DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEWs of Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know; and Scheuer’s Through Our Enemies’ Eyes and  Imperial Hubris ; Marshall’s Islam at the Crossroads ; Anonymous Terrorist Hunter; Ron Suskind: The One Percent Doctrine


Author (or Editor): Bergen, Peter L.

Title: Holy War, Inc. Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  The Free Press

Date: 2001

ISBN:  0-7432-0502-2

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound  304 pages

Relevance to doaskdotell:  national security and freedom


   British journalist Peter Bergen, educated at Oxford, is one of the world’s leading “authorities” on Osama bin Laden (sometimes spelled as Usama bin Laden) and the Taliban. He was early to recognize the threat, when we was contacted as early as 1997 to interview Osama bin Laden. American journalist Sebastian Junger had become intensely concerned about this by early 2000, and many other journalists, especially British and Pakastani and several females, have filmed and reported in detail recently.  But this is one of the most important books on bin Lader to date.

    The title is ironic: that terrorism is a “business” with “earnings” and can be run (illegally) like one, just like the Mafia. Novelist Richard Condon had explored this notion in the 1965 novel Mile High. 

   What is important so far is Bergen’s explanation of what makes bin Laden tick.

     “What he condemns the United States for is simple: its policies in the Middle East. Those are, to recap briefly, the continued U.S. military presence in Arabia; U.S. support for Israel; its continued bombing of Iraq; and its support for regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that bin Laden regards as apostate from Islam.”

    So religion and cultural values—the war with modernism and individualism—may be much less important than more traditional politics, dressed as religion. As for excess es of self-indulgence and individualism (as we see it) –

     “He leaves that kind of material to the Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, who opined that the September 11 attacks were God’s vengeance on Americans for condoning feminism and homosexuality.”

   So Bergen’s view of what U.S. faces in Afghanistan is sobering, and yet the terrorist threats – and possibility of more huge attacks if bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were not terminated – really do amount more to acts of conventional war than we realize.  Osama bin Laden doesn’t seem to be drawn to attacking American “lifestyles” and “capitalist values” (that make some people uncomfortable with themselves) as we could imagine some other terrorist might (like the anti-hero of the 1995 film Seven).  Decapitating the leadership of Al-Qaeda will go along way to making our homeland much safer.

In early 2003 a CIA agent created controversy with the publication of Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America (Brassey’s, Washington DC, 2003, ISBN: 1-57488-522-9; Brassey’s is a military subject-matter publisher), by “Anonymous,” and not Joe Klein. Apparently the CIA allowed the agent to publish the book if he kept his identity secret, which he did even on an ABC “Nightline” interview on May 3, 2003, although intellectual property law assumes that people will be able to identify him anyway.  But the author wants to emphasize that much of the asymmetric threat from Bin Laden comes from his dedication to a purely religious ideology, and that he is not a “typical terrorist.” Such a view has become “politically incorrect” to protect the rights of Muslims. However, the author believes that Islam requires subjugation of the self, including suicide when necessary, to an extent not found even in the most fundamentalist Christian or Jewish branches. Islam, as the author sees it, provides a profound experience of religious and moral collectivism, including coincidence of church and state, all of this threatened by the presence of individualistic, secular Western culture on the same planet. It is a kind of religious communism. Even this view can be challenged, however. Does all of Islam follow this notion of religious communal virtue, as so well written up by Sayyid Qutb? For over twenty years, for example, I have worked in information technology with Muslims from countries like Pakistan and never encountered anything resembling this religious fanaticism. In the Twin Cities, which has a large Muslim population from countries like Somalia, Malaysia and Indonesia, some Muslim men, finding freedom in this country, even visit gay clubs and seem to buy the ultimate expression of Western individualistic values. 

In October 2004 The Atlantic Monthly presented an article by Peter Bergen, “The Long Hunt for Osama,” p. 88, in which at one point Bergin repeats an unnerving assertion about Osama bin Laden’s association with Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, as being (according to a “senior Afghan official) as (when they travel together) “like a couple.” That doesn’t help the gay marriage debate. But Bin Laden has had four wives and a multiplicity of children.

Bergen has an anthology The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader (New York The Free Press, 2006, ISBN 0-7432-7891-7, 444 pgs, indexed). Bergen provides personal accounts of an enormous number of people who knew Osama all the way back to his boyhood, and provides his own commentary in boldface. There is a chapter on 9/11 with a quote from Mohammed Atta, with a bizarre comment on his body and private parts being washed. There is discussion of WMD’s and the rumors that they were present in various countries, like Afghanistan. Bergen gave a public signing on Jan. 15, 2006 at the Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington. Bergen indicated that the Muslim community as whole in the US has not become radicalized to follow bin Laden as it has overseas, and this helps explain the non-recurrence of a catastrophic attack. He also indicates that bin Laden’s extreme religious ideology goes all the way back to adolescence, and his actions do seem to be motivate by extreme religious conviction.

