by Steven Emerson
Free Press, 261 pages, $26.00
by Peter L. Bergen
Free Press, 281 pages, $26.00 Tragedy has inspired many a publishing frenzy throughout history, and so it has been with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Publishers eager to capitalize on public interest in every aspect of the most deadly strike on U.S. soil are rushing an array of books onto shelves everywhere.
Just type the keywords "September 11" or "terrorism" into the search engine at Amazon.com for a foretaste of the terrorism-related tomes to come. The choices there include everything from compilations of heroic stories, photographs, and even newspapers' September 12 front pages, to collections of post-attack poetry by teens and policy essays by intellectuals. Many of the books are new; some are older titles that have been updated to reflect last year's attack.
The sheer number of books about terrorists already in print or coming to a bookstore near you soon presents a challenge for the discriminating reader. But those in search of comprehensive reads on the evil that saturates America and the world should have at least two books on their lists: American Jihad:The Terrorists Living Among Us, by Steven Emerson, and Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World of Osama Bin Laden, by Peter L. Bergen.
Emerson's treatise, as its title indicates, details the success that the new enemies of the United States have had in infiltrating American society. Bergen's book is narrower in the sense that it focuses on the world's most-wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, and his Al Qaeda network. But Holy War, Inc. actually takes a more in-depth look at terrorism on a global scale than does American Jihad. Together, the books effectively detail a threat that will influence public policy for years.
The two works have much in common, including their casts of characters and their plot lines. Both, for example, tell the unsettling tale of Ali Mohammed, a former officer in the U.S. Army's Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C., who helped bin Laden move his terrorist operations from Afghanistan to Sudan in the early 1990s. Yet the authors take different approaches to telling similar stories.
American Jihad, which Emerson bills as "a 12-year-long story of the arrival and flourishing of terrorists in the United States," is the more sensational read. Take this description of a trip "deep in the heart of Hamas territory" in Bridgeview, Ill., a suburb of Chicago: "The walls of the vestibule were covered with Hamas posters and recruiting literature showing masked gunmen brandishing automatic weapons. It was all in Arabic, but you could see daggers plunged into Jewish hearts wrapped up in American flags."
Emerson drifts unnecessarily into speculation at times. He wonders, for instance, whether the organization Charity Without Borders may have used a waste-disposal contract with the state of California to funnel money to Al Qaeda, even as he acknowledges, "We may never know the answer to this question." And he inexplicably, and without any clear evidence, suggests that in 1993 bin Laden himself may have sought entry into the United States.
Some of the author's ideas are suspect, too. He rightly bemoans legal obstacles that complicate investigations of potential terrorists, such as laws making federal agents personally subject to lawsuits. But his criticisms suggest a nostalgia for the days of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the unchecked powers that led to the out-of-control profiling of suspected communists.
Sizable parts of American Jihad read more like promotional literature for Emerson and the Investigative Project, the research group that he heads, than a dispassionate analysis of the terrorist threat in America. He opens the book by talking at length about his 1994 award-winning documentary of a similar name, Jihad in America. He also boasts that his group has done some of the legwork that federal investigators have shunned.
American Jihad seems likely to generate more controversy for Emerson, a freelance journalist whom many critics have labeled an anti-Muslim bigot because of his past exposes. He clearly does himself no favors when he condemns the Council on American-Islamic Relations as "an ideological support group for militants" and levels equally inflammatory charges against numerous Islamic civic groups, charitable organizations, and other associations.
Yet his underlying message - that terrorist "cells" within America's borders remain a legitimate threat - is one that needs to be driven home. So, too, does Emerson's argument that "the American way" may be an accomplice to terror. "Our freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion," he writes, "are among our most cherished rights.... What we must understand, however, is that these same freedoms are especially attractive to religious terrorists."
Groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Arab Youth Association Inc., which Emerson describes as "a venue for radical ideology to be disseminated in the American terrorist infrastructure," may not like to hear that they exist largely "to establish a zone of legitimacy" for terrorism. But to the extent that Emerson's characterizations are true - and he does provide plenty of supporting evidence - the nation's policy makers need to pay attention.
American Jihad says that three terrorist groups have the most significant U.S. presence: Al Qaeda, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. One of the appendices, arguably the book's greatest asset, provides snapshots of Islamic groups in the United States and the suspected roles they have played in "sponsoring martyrs" and providing a forum for incendiary speech against Jews and against America, among other targets.
