Two of Bin Laden’s attributes that shine through in Bergen’s account are his extraordinary self-confidence and the way he modeled his life on that of the Prophet Muhammad. Rather than trying to explain where Bin Laden’s self-confidence comes from, Bergen simply describes it. It makes it all the more fascinating.
Bin Laden had his chance to fight the infidels – as Muhammad did – when Islamic forces clashed with the Russians in Afghanistan in the Battle of Jaji in 1987. He called the confrontation “one of the great battles. of contemporary Islamic times “, and this made bin Laden a war hero in the Arab press. But Bergen says it was the Afghans, not bin Laden’s men, who led most of the fighting and suffered the heaviest casualties. Al-Qaeda only lost 13 men. Yet Bin Laden saw this as his great victory against a superpower, his version of Muhammad’s Battle of Badr in 624. And like Muhammad, at Tora Bora, he had his 300 followers dug trenches to echo the Battle of the Prophet’s Ditch in 627. By now he saw himself as a figure in world history and sincerely believed that he and his motley supporters could drive the United States out of the Middle East.
Along with his reporting on Jaji, Bergen carefully explodes other myths that have developed around Bin Laden. That he possessed weapons of mass destruction; whereas Pakistan has provided protection to Abbottabad; that there was a link between Bin Laden and Iran and, most catastrophically of all, that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden. Bergen also shows that, far from hiding by watching videos of himself while he was in Pakistan, bin Laden managed, even micromanaged, his organization from his hiding place.
Bergen is just as telling about Americans. While the CIA believed torture was essential to find bin Laden, Bergen argues it was not. Key members of Al Qaeda detained by the CIA and subjected to coercive interrogation have consistently provided unreliable information. Drones, on the other hand, have seriously reduced Al Qaeda’s ability to operate.
Likewise, Bergen shows how Allied forces missed their best opportunity to capture Bin Laden in Tora Bora in the months following September 11. The US and British ground forces were at one point outnumbered by reporters, he observes, and the highly trained units available nearby were never deployed, out of misplaced fear of repeating the Soviet mistakes. Meanwhile, as Bin Laden escaped Tora Bora, the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld was busy planning a war against Saddam Hussein, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Bergen rightly says: “This was one of the most dramatic errors of judgment in United States military history. “
Ultimately, Bergen’s account illustrates some of the iron laws of terrorism and counterterrorism. In all of his speeches and articles, Bin Laden, like most revolutionaries, never articulated a positive vision of the new world he wanted to create. The American counterrevolutionaries, for their part, invariably extended the emergency powers granted to them. Both have failed. Far from expelling the United States from the Middle East, Bin Laden has ensured America’s deep involvement. And Washington, by waging war on Iraq, saved Al Qaeda from oblivion.