It’s important to note that radical Islamic terrorists seem to want to make individual Americans (or westerners) feel responsible for political “crimes” committed in the past by their governments. They do use this “tainted fruits” style of thinking that is well known from the extreme left (and communism) in earlier generations. But this time they give it a religious context. An individual could be singled out and immolated with a suicide terrorist and (in the terrorist's thinking) be denied salvation, they seem to be saying, for the crimes of their nation. It’s guilt by association or derivation, and this kind of thinking (and the idea of “forced conversion:”) may have been behind Pope Benedict’s claim that Islam is “irrational.”  

Bergen’s views of Osama bin Laden are confirmed in another controversial “anonymous” book Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror (2004, Washington, Brassey’s ISBN 1-57488-849-8) which,we now learn, is a sequel to Through our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (2002, Brassey’s, above). Both books were authored by Michael Scheuer. By the time of his authorship of the second book, the author had retired from the CIA, and this prompted a debate about writing and publishing by government officials having access to classified information (at ). Visitors to my sites know that I have severe reservations about people writing and speaking freely for their own self-promotional purposes about work for which they are already paid while still working in these jobs. This goes beyond the usual concerns about trade secrets and sensitive information to basic questions about fairness in how people advance. Scheuer points out that intelligence analysts are not permitted to even suggest policy, and that in general government careerists must leave and go into private business as “consultants” (or “Beltway Bandits”) until they are free to express themselves—he considers this “conflict of interest” paradigm (as I have characterized it on my site) as something that can get in the way of facing the truth.  But here, we have to get beyond that and into Scheuer’s arugment.

His book is dense, with many long sentences and paragraphs and a great deal of repetition. In that sense, his writing is a bit like mine. So are his thought processes. I think his writing could be organized with more sonata-like form, as he jumps among issues, in and out of talking about our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. So he needs an editor and literary agent, which understandably he couldn’t have. Again, though, let’s get to his message.

His idea of “hubris” is the official Bush doctrine, that terrorists are thugs who don’t believe in freedom, etc.  He sees the current Enemy as an Islamist insurgency, not just a decentralized web of terrorists. Why have they become our enemy? Because they cannot live with what we do, and not just because of who we are.

This is a top-loaded statement. I was once told, when working on my first job at NBS, that I had a tendency to make enemies. Consider Lawyer A who threatens Writer B (with a cease-and-desist). Suppose Lawyer A says, “you are an Enemy.” (A lawyer shouldn’t do that, but move on..)  He goes on. “I think you are a Low Life and have No Morals. I think your basic essence is immoral. But I am litigating against you not for who you are but for what you did, which is make my client’s life intolerable. You are keeping my client from making a living.” A major part of the problem is that fundamentalist Islam sees the state and religion as inseparable, and the presence of an alien culture on their lands threatens that nexus.

Osama bin Laden acts a bit like this kind of self-appointed judge and master-of-what-it-will-be-like. He personifies the notion that American foreign policy and economic exploitation is destroying the ability to practice Islam. We are not pursued with hijacked airplanes and maybe WMD’s because of our lifestyles, movies, gay and straight extramarital sex (the author mentions gay issues at least once), emancipation of women, and secularism. We are pursued because we are inhibiting the practice of Islam in Islamic lands. Why? That is hard to understand in individualistic terms. Scheuer characterizes Islam is a kind of decentralized but very communal religion in which Allah determines any “purpose driven” life (to quote the title of another famous best-seller). God is regarded with a kind of internal affection. For many young men, this determines the only conceivable source of identity in life. Now, it seems to me that a similar idea underlies a lot of evangelical Christianity, even though the theology (the Christian idea of salvation through Grace) enters the thought process. (Just ask Rick Warren.)

Therefore, Scheuer argues, we must drop any pretense of nobility in our arguments about terrorism. Instead, if we really need our foreign policy to be as it is, we must be prepared to kill aggressively for it. He feels we should have hit back hard on Sept. 12 or 13, 2001, rather than waiting for four weeks to begin a campaign that seemed like a strategic chess middle game when we needed a quick attack with Byronic tactics. In Chess terms, we need to think more in terms of old King Pawn openings (don’t be afrad to make quick mate threats) and quit playing Queen Pawn and the English Openings with this. And we need to play gambits. That is, we need to realize that a professional military get paid not just to fight our wars, but to lay down its life. It is a true warrior class. (He doesn’t get into “don’t ask don’t tell” but I presume he would look upon it with disdain.)

He does, however, warn us that we must rethink our loyalty to Israel, which no longer serves any conceivable national security interest, and end our dependence on foreign oil.

