Osama: The Making of a Terrorist is not so much another biography of old beardie as a worldly and suave example of a once thriving subclass of literature, the newspaper correspondent’s memoir.
Born in Buffalo, New York on ‘the day President Roosevelt closed the banks’ in 1933, Jonathan Randal reported for 40 years on the wars of the post-colonial era, beginning with the struggle for independence in Algeria in the 1950s and ending with Bosnia in the 1990s. For most of that time, he was correspondent for the Washington Post.
His earlier books, which are both recommended, were about distinctive peoples living outside the mainstream of Muslim life: the Maronite Christians of Lebanon (The Tragedy of Lebanon, 1983) and the Kurds in the mountains of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria (After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?, 1997). Osama was the project of Randal’s retirement in Paris.
Here is the familiar story of Osama Binladen’s life: half-privileged, half-neglected origins in the immense Binladen clan in Saudi Arabia; service fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s; return to Saudi Arabia and quarrel with the Saudi royal family; exile in Sudan; Afghanistan again; attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001; disappearance from view in the fighting at Tora Bora in south-eastern Afghanistan in December, 2001
There is nothing new, by way of fact or legend, to add to last year’s official 9/11 Commission Report or such books as Peter L. Bergen’s Terror Inc. (2001) or the admirable (for 1999) The New Jackals by Simon Reeve. For all his ingenuity and bulging address book, Randal never succeeded in meeting Osama Binladen. The closest he came was to be ticked off, through an intermediary, for errors of Arabic in his interview request. (Accurate Arabic is one of Binladen’s many vanities.)
What Randal brings to the subject is the experience and confidence to locate Binladen and his circle within the story of decolonisation in the Muslim countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Binladen enjoys great prestige as a terrorist all over the Third World and attacked the United States on its continental territory, but he continues in photogenic fashion a tradition of anti-colonial violence that goes back at least 50 years.
Right-wing newspaper critics in the United States found this historic approach an insult to the special sanctity of the US, but it is actually reassuring.
Binladen, like the Palestinian terrorist groups of the early 1970s, is a component of history and will pass into it. While the United States has suffered many failures in its ‘Global War on Terror’, mostly of its own devising, so have the Binladenites. Afghanistan has ceased to be a sort of terrorist kindergarten, and both Pakistan and, since the bombings in Riyadh in May 2003, Saudi Arabia have come (mostly) off the fence on the Western side. Time passes and old age befalls even terrorists.
As part of his broad approach, Randal covers some neglected periods of Binladen’s life, notably his exile in Sudan between 1991 and 1996. There is a marvellous character sketch of the brilliant and arrogant Hassan al Turabi, who tried to use Binladin to put his vast and poor country on the map. British readers will also learn much from Randal’s account of the civil war in Algeria during the 1990s that was all but ignored in the English-speaking lands.
A chapter on Binladen’s finances adds nothing to our knowledge but makes the important point that 9/11 was a break with Osama’s habitual parsimony, in that it may have cost $500,000 (excluding the $26,000 remitted back by the suiciders as surplus to requirements). Even before the London bombings, Randal was predicting a return to ‘terorrism on the cheap’.
Randal shares the opinion of the flamboyant Fench investigating magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguière, that religious terrorism is in the process of mutating, like a retrovirus, and that such events as the clumsy Casablanca bombings of 2003 seem to have no direct relation to Binladen or his friends from the old Afghan struggle. In their audio- and videotapes since resurfacing in late 2002, Binladen and his Egyptian associate, Ayman Zawahiri, have given the impression of interpreting events (like some latter-day Delphic oracle) rather than inaugurating them.
The old notion that this sort of terrorism could be confined to the Third World, like the peripheral conflicts of the Cold War, was demolished at Atocha station in Madrid on March 11, 2004 and then in London on June 7, 2005. Yet it is domestic terrorism that Spain and Britain understand.
Long expatriated from the US, Randal leans more to the habitual European practice of muddling through an insurgency rather than engaging in magnificent and costly global exercises of American character, which merely adds to your enemy’s prestige and can go horribly wrong. (That view also went down badly in some US quarters.) For Randal, it can’t do any harm to tackle those grievances in the Middle East, notably the mistreatment of the Palestinians, which Binladen exploits. For the rest, it is ‘needlework’: the patient, dull and time-consuming accumulation of police and intelligence detail.
James Buchan is a former Middle East correspondent of the Financial Times.