The best of the recent slew of books on terrorism, as chosen by one of the few Western journalists ever to interview Osama bin Laden.
It may have been a very mixed year for America's progress in the war on terror, but it was a very good year for book buyers trying to understand the evolution of al Qaeda, the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terrorism, and the future direction of jihadist terrorism. Steve Coll's Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin, $29.95) will surely stand as the definitive account of U.S. successes and failures in Afghanistan over the two decades leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. The 1979-89 Afghan war was arguably the most important conflict in the post-World War II period, both because it revealed the Soviet army to be a paper tiger, thereby hastening the demise of the Soviet empire, and because it helped incubate the Islamist Internationale that has spread terrorism from Manhattan to Madrid. Despite the importance of the Afghan jihad, there has been little serious investigation of the largest U.S. covert action program since the Vietnam War. Coll, the managing editor of The Washington Post, has addressed this gap by interviewing many of those involved in the Afghan operation and doing what all too few reporters trouble to do: read documents. He has also written lively portraits of such key players as William Casey, the former director of central intelligence who backed the Afghan mujaheddin; and Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who was murdered by al Qaeda assassins on Sept. 9, 2001.
It's a testament to Coll's reportorial skills that during the 9/11 Commission's public hearings, commissioners repeatedly cited his investigation into highly classified U.S. attempts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s.
The 9/11 Commission Report (Norton, $10) that emerged out of the commission's interviews, document requests and public hearings is a masterful narrative of the growth of al Qaeda and the planning of Sept. 11. The report is written in a crisp style far removed from the leaden bureaucratese of most government reports, while the more than one hundred dense pages of accompanying footnotes are a gold mine of leads for researchers looking to investigate different aspects of al Qaeda's history. The report's policy recommendations, however, have some puzzling lacunae. There is scant mention, for instance, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clearly, waving a magic wand over that conflict would not put al Qaeda out of business, but solving the problem -- as well as conflicts in places such as Kashmir and Chechnya -- would go a long way toward dealing with some of the core grievances and training grounds that fuel jihadist terrorism. On these issues, the otherwise eloquent 9/11 report is strangely silent.
The Bush administration's lack of substantive discussion of such issues is one of the themes of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism (Brassey's, $27.50), a scorching jeremiad by Anonymous, who has since been revealed to be Michael Scheuer, a former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit. Scheuer's core theme is that bin Laden's network hates us not for what we are, as the administration would have it, but for what we do -- for policy choices such as an uncritical embrace of Israel and support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. His book made former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke's own critique of Bush policies read like a Valentine's Day card.
Clarke's Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (Free Press; paperback, $14) and Bob Woodward's Bush at War (Simon & Schuster; paperback, $15) are vital for understanding how the Bush administration came to conflate the invasion of Iraq with the war on terrorism. For anyone who wants to understand the intellectual underpinnings behind that fateful confusion, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge Univ., $24), by Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, is a deeply researched critique of neoconservative foreign policy, and is nicely complemented by James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (Penguin; paperback, $16), a richly reported biography of Bush's national security team.
An altogether different kind of group biography can be found in Marc Sageman's Understanding Terror Networks (Univ. of Pennsylvania, $29.95), an authoritative study of the backgrounds of those who join al Qaeda and its affiliated groups. Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer who worked in South Asia during the 1980s, closely examined the biographies of 172 al Qaeda-linked terrorists. His findings have demolished much of the conventional wisdom about who joins al Qaeda: Two-thirds are middle-class and college-educated; they are generally professionals, often of a scientific or technical bent; few have attended madrassas. Indeed, several have doctorates. Moreover, these are not young hotheads: Their average age is 26, three-quarters of them are married, and many have children. Only two of the sample appear to have suffered from some form of psychosis. Sageman's work echoes some of the themes of German journalist Christopher Reuter's My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing (Princeton Univ., $24.95), which is likely to become the standard text on this subject. A close-up view of a number of terrorists is also provided by Chris Mackey and Greg Miller's The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against al Qaeda (Little, Brown, $25.95), a fascinating insider's account by the supervisor of U.S. military interrogations in Afghanistan during the pre-Abu Ghraib period. The book discusses a range of successful interrogation techniques, from the well-known "Good Cop, Bad Cop" to less obvious approaches such as one termed "the Befuddled Interrogator."
The question of how al Qaeda has survived and evolved since Sept. 11 is dealt with in a number of different accounts. Philip Smucker's Al Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (Brassey's, $26.95) is a lively recounting of the Dec. 2001 battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan that tends to substantiate Sen. John Kerry's charge during the presidential campaign that Tora Bora represented a missed opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden. Douglas Farah's pioneering reporting about al Qaeda's finances makes Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror (Broadway, $24.95) read like a Graham Greene thriller. He tells the extraordinary tale of how key members of al Qaeda in Africa transferred millions of dollars in cash into untraceable diamonds around the time of the 9/11 attacks. Muhammad Amir Rana's unpromisingly titled A to Z of Jehadi Organizations in Pakistan (Mashal, $25) is full of new information about South Asian Islamist groups, many of which have drawn closer to al Qaeda in the past couple of years.
Books by journalists and academics who have spent a great deal of time in the Middle East -- such as Mark Huband's Brutal Truths, Fragile Myths: Power Politics and Western Adventurism in the Arab World (Basic, $26), Stephen Glain's Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World (St. Martin's, $25.95), and Gilles Kepel's The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Belknap, $23.95) -- all take issue with various aspects of the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East, particularly the neoconservative theories that invading Iraq would have a democratic domino effect in the Middle East, or bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
Finally, Graham Allison's clearly written Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Times Books, $24) has alarming things to say about the threat from "loose nukes" in the hands of terrorists -- not least that it was not Iraq but Pakistan, one of America's closest allies in the war on terrorism, that was transferring nuclear technology to state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran and letting recently retired senior nuclear scientists meet with bin Laden in Afghanistan before Sept. 11. Allison's main point is that nuclear terrorism is a solvable problem that has, bafflingly, not received "a maximum effort," as the 9/11 Commission suggested. Let's hope that changes soon: A decade from now, we don't want to be reading a report -- no matter how well-written -- from a commission formed to determine how a nuclear device was detonated in an American city.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post