New biography cautions: Don’t sell bin Laden short

I’ll bet you $19.95 plus tax, which is the price of Michael Scheuer’s important and thought-provoking book, that you wouldn’t say it was Osama bin Laden.

But that’s exactly how the former CIA counterterrorism analyst describes the shadowy leader of al Qaeda, who masterminded the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and remains America’s most elusive adversary.

Americans have been told that bin Laden is “a madly ambitious, bloodthirsty, irrational, and messianic individual of limited intelligence … who lives only to call for the murder of Christians and Jews,” Scheuer writes. “Would that America had the great good fortune of facing such an enemy. But we do not.”

Instead, Scheuer argues that the man who changed the course of history on Sept. 11, 2001, is an ascetic, battle-tested, inspirational leader totally dedicated to motivating as many of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as possible to wage jihad on America and bring it to its knees economically and militarily while restoring Islam’s past glory and, ultimately, achieving world dominance. 

Declaring his intention not to praise bin Laden but to bury him, Scheuer proceeds to make a convincing case that the 54-year-old scion of a multimillionaire Saudi family is widely misunderstood and dangerously underestimated by Americans and Western observers, most of whom fail to “focus on his character, intelligence, leadership style, international influence and organizational skills.”

For this, he blames “so-called terrorism experts”; anti-bin Laden Saudi propagandists and lobbying of Congress by U.S. arms makers “who profit from Riyadh’s outsized military spending”; and pro-Israel neoconservative commentators, academics and journalists who ignore bin Laden’s writings and tell his story “almost exclusively from the perspective of others.”

Scheuer notes that bin Laden has made clear, in dozens of statements and interviews over the past 14 years, his determination “to rid the Muslim world of the U.S. presence; destroy Israel; overthrow [Muslim] rulers who do not govern by Shariah law; and to recover the lands taken from Muslims by conquest, including Palestine, Spain, southern Thailand, and Mindanao.”

Scheuer disputes the contention of many “old hand” terrorism experts that bin Laden and al Qaeda “are merely new iterations” of other terrorist groups like the IRA, Hezbollah and Peru’s Shining Path. None of those groups, he claims, “posed even remotely the threat to the nation-state they fought that al Qaeda poses to the United States and its allies.”

Quoting an Arab journalist’s book, The Secret History of al Qaeda, he writes, “Al Qaeda is unique in the history of radical organizations, due to two factors: the diaspora of Muslims throughout the world and, even more critically, the Internet,” an observation that calls to mind Rep. Pete King’s (R-N.Y.) controversial hearings on domestic Muslim terrorist ties.

Nothing, Scheuer asserts, was more important to bin Laden’s long-term strategy than the Soviet Union’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, a battle in which he was directly involved. It was “a military victory for Islam, the first in several hundred years, and it undermined the pervasive defeatism that had haunted the Muslim world for more than a century,” the author writes.

“Moscow’s withdrawal from Afghanistan … gave instant plausibility to the idea that non-Muslim interference in the Muslim world justified a defensive jihad, and that such a jihad could succeed. Bin Laden would build on the example of the Afghan jihad until the need to do so was rendered moot by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.”

Scheuer’s book makes for timely reading as American forces prepare to end combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, operations that basically fulfilled bin Laden’s hopes that the world’s only superpower could be lured into military intervention in his backyard, a circumstance that would push it toward bankruptcy, cost thousands of lives and turn the Muslim world against America.

In a concluding chapter titled “The bin Laden Era,” Scheuer states that bin Laden “has had a greater impact on how Americans view their society, government, and security than any other individual in the past fifty years.”

He ends on an ominous note, warning that “The United States will continue to be al Qaeda’s main target, but its priority job will be inciting Muslims to jihad. Once America is defeated, he will turn to toppling Arab tyrannies, destroying Israel and, eventually, to fighting Shia” while passing the torch to a generation of younger and even more violent successors.