Tracking the Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden

BOOK REVIEW: The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden

By Peter Bergen / Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by Toby Harnden

(The Cipher Brief taps independent reviewers with experience in national security issues to review books for our undercover readers.  The views expressed represent those of the reviewer and not The Cipher Brief.)

The Reviewer – Toby Harnden is a former foreign correspondent and author of First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11. His first book, Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh is one of the most acclaimed books about the Irish Troubles. His book, Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan, about a British battle group in Helmand in 2009, won the Orwell Prize for Books.  

REVIEWThe Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden is Peter Bergen’s fourth book on bin Laden and is published at a moment when the Al Qaeda leader, who was killed by Navy SEALs in a CIA-led operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, appears to have achieved a measure of posthumous vindication.

In 2004, bin Laden boasted that Al Qaeda was “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy” in Afghanistan, which would ultimately force them to leave, just as the Soviets had in 1989.

When President Biden announced the end of U.S involvement in Afghanistan in April, he cited the “cost of billions each year. . . above the trillion we’ve already spent.” He had just bolstered bin Laden’s status as a prophet.

Bergen, however, explains that bin Laden’s words were an attempt to put “a post facto gloss on the strategic failure of 9/11.” In reality, the Al Qaeda leader had expected that 9/11 would prompt the United States to withdraw from the Middle East, triggering the fall of its client regimes. Thus, 9/11 was a long-term disaster for Al Qaeda, “just as Pearl Harbor was for Imperial Japan.”

This analysis offers little comfort at a time when Al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan as an ally of a Taliban movement now embarking on its second period in government. Indeed, Bergen is clear-eyed about the connections between the two groups.

Documents seized at Abbottabad show that Al Qaeda and the Taliban had no intention of cutting ties. Al Qaeda funded the murderous Haqqani network, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who became a deputy leader of the Taliban four years after bin Laden’s death. He is now the Taliban government’s Minister of Interior.

Bergen was the producer of a television interview with bin Laden in 1997, and the manuscript of his first book Holy Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden, was delivered with impeccable timing, a week before 9/11.  It was rushed into print within two months and later translated into 18 languages. He has been tracking bin Laden, in life and death, ever since, on television, in articles, documentaries, and his other books The Bin Laden I Know, and Manhunt (an outstanding account of the Abbottabad raid and what led to it).

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The author’s encyclopedic familiarity with his subject and his interviews with almost every key player are complemented by a succinct, almost laconic, writing style. This and its relative brevity – 248 pages of main text – make it at an excellent primer for the general reader. If much of what he writes seems familiar, that is because Bergen himself has already chronicled bin Laden so assiduously. The author’s mastery of the detail gives him an unmatched authority and he makes decisive pronouncements on some controversial issues.

He archly dismisses, for instance, the common belief that bin Laden was a creation of the CIA during the 1980s, when the mujahideen fought the Soviets. The Agency, he points out, worked through Pakistan’s ISI and Arab fighters in Afghanistan had their own sources of funding from Gulf states. American-bought Stinger missiles were crucial in defeating the Soviets while “bin Laden and his Afghan Arabs were a minor sideshow.” The real problem, Bergen concludes, was “not that the CIA helped bin Laden during the 1980s, but that the U.S. government had no idea about his possible significance until 1993.”

Bergen is convinced that Pakistan had no knowledge that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, close to the country’s equivalent of West Point. He cites the bewildered reaction of Pakistani officials, picked up by U.S. eavesdropping, during the Abbottabad raid and the fact that nothing in the thousands of pages of Al Qaeda documents indicated communication with the Islamabad government.

Somewhat disappointingly, Bergen pours cold water on the notion that the ascetic bin Laden was addicted to pornography. Obscene material was indeed found on hard drives seized at Abbottabad.  Bin Laden, however, had no access to the internet and Bergen judges it implausible that the Al Qaeda leader would have asked his bodyguards to bring him carnal images on thumb drives. Bergen concludes: “The most likely explanation was that bin Laden’s bodyguards had purchased secondhand computers for him with the porn already embedded.” He confirms, however, that bin Laden used Just for Men hair dye to darken his greying beard.

Bergen has been a trenchant critic on television both of President Biden’s decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan and of his planning of the withdrawal. Biden fares little better in this book. Before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Bergen recounts that bin Laden was anxious to kill President Barack Obama or Gen. David Petraeus, then the top commander in Afghanistan. But the Al Qaeda leader told his deputies not to bother trying to take out Vice President Joe Biden, whom he considered “totally unprepared’ to be president.

Biden has given varying and inconsistent accounts of his counsel to Obama over the bin Laden raid, but Bergen affords him no benefit of the doubt, stating flatly that “Biden was firmly against the SEAL operation: The risks were too great. He wanted to wait and gather more intelligence.”

Among the heroes of Bergen’s book, are CIA analysts Gina Bennett, Cindy Storer, and Michael Scheuer. He credits Bennett with being the first in the U.S. government to recognize the threat posed by bin Laden and Arab jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan. Storer was told in a performance review in the mid-1990s that she was focusing too much on bin Laden. Scheuer, who had “the look and vibe of an Old Testament prophet” was indeed prophetic; his bin Laden mantra around the same time was: “This guy’s gonna kill several thousand Americans.”

Bergen outlines Bennett’s current hope that one day, bin Laden will be forgotten and irrelevant, consigned to history with the likes of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Sadly, that day seems farther away than ever. Whether post facto or not, bin Laden’s pronouncements about the Afghan war are now viewed by jihadists as prophesies. With his Taliban allies returning to power, bin Laden’s ideological heirs are likely to follow in his footsteps to the ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan.

This book earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.


Read former Deputy Director of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center Phil Mudd’s review of Toby Harnden’s book, First Casualty in The Cipher Brief

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