The Tribune - Spectrum


, August 4, 2002

A walk through tunnels of hate
Parshotam Mehra

Holy War Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden
by Peter L. Bergen. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. Pages XI + 292. $ 18.99.

THE equivocation of the US Secretary for Defence notwithstanding, his broad hint about the presence of Al-Qaida across the Line of Control in Kashmir helps underline the grave threat this terrorist outfit and its principal political mentor, the Saudi multi-millionaire Osama bin Laden, pose to the peace and security of the region. The blast outside the US consulate in Karachi (June 14) offered proof if one was needed. Meanwhile, the broad contours of the evil empire over which the twosome preside are only slowly but surely emerging from the shadows.

For the varied ramifications and the jigsaw puzzle of bin Laden’s "secret world," its innumerable pieces remain yet to fall in place to yield a coherent whole. Peter Bergen’s "Holy War" gives some idea of the tentacles of fear and hate and the reach, on a global scale, of what Osama and his world stand for. It purports to offer the most comprehensive account yet of the mysterious bin Laden and his militant Muslim outfit, Al-Qaeda, which has already wreaked untold havoc across the world and holds out the grim prospect of worse to come.

The prologue sets the tone and the stage. And the occasion—the author’s face-to-face, hour-long encounter, sometime in March 1997, somewhere in Afghanistan, with the world’s most feared and elusive man. The long list of questions had been submitted well in advance: those relating to Osama’s personal life, his family, his finances, had been scrupulously scored out; the subjects were taboo. Those that remained related almost exclusively to his political views and why he advocated violence against the Americans.


Bin Laden has two principal grouses against the USA. First, the very mention of the name, he admitted, provoked "disgust and revulsion." To start with, by aligning itself with the Saudi regime, Washington had committed "an act against Islam." He was determined to unseat the Saudis and, by implication, beat down the Americans.

That was not all. The USA was responsible for all those killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. It was against these acts of "aggression and injustice" that he had declared jihad. The end-goal was to drive Uncle Sam away from all Muslim lands.

Bin Laden was convinced that the end of the Cold War and the eclipse of the Soviet Union had made the USA "ever more haughty and arrogant." Not that this deterred him in the least. His answer to globalisation was the restoration of the Khalifa and the caliphate. Which, ominously, was to begin from Afghanistan with the swath of green eventually spreading all the way from Tunisia to Indonesia.

Asked about his future plans, he blurted, "You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, Insha Allah." And, indeed, few if any missed the grim and grisly holocaust of September 11! Bin Laden’s first television interview by Bergen was telecast in 1997.

Laden’s Al-Qaeda stretches across three continents and a dozen or more countries. And it had truly gone global. Incidentally, a recent study on globalisation posits a new class of world citizens: the cosmocrats. They are as compatible in London or Hong Kong as in their hometowns, say Ireland or Nigeria. A typical example may be an English World Bank executive, married to a Russian, who spends six months a year shuttling between Poland and Colombia. The cosmocrats value academic excellence and often have multiple degrees from an array of prestigious universities. What counts aren’t family backgrounds but talent and drive.

Bin Laden’s network, which also values technical proficiency, albeit of a rather specialised kind, is as cosmopolitan as the cosmocrats. They have operated in all sorts of places—Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Kenya, Tanzania, nearer home in Kashmir and not so far away in Chechnya. For the record, in the USA Al-Qaeda has attracted followers in New York, Boston, Texas, Florida, Virginia and California. In Britain it has followers in London and Manchester.

Among the countries of special interest for Al-Qaeda mention may be made of Egypt, the land of the intellectual mentor of modern Islamism Sayyid Qutb (1906-66). Qutb lived in the USA from 1949 to 1951 and was imprisoned and later executed in Egypt on conspiracy charges. Bergen underlines the interesting fact that all the key members of Al-Qaeda have been Egyptians and suggests, "one cannot overestimate" the influence of Qutb on the jihadi groups in Egypt and, by extension, on Osama bin Laden.

Again, like Mohammed Atta, another Egyptian who was an outstanding student of architecture, the vast majority of Al-Qaeda’s ideologues are graduates in technical or scientific subjects. This ties up with a singularly disturbing fact about the New York attack of 11 September, apart from its train of death and destruction—the technical proficiency with which it was carried. For, as a graduate of Cairo University’s faculty of architecture as well as Harburg Technical University, Atta knew exactly where to hit the buildings.

Bergen underscores the harsh reality that Al-Qaeda’s Islamist message, while it draws on pre-modern readings of the Koran and other religious texts, is wholly modern in its revolutionary existentialism and that this unholy alliance between pre-modern and modern pervades the entire Muslim world where modernist or ‘accommodationist’ readings of jihad, loosely rendered as "holy war," have been undermined by radical conservatives. While Osama bin Laden remains the focal point of Bergen’s interest, he has also profiled several other key players who have both influenced and been influenced by him. His narrative, fast-moving and spine-chillingly authentic, needs to be set against the backdrop of two other studies, Michael Griffm’s Reaping the Whirlwind and John Cooley’s Holy Wars, now deservedly in its second edition, both published in London (2001). In their totality, they reveal a grim and grisly world that, once appearing remote, has now entered every household.

An American by birth, Peter Bergen grew up in England and has blossomed into a terrorism analyst for the prestigious American news channel, CNN. In the course of his researches he interviewed scores of people familiar with bin Laden, from his Saudi friends to the CIA officials tracking him, to cabinet members of the now defunct Taliban regime.