A few hours after the first American air strikes against Afghanistan, on October 7, a pre-recorded videotape was broadcast around the world. A tall, skinny man with a scraggly beard, wearing a camouflage fatigue jacket and the headdress of a desert tribesman, an AK-47 assault rifle at his side, stood placidly before a rocky backdrop. In measured language Osama bin Laden again declared war on the United States. Only a few weeks before, bin Laden's statement would likely have been dismissed as the inflated rhetoric of a saber-rattling braggart. But with the World Trade Center laid to waste, the Pentagon heavily damaged, and the wreckage of a hijacked plane strewn across a field in rural Pennsylvania, his declamation was taken very seriously indeed. Precisely how bin Laden achieved this feat is the subject of Peter Bergen's unusually astute book. Bergen, an Oxford-educated television journalist who in 1997 produced the first televised interview with bin Laden, is one of only a few Americans who have actually met him—a fact that alone endows Holy War, Inc. with a perspective that none of bin Laden's other biographers can claim. Moreover, Bergen's research took him not only to Afghanistan but also to the place where the bin Laden family originated, in the isolated Hadramawt region of Yemen, and to Pakistan, Egypt, and Kashmir, among other places. The portrait of bin Laden that Bergen paints is therefore richer and more complex than the image of a hate-filled, mindless fanatic that prevails today.
The broad outline of bin Laden's history is by now well known. The scion of a porter turned construction magnate, whose money-making prowess was perhaps matched only by his ability to produce countless progeny and his religious piety, bin Laden sought to make his own mark in life as a patron of jihad. Accordingly, in the early 1980s, he was drawn to Afghanistan, where he helped to rally—and even more critical, to fund—the Muslim guerrilla forces resisting that country's Soviet invaders. The guerrillas' success in repelling one of the world's two superpowers had a lasting impact on bin Laden. To his mind, Russia's defeat in Afghanistan set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the collapse of the USSR and the demise of communism. This same reductionism, coupled with an abiding sense of divinely ordained historical inevitability, today convinces bin Laden that he and his fighters cannot but triumph in the struggle against America.