American citizens, so far, are culpable only because they bear the responsibility of participatory democracy (which Scheuer does not think can be recommended for a part of the world that seems like another planet out of Star Wars.) But here it would get interesting if we took the discussion further. For ultimately, I think it would come down to talking about personal sacrifice.

Scheuer early-on discusses the use of the Internet as a public space for Al Qaeda to spread “propaganda” and make communications. He does not seem concerned (as I have been) that it intends to drawn in ordinary citizens with no Islamic connections just because they have provocative websites.  A big mouth like me might make an enemy with an anti-abortionist or other domestic right wing fanatic, or maybe someone who imagined he or she was personally “oppressed” but not from a sleeper cell member, who is interested in punishing our economic system and government and national symbods, not in hand-picking individual citizens.  

Paul Marshall, Roberta Green, Lela Glibert: Islam at the Crossroads: Understanding Its Beliefs, History and Conflicts. Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books; 2002. ISBN 0-80106416-3, 121 pgs with chronology. This book is a concise summary of Islam, in its three forms, and its history, and an explanation of radical Islam today. In a word, its about religion and apostasy, echoing what Peter Bergen says. Islam reached a nadir on Sept. 11, 1683 just before the second battle of Vienna. After that, European civilization gradually took over much of Muslim lands. This goes way beyond the explanation of the Crusades. For about 1000 years, Islam culture really was more advanced, particularly around Cordoba Spain. Radical Islam believes that its fall is based on apostasy and unfaithfulness. The book provides a concise outline of how Islamic beliefs contrast with Christianity and Judaism. Theology is different, but some practical beliefs are similar. Muslims should give 2.5% if their network every year to the poor, and every able bodied Muslim makes a hajj at Mecca once in a lifetime. Prayer is an enormously ritual and concentrating experience.

Islam naturally brings up questions about balancing involvement with people as people for the organic experience with worshipping an ideal, whether it is supernatural and spiritual or somehow tied to human perfection. Islam sees a trampling on its ideals as a source of shame, as it would sometimes see a compromise (outside of its laws) for the needs of people. Yet people often see themselves this way. Politically, this makes negotiation itself as a form of apostasy and giving in to infidels. Radical Islam aims at reinstating a caliphate (lost in 1923 after World War I where the Ottoman Empire was replaced by modern secular Turkey), first in Muslim lands and then the entire world. It is an aggressive ideology, like Communism and Fascism.

Mr. Marshall spoke at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC on Feb. 8, 2005, as part of the “Faith and the Media” FBC Leadership Series. 

Anonynous. Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America. New York: Harper Collins, 2003 ISBN 0-06-052819-2  335 pgs hardcover. 

First as to authorship.The New Yorker piece “Annals of Terrorism: How Rita Katz got into the spying business,” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, May 29, 2006, p. 28, identifies Ms. Katz as the author of this book on p. 39,   Katz is now the head of SITE (Search for International Terrorist Entities) trolls radical Islamic web sites and message boards for intelligence, in an unidentified city. In a way, as I have noted elsewhere on this site, she serves the function with respect to terrorists that “Perverted Justice” performs in tracking down potential sex offenders who look for minors in chat rooms. At a certain level, the potential for tracking down the bad guys this way is fundamentally similar (I expect this idea to get the attention of NBC “Dateline”).

But this leads to the book. Late in the book, she talks about the need to remain anonymous after publication – three years later, it obviously didn’t, given the New Yorker, because the government and enemies could go after certain sources or even her and her family. I don’t think this has happened, but, as we know even from the NBC Dateline “To Catch a Predator” series, undercover “amateur” investigations can remain effective for years even when they have been disclosed. Anonymous speech has always been a guaranteed First Amendment right (and it is threatened sometimes by various government subpoenas to ISPs and Google); yet I think generally it is not as effective as when the speaker is willing to “out himself” publicly. (We know that from gay rights issues.) Also, as we know from libel and invasion of privacy law concerning fiction, it is often relatively easy for people who matter for others to identify pseudononymous people in a book, including the author. (Could she have used a pen name instead?)

The book chronicles her career as an undercover private and “amateur” investigator for a number of years, extending at least as far back as the Persian Gulf War. Her technique was to scour public records and public information sources (including the Internet and the infamous Google once these came along) and then connect the dots. She spends a lot of attention in the latter part of the book to the inability of government agencies to communicate, and makes the case that a well motivated individual is often better at putting pieces together and publishing the revelations than is a bureaucracy that works through a chain of command.