Both the main text and a second appendix, a map of the United States, illustrate the breadth of the terrorist threat within the country. Emerson pinpoints terrorist links not only in such major cities as New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Boston, but also in the heartland - places such as Oklahoma City, Columbia, Mo., and Plainfield, Ind. The author also debunks the notion, which he once supported, that militancy attracts only poor, ill-educated people who lack opportunity, and is shunned by the privileged and educated.
But, for all the insights and information that American Jihad has to offer, Holy War, Inc. is a much better read - if only because Bergen, CNN's terrorism analyst, has no apparent agenda. Bergen's book also has something that Emerson's lacks: the author's first-person perspective on bin Laden, obtained in a 1997 CNN interview with the reclusive terrorist.
Bergen's story begins there, and his narrative takes readers along for dangerous rides to Afghanistan (a place with "an absence of modern world that is both thrilling and disturbing"), Yemen ("a country with a rich history of kidnappings and terrorism"), and beyond. One ride on a snowy road in Pakistan almost ended in a 100-foot drop into pine trees. And the trip to meet bin Laden involved two confrontations with men pointing rocket-propelled grenades at the journalists' vehicle - a story that seems all the more frightening after this year's kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
Before sharing his own thoughts on bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Bergen chastises his colleagues' profiles of the man. He ridicules as "a good deal of rubbish" suggestions that bin Laden received a U.S. engineering degree, was financed by the CIA or even worked as a CIA agent - or, that bin Laden, with the help of Iran, plotted the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
Holy War, Inc. explains how bin Laden, the 17th son of a Saudi Arabian construction billionaire, came to be an Islamic militant preaching jihad against America and how "religiously radical older men" such as Abdullah Azzam, a mullah who helped train Muslims for war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, influenced bin Laden after his father's death. Bergen also argues that bin Laden and his men "became increasingly radicalized during their time in Sudan" in the mid-1990s, and that the U.S. missile strikes in retaliation for the 1998 terrorist attacks on two American Embassies in Africa "turned bin Laden from a marginal figure in the Muslim world into a global celebrity."
Bergen says at one point that "a full accounting of Al Qaeda's U.S.-based members and associates is beyond the scope of this book," but his accounting is chilling nonetheless. Among other Al Qaeda operatives, we learn about:
Holy War, Inc. concisely recaps recent major terrorist events, including last year's attack on the USS Cole while it was refueling in Yemen. And near the end of the book, Bergen detours into Kashmir, Chechnya, and other venues to address the role of Islamic militants there.
Bergen's delightful descriptions of life in the Middle East make Holy War, Inc. all the more engaging. A case in point: "The Grand Trunk Road [to Afghanistan] is one of the world's most formidable automotive experiences, its drivers all engaged in a protracted and high-speed game of chicken. Testaments to this distinctive style of driving can be seen in the numerous burned-out vehicles that lie by the side of the road." American "road rage" seems tame by comparison.
Bergen even manages to weave an Arabic tutorial into the pages of his book. Readers will learn, for instance, that two principles of pukhtunwali, the Pathan tribal code of conduct, moved the Taliban to harbor bin Laden in the face of mounting diplomatic pressure. Those principles are malmastiya, or an obligation to show hospitality to all visitors, and nanawati, the offering of asylum.
Holy War, Inc. isn't flawless. A chapter titled "The Endgame" is a bit preachy - not to mention wrongheaded. Bergen repeats the tired refrain, heard so often last fall, that bin Laden "has reasons for hating the United States, and if we understand those reasons, we will have a glimmer of insight into what provoked the terrible events of September 11."
His text also demonstrates that it is impossible to write a completely accurate book about a story that is still unfolding. Bergen at least twice refers to the "more than 5,000" people killed on September 11 - a number since determined to be far too high. He also makes this assertion in a sentence clearly written before the ouster of the Taliban: "From Afghanistan, bin Laden was - and is - able to function unimpeded, attracting Muslim militants to a country that is becoming the modern world's first jihadist state."
That said, the United States has yet to capture or kill bin Laden (as far as we know), and even if that goal is achieved, Bergen writes, Al Qaeda is "a Hydra-headed monster" with thousands of members and affiliates in 60 countries. Emerson's American Jihad also makes quite clear that the terrorist threat in America and the world extends far beyond bin Laden and Al Qaeda. So, despite some inaccurate details, the histories and biographies, and the cultural, political, and religious analyses offered by these books remain quite relevant.
Emerson pointedly identifies the challenges ahead when he writes: "Only by knowing how the terrorists' networks operate, and what they have accomplished in the past decade, can we be vigilant in detecting any new activity. Unfortunately, the terrorists' world is complex and shadowy, full of unfamiliar names and half-known or hidden activities."
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