Osama Bin Laden: The Spectre

Fouad Ajami,  Professor of Middle Eastern Studies,  Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, reviewing Michael Scheuer’s “Osama bin Laden” (OUP, 2010),  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/books/review/Ajami-t.html 

 “Aye, aye! they were mine —— my irons, cried Ahab, exultantly. . . . Aye, I see — wanted to part it; free the fast fish — an old trick — I know him.” For a good generation now, the former chief of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, has insisted that he knew the tricks of Osama bin Laden, that he was on to him from the start, that he and the unit he headed from 1996 to 1999 had given the government multiple chances to kill or capture the Saudi master terrorist. The bureaucracy had not gone along; indecisive leaders who didn’t know the man they were trying to snag, who didn’t read his writings, had thwarted and betrayed the hunt. And still, after the calamities, after all the disasters inflicted upon us by this elusive and cunning adversary, we haven’t yet understood what we are up against. A view has crystallized that the trail of terror now goes beyond bin Laden, that the man on the run no longer pulls the strings of the jihad. Scheuer has come forth to challenge this complacency.

A veteran of some two decades in the ranks of the C.I.A., Scheuer has not shied away from controversy. In 2004, around the time he quit the agency, he wrote, anonymously, “Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism,” a big salvo in the national debate triggered by the terror attacks of 9/11. Life in the shadows, reams of government memorandums, bureaucratic wars with people who, in Scheuer’s view, knew less but had more sway, had reined in a spirit with little patience for finesse or subtlety.

The analyst turned accuser and truth teller was now out sounding the alarm. It wasn’t always clear what Scheuer was summoning us to. We were, alternately, too cruel and blunt in the Islamic world, or too feeble. Nothing was held back; the wars that had been fought in the warrens of official intelligence were now in public view. (The unit that Scheuer had headed was known as the Manson Family, for the zeal with which it did its work.) Scheuer was eager to settle scores; there would be no deference to authority now. In 2006, he wrote of the dereliction of duty that he says had paralyzed American leaders when Osama bin Laden had burst into our world. He took aim at President Bill Clinton, the counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and said that “Bill, Dick and Sandy helped to push Americans out of the windows of the World Trade Center on that September morning.” One reader who took notice of Scheuer’s writings was Osama bin Laden. In 2007, he singled out two Western authors whose knowledge he had high regard for: Noam Chomsky and Michael Scheuer.

In “Osama bin Laden,” Scheuer aims to re-establish his mastery of the bin Laden phenomenon. The bureaucratic enemies of yesteryear are still the knaves and fools they were, but another class of adversaries is now in the docket — the writers who stepped into the breach without sufficient knowledge or authority. There is Steve Coll, the author of “Ghost Wars,” credulous in his “whole-hog acceptance” of the narrative about Osama given him by Saudi intelligence. There is Lawrence Wright, who in his book “The Looming Tower” is “even more credulous when it comes to taking these spinning Saudis at face value.” Then there is a “legion of pro-Israel writers,” who brought with them into the discussion of bin Laden and the other Islamists “blind faith in the moral superiority of Israel in general and Likudites in particular.” This is not the prettiest, or the most subtle of writing. We had been done in by the “bin Laden experts” (the quotation marks are Scheuer’s); they hadn’t read the man, they hadn’t gone back to his actual words, yet they have come forth with “quasi-psychological explanations for Osama’s behavior.”

Scheuer says he has not come “to praise Osama bin Laden but to help bury him.” But he has been on his trail for so long: those are his irons, his harpoons, in Osama; he is the one who knows that “Osama’s father, Muhammad bin-Awad bin Laden, was born into Yemen’s Kenda tribe,” and that he “lived in the village of al-Rubat Baeshn in the inland valley of Wadi Doan in the country’s Hadramut region,” and a certain measure of admiration is inevitable in this kind of chase. In the Scheuer narrative, Osama bin Laden is the Saladin of the Islamists, he has command of lyrical Arabic, and of contemporary world affairs. He has “management skills” that enable him to run a “multiethnic, multinational and multilingual organization that is unique in the Muslim world. He displays the cool reasoning of a cost-benefit-calculating businessman, and the sophistication of a media mogul.” He has outwitted his pursuers, tormented the world’s only superpower. Before the burial, there is the essential paean.

Doubtless, Scheuer knows more about Osama bin Laden than the other writers who came to this story unprepared, with no ability to read a word of Arabic, let alone render comprehensible one of Osama bin Laden’s exhortations or one of the ferocious treatises of his deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. We hadn’t been prepared for what came our way on 9/11, the genuine expertise in the ways of the Arabs was scant and the instant experts multiplied by the day. A certain measure of sympathy for Scheuer’s sense of outrage at the pretenders, and the confidence with which they pronounced on things they didn’t understand, is warranted. There is diligence in this book, and a thorough familiarity with the paper trail of bin Laden. But Scheuer’s kind of knowledge is not without its flaws.

It is the fate of intelligence officers always to be outsiders, guessing at the deep meaning of the lives of strangers. In that vein, Scheuer is certain that he had grasped the man — a worthy adversary, pious, steeped in Arab tradition, the son of a construction tycoon devoted to both building a dynasty of his own and to the erection of great Islamic monuments and mosques.

But there is another interpretation, unencumbered by exoticism, offered to me several years ago by an American-educated Saudi physicist, four or five years younger than Osama bin Laden. “Osama,” the man of Riyadh said, “was never hugged by his father.” Rather than the noble Arab, he is the son of someone who by Scheuer’s own rendition, sired 29 sons and 24 daughters. The father had indulged his passions; no “anthropology” could prettify this tale. There is Osama’s mother, a child bride of 14, from the Syrian mountains that abut the coast, perhaps belonging to the schismatic Alawite faith, being brought into Muhammad bin Laden’s world, then cast aside for newer wives still. The year of Osama’s birth, six other children were born to the wealthy man who had risen from the poverty of Hadramut.

Osama bin Laden came from privilege, but in the Saudi world, he was destined to be an outsider. He could never enter the courts of the princes as an equal. He could journey to Afghanistan to spread and defend the faith, but he was always marked as the son of a Hadramut father and a Syrian mother.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-­Zawahiri and their followers dreaded and loathed the regimes in their homelands. They couldn’t bring down these regimes, the near enemy they called them. So they struck at the far enemy, the United States in particular. There was that privileged place of the Arabs in the wider world of Islam. It derived from the prestige of the Arabic language, from the Arabian origins of the prophet. In time, the Arab malady would set the world of Islam ablaze.

Fouad Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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