In one major way her history is similar to mine, at a certain psychological level. A traumatic event in adolescence motivates a furious self-driven effort to hunt down the demons much later in life. In the early chapters, she relates her childhood growing up as a Jew in the coastal Shiite area of Iraq. She lived in a world of large families and semi-arranged marriages, where family reputation as a group mattered a lot. Israel executed the 1967 war, and Saddam Hussein took over in 1968, and soon her father was apprehended and public executed, while she and the other kids were taken out of their home and force to live in poverty. They escaped through the Kurdish area into Iran and then emigrated to Israel. She would serve in the military. She would operate a garment business, and appeal to orthodox families that had large numbers of children. In time she would move to New York. She would go to work for a non-profit, and find the opportunity to launch her own “investigation.”

Actually, it is very difficult to do what you want publicly when working publicly for someone else, but she threaded her way. Since she had learned Arabic, she could infiltrate Muslim events, as a major event in Chicago in 1999. She reports seeing a stage play glorifying the preparation of a suicide bomber.  Radical Islamist ideology is uncompromising, and the total intolerance of the existence of Israel relates in some part to the fact that Israel took land away from individual Palestinians at various times for settlement—a source of personal shame to Palestinians that in their minds justifies suicidal ideology.  In her undercover work, she came across appeals to “adopt” orphans of Palestinian suicide bombers, a curious and warped variation of family values.

She does provide her own account of the history of Osama bin Laden, and particularly the origin of Al Qaeda as “the base,” a network that all jihadists would pass through in proving that they had “paid their dues” as potential martyrs.

She spends a lot of space tracing the details of the money laundering (one can call it that) of the network of Islamic “charities”), many of which are operated covertly by Saudis under the ideology of Sunni Wahhabism. Much of the activity was focused on an entity called SAAR that operated out of Grove Street in a northern Virginia suburb. The terrorist threat, because it can take advantage of our openness and First Amendment and due process protections and of an “objectivist” view of the law, is very insidious, and by its nature forces people back into thinking tribally and of others who are different as “enemies.”  The laundering is so complicated that one can work for a charity of organization, support one’s family and believe that one is doing good when one is actually supporting violence. Her work certainly shows the dark side of institutionalism (a concept that I remember well from high school civics and government class). What is amazing, then, is that she could pursue her chosen “career” with such determination given that she is a mother of a family of her own--but she did have a lot of organizational and governmental support, however unstable. (I have had much less, and I have not procreated the obligations that could guarantee my own personal restraint.)

On July 19, 2007 NBC Today reported a Montana judge and mother, knowledgeable of Arabic and Urdu or Farsi and who, on her own, enters terrorist message boards and chat rooms and get information on the location of Al Qaeda units in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a kind of “To Catch a Terrorist” operation. Is Chris Hansen nect?

Ron Suskind. The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7109-2. This is also called the Cheney Doctrine.

“If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” (p. 62)

So Cheney said, and it seems, according to the arcane and detailed narratives in this book, that Cheney makes a lot of these determinations on his own.  Right after 9/11, the administration reinterpreted a lot of criminal procedure in its favor in order to justify all kinds of surveillance, sending “national security letters” to justify sweeps on weak pretexts. I guess this is understandable. There is a lot of discussion of how the government has tried to mine the data from emails, search engines, cell phone calls, and most of all financial transactions. First Data, which has a parental relationship with Western Union, is involved. Western Union is popular in the Middle East for moving money around, as financial networks are (surprisingly) not always as sophisticated, that there are all the family-based loans trying to get around Islamic usury laws. Western Union, by the way, is also an important conduit in overnight debt collection. The company was a major customer of Univac in the 1970s when Univac was trying to compete with IBM in the mainframe area (I worked for Univac 1972-1974).

Around 2004, Al Qaeda began using physical couriers much more, as its cell phone calls and emails were getting traced. But they still used websites to retrieve publicly available information on all kinds of dangerous devices, and it would seem possible for them to use websites to transmit instructions. Law enforcement could, however, troll the Internet and chatrooms (in “Dateline” style) and impersonate contacts the way it catches predators. In fact, the NSA and CIA were picking up chatter about possible attacks on a variety of very soft targets used by ordinary Americans, and this talk would lead to intensified interrogation efforts.

The book traces the arrests of several major figures, and then ventures off into the Iraq war. The administration claimed to have evidence that Saddam was trafficking in yellowcake and WMDs. It apparently did have evidence of weaponized anthrax in southern Afghanistan, but never proved that this had any connection to Iraq. And all of this leads to the sensational reports in Time (in the excerpt from this book printed in late June 2006) about plans for a hydrogen cyanide attack on the NYC subway systems in February 2003, mixed and controlled remotely by a device called a mubtakkar. They were found on computer disks, and apparently details were supplied by a pseudonymous character named Ali.  


Related review: Lawrence Davidson: Islamic Fundamentalism


Back to doaskdotell books (reviews)

Back to doaskdotell home page


Email me at