that without colonial experience, they didn't have the trained manpower, the generations of friendships, the easy economic ties, the institutional knowledge, the police files, indeed everything that spelled inspired flair and intuition." The British in their heyday had all these things and yet were ultimately forced to withdraw from Muslim lands. "Colonial and post-colonial 20th-century history was littered with wreckage from the disastrous presence of British, French, and American forces stationed in Muslim lands." None of this augurs well for the U.S., which is more deeply mired in the region than ever before. By Stanley Reed