Review of the rise and fall of Osama bin Laden – how the son of a bricklayer became the leader of al-Qaida | Biography books

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JMore than 10 years ago, US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in the house in northern Pakistan where he had lived for several years. This successful operation ended the greatest manhunt in history and is the penultimate chapter of this beautiful, rigorous and captivating account of the life of the founder of Al Qaeda and the mastermind of the terrorist attacks. September 11, 2001.

Peter Bergen was among the first journalists to understand the threat posed by Islamist extremism and has since written a series of books on the subject, as well as the United States’ response to it. It draws on a wealth of first-hand reporting over 25 years, hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents for this new work. Among the latest is new material recovered from the raid that killed Bin Laden, which was only released recently.

This allows Bergen to describe bin Laden’s family life in great detail. We already know a lot, but there is still a wealth of new ideas. Diary written by the sprawling Bin Laden family in Abbottabad – 27 people including wives, children and grandchildren – gives us a glimpse of the al-Qaida leader as he reflects on how he should react to the uprisings of the Arab Spring. We learn of the fugitive’s tears during the mourning of a close collaborator, fatherly advice on how to avoid being followed by satellites, marital worries for several wives – a bizarre mixture of affection and extreme asceticism. . Bin Laden’s children have never tasted chocolate and were once led by their father on long hikes through deserts with little water to toughen them up for “the struggle to come”.

Corn The rise and fall of Osama bin Laden does more than reveal a human side to a mass murderer, offering the general public an authoritative and compelling portrait of a man whose misdeeds have changed all of our lives in many ways, none for the better. One obvious reason no one will write books like this about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State killed by US special forces in Syria, is that his life story is not particularly captivating. The tattered wealth of bin Laden’s radicalization is undeniably compelling.

Bergen begins with Bin Laden’s childhood in Saudi Arabia. He was the son of a low-status temporary wife of an extremely wealthy and very pious immigrant mason who became a construction tycoon. From his adolescence, bin Laden, shy and uncomfortable, sought to live his life according to the most demanding rigors of the Puritan current of Islam practiced in the kingdom.

The following chapters introduce us to Bin Laden’s early engagement in activism in Afghanistan, the transformative effect of his first experience fighting the Soviet occupiers, the founding of al-Qaida as a brigade of committed Islamist fighters. ready to deploy anywhere in the world, his stay in Sudan and then return to Afghanistan, where he would plan the spectacular and devastating attacks of September 11. Here, Bergen makes the very good point that this operation was a short-term disaster for the group, resulting in the loss of its vital haven, the deaths of hundreds of fighters and a life on the run for its leaders. What saved al-Qaida was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which not only diverted attention and resources, but gave tremendous momentum to the global movement of Islamist activism.

Bergen angrily demolishes the lies that underpinned US policy under the Bush administration and for which few, if any, have ever been held accountable. Having spoken to many former CIA officials involved in compiling successive intelligence in 2002 and early 2003 who found no connection between bin Laden and Iraq, Bergen is well placed to nail down this particular lie. This is important given that one of the reasons given by the White House to justify military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein was that his regime was somehow complicit in 9/11 (in addition to having weapons of mass destruction) . But it also shows other myths for what they are. No, bin Laden and al-Qaida did not receive funding or training from the United States in the 1980s. No, torture in CIA “black sites” of Al-Qaida suspects did not. not elicited the information that led to the discovery of bin Laden’s hole. No, the Pakistanis did not shelter the leader of al-Qaida for a decade for their own despicable ends. While all of this has been said before, it’s still important to repeat it all and refute dangerous ideological fantasies with solid research and reporting.

Bergen does not dwell on the broader dynamics of the modern violent Islamist extremist movement and perhaps could have afforded a few more pages to flesh out some context, but delves into this immensely complex area where it is relevant to the transformation of Bin Laden of pious but aimless youth in the very focused, although often capricious, leader of later. At university, he was influenced by Egyptian Islamists from a radical fringe of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, for example.

This is a biography and therefore can be read as the story of an individual’s radicalization. Is there a single crucial factor or a particular time bin Laden went wrong? Of course not. He killed several thousand people and sparked conflicts that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands more, but as the family details of the feuds, fears and hopes show, he was an ordinary man.

The rise and fall of Osama bin Laden by Peter Bergen is published by Simon & Schuster (£ 30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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