The new book by the investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, charts the career of al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, up to the day he became a household name—11 September 2001—through his downfall in 2011, to the end of 2016, when al-Qaeda was more powerful than ever. It is a thoroughly absorbing account, bringing to light vast tranches of new facts, including many intricate details of how al-Qaeda operated on a human, day-to-day level, and of those states and para-states that shielded the terror network, collaborated with it, and enabled it—and still do.
The gathering of the Bin Laden network in Sudan and then in the Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan in the 1990s is a familiar story, but the splits and debates among the Arab jihadists around Bin Laden, including the opposition of significant numbers of them to the 9/11 massacre, is perhaps less well known. The authors trace out how Bin Laden manipulated his own quasi-institutions to get his way. First, Bin Laden took on the plan of a man, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM), who was not even a member of al-Qaeda, and then, ahead of the crucial vote, packed the shura (consultation) council with ultra-zealous Egyptians by engineering a merger between al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Continue reading
Released on December 21, 2007, twenty-eight years to the month after the Soviet Union launched Operation STORM 333, decapitating the Afghan government and plunging the country into a decade-long war, Charlie Wilson’s War tells a story centred on Representative Charles Wilson of Texas (Tom Hanks), a conservative Democrat, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a Right-wing Christian socialite in Houston who has taken the Afghans to her bosom because of her hatred for communism, and Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a blue-collar case officer at the CIA who is the epitome of the adage that one can get anything done in Washington so long as one does not care who gets the credit. Between them they cajole Congress into moving its appropriations from $5 million to $500 million, which will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Saudis, to help the Afghan resistance combat the Red Army’s occupation of their country. Continue reading