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Book reviews: 'The Longest War' and 'Osama Bin Laden'

Religious ConflictsUnrest, Conflicts and WarCivil UnrestOsama bin LadenFamilySaudi ArabiaAl-Qaeda

As Americans watch the stunning and, potentially, ominous transformation now underway in Egypt, they're going to hear a great deal about that country's Muslim Brotherhood and what its participation in a post-Hosni Mubarak regime may portend.

It's a crucial question and reminds us, once again, how important it has become to gain an understanding of the fundamentalist Muslim theological current called Salafism and of its contemporary expression through political Islam, since the Brotherhood grows out of the former and is the modern godfather of the latter. Such an understanding can help explain — in part — one of the central paradoxes in the West's ongoing conflict with political Islam's martial manifestation, jihadism: the fact that Al Qaeda's founding leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri come not from some hostile quarter of the Arab street, but from the privileged classes of two American allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Peter L. Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, and Michael Scheuer spent three years in the late 1990s heading the CIA unit assigned to track Bin Laden. Their new books — "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda" and "Osama Bin Laden," respectively — make useful contributions to our growing understanding of these issues, even though neither matches the foundational importance of Lawrence Wright's definitive "The Looming Tower," Steve Coll's indispensable "The Bin Ladens" or Mary R. Habeck's lucid, learned "Knowing the Enemy."

Scheuer's thesis, couched here as a concise analytic biography, is that American policymakers have criminally miscalculated by assuming that Bin Laden is a deranged fanatic acting out of blind hatred for the West. Bin Laden, as Scheuer convincingly situates him, is very much the product of the puritanical Wahhabi branch of Islam, which is officially promoted by Saudi Arabia, whose ruling family owes its preeminence to an ancestor's unshakable alliance with the Muslim scholar who founded that branch in the 18th century. Bin Laden, according to Scheuer, is the furthest thing from irrational, acting in close accord with the precepts of Wahhabi Salafism, which mandates a defensive jihad — or armed struggle — to drive all unbelievers from Muslim territory and recover those regions formerly under Islamic law, including Spain and southern Thailand.

Scheuer's Bin Laden is a generous giver of charity, a gentle nature lover revered by his family and a formidable Islamic theologian and scholar who communicates with followers and prospective recruits in erudite, historically evocative poetry. He is a master tactician who — in Scheuer's view — "lured" the United States into an Afghan quagmire.

All well and good, though, as our common sense tells us: Single-mindedness is the common currency of fanatics, devoted servants of what Kenneth Rexroth aptly called "the blood-stained abstraction." When one of them is trying to kill you, fine theological distinctions aren't simply without a difference, but beside the point.

That latter reality renders rather tedious the part of Scheuer's book in which he quarrels with other specialists in Salafism over whether, and to what extent, Bin Laden was influenced by Zawahiri or whether he is or isn't a takfiri — a kind of Salafist who believes that non-Salafi Muslims can be killed as apostates. Technically that may be so, but since Wahhabism's founder believed they were heretics, it's another useless distinction. Moreover, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and in the Maghreb has, by now, killed thousands of fellow Muslims, and Bergen correctly makes a point of noting it as something that has diminished the organization on the Muslim street.

Finally, this book — like Scheuer's early works — is disfigured by an antipathy to Israel and to America's alliance with that country that is so thoroughgoing and vulgar as to amount to barely genteel Jew-baiting. (Elsewhere, the author has referred to U.S. foreign policy and both political parties as "wholly-owned subsidiaries" of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the state of Israel.) The fact is that Bin Laden's — and Saudi Arabian — anti-Semitism, which Scheuer acknowledges, is so deeply ingrained that it would exist even if Israel didn't. America's ties with Israel, moreover, are not based on malevolent manipulation but on the fact that the Jewish state is everything that a country envisioned by Salafists never can be: Western, modern, democratic and pluralist.

Bergen's "The Longest War" is a useful synopsis of the struggle we've come to call the war on terror, and he chronicles it with the keen eye of an experienced journalist and on-the-ground observer. While much of the material here will be familiar to those who've closely followed the news since 9/11, there's much valuable added detail, as well as historical perspective. Bergen, who actually has interviewed Bin Laden and is the author of two books on him, gives a particularly good view of Al Qaeda's operative behavior — it's much more bureaucratic than you might imagine — as well as a gripping re-creation of what went wrong at Tora Bora, the last opportunity the U.S. had to apprehend or kill Bin Laden.

Bergen and Scheuer agree that the American invasion of Iraq was a disaster, a distraction from the crucial battleground in Central Asia and a grand recruiting opportunity for Al Qaeda, which gained a massive propaganda victory. The author makes an interesting case that parallels between the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviet occupation are imprecise and overdrawn, and that the Obama administration's strategic policy there is far closer to the mark than its critics imagine. Unlike Scheuer, Bergen thinks Bin Laden overreached and badly miscalculated with the 9/11 attacks and that Al Qaeda has been significantly weakened and dislocated ever since by the U.S. response.

Looking to the transformations now underway in Tunisia, Egypt and —potentially — other Arab despotisms in which inequality festers, Bergen sounds a chilling warning when he notes that many thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world will continue to embrace Bin Laden's doctrine of violent anti-Westernism.

It's a prediction that takes on chilling resonance when you consider that 40% of Egypt's 80 million people live on $2 a day or less and that its population includes the largest number of unemployed university graduates in the world.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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