BOOK REVIEW: Fumbles, yes, but still a threat
By Joshua Sinai
The Washington Times
6:13 p.m., Tuesday, January 11, 2011
THE LONGEST WAR: INSIDE THE ENDURING CONFLICT BETWEEN AMERICA AND AL-QAEDABy Peter L. Bergen
Free Press, $27, 496 pages
Peter L. Bergen
was one of the first Western investigative journalists to cover Osama bin Laden
and al Qaeda in the late 1990s, and then he published two best-selling books and numerous articles about what became the world's most dangerous terrorist organization. As one of CNN
's top analysts on al Qaeda
, he also files reports from the conflict regions where al Qaeda
"The Longest War" is Mr. Bergen
's magnum opus. It is a well-written history of the terrorist insurgency by al Qaeda
and its affiliates against their adversaries, led by the United States
, and the responses by America and its allies.
's book is divided into two parts, with the first, "Hubris," tracing what he terms al Qaeda's miscalculations of how America was likely to respond to Sept. 11, as well as other attacks, while the second part, "Nemesis," discusses how America learned from its initial mistakes in Iraq
, enabling it to regain the initiative in the long war against this persistent terrorist adversary.
What were al Qaeda's miscalculations? Its Sept. 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
, which caused almost 3,000 fatalities and massive economic damage, were intended to coerce the United States to pull out of the Middle East and cease supporting its Arab allies, thereby sweeping away "the governments from Cairo to Riyadh with Taliban
Those miscalculations, Mr. Bergen
asserts, were caused by bin Laden's ineffectual leadership. While an "inspiring figure to many in the global jihadist movement," he has "overreached, failed to appeal to any wider constituency, and failed to build a secure and effective organizational base after the loss of Afghanistan
. Though it survives intact and dangerous, al Qaeda
is hemmed in, weakened and limited in its operations. Its ability to force a decisive change in America's Middle East policy is close to zero."
is still "capable of dealing lethal blows around the world," Mr. Bergen writes, because of its success in reconstituting itself from its previously centralized and hierarchical organization, headquartered in Taliban
-ruled Afghanistan, into a hybrid, smaller and more "nimble" network hiding in Pakistan
's tribal regions and forming alliances with like-minded terrorist networks in Iraq
, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
It also exploits new technologies such as the Internet, Mr. Bergen adds, to spread its extremist Islamist propaganda to an ever-widening audience of "self-radicalizers" around the world, especially an impressionable minority of young Muslims in Western Europe, the United States
These "self-starters," who regard bin Laden
as their heroic supreme leader, then attempt to make contact with al Qaeda
's agents, whether in Pakistan
, Yemen or elsewhere, as they transition from "talkers" into "doers."
As Mr. Bergen
writes, "After 9/11, jihadist terrorist attacks were carried out by a mixture of true 'leaderless' cells and a resurgent al Qaeda
regrouped in Pakistan, but the deadliest or most threatening attacks on commercial aviation, oil interests, and Western and Jewish targets were not generally carried out by leaderless jihadis but rather by leader-led, organized groups. There was a certain logic to this. The more complex and deadly the attack, the more likely it was to be organized not by a group of ad hoc 'self-starting' jihadists but by an organization with cadres trained in bomb making and other pertinent skills such as countersurveillance."
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