Part of Foreign Affairs Report: After Osama Bin Laden

What to Read on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda

The terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden more than 20 years ago has orchestrated terrorist attacks such as 9/11, supported fighters in civil wars throughout the Muslim world, and fostered an extreme, anti-U.S. discourse that has indoctrinated a generation of radicals. With bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. special operations forces on Monday, the organization is at a turning point. Bin Laden led al Qaeda to both triumphs and disasters, and his successors will face many difficulties as they seek to keep the organization relevant and, if possible, build on its founder’s many accomplishments.

The literature on al Qaeda, and terrorism in general, exploded after the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden’s life has received exhaustive scrutiny, as has al Qaeda’s history. Al Qaeda allies and affiliate groups, whose stories often proved integral to that of al Qaeda and have now emerged as threats on their own, are also receiving the attention they deserve. The best works, including those below, explain the complexity of al Qaeda and the broader jihadist movement it purports to lead. As these volumes make clear, bin Laden was a remarkable leader -- but the cause he champions suffers internal divisions and contradictions that have often led to bitter infighting and many mistakes.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. By Steve Coll. Penguin, 2004.
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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
. By Lawrence Wright. Vintage, 2007.

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The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
. By National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. W.W. Norton, 2004.

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Begin here. These three works remain the classics that detail the rise of al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. All have an eye to the telling detail and remain exceptionally timely. Coll’s work describes not only the U.S. struggle against al Qaeda but also the broader U.S. approach to and missteps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the years before 9/11. Wright tackles the same historical period but offers a different angle, focusing on the Arab side of the story, with masterful chapters on the roles of Egyptian jihadists and al Qaeda in Sudan. Both present the 9/11 story alongside lively accounts of al Qaeda’s rise, explaining how the plot went undetected despite the best efforts of so many people. The 9/11 Commission report provides impeccable sourcing and remains the definitive history of the 9/11 plot and the U.S. response. Although drier than Wright’s and Coll’s works, it, too, offers compelling narrative.

The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda's Leader. By Peter L. Bergen. Free Press, 2006.
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The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda
. By Peter L. Bergen. Free Press, 2011.

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In The Osama Bin Laden I Know, Bergen interviews many of bin Laden’s comrades-at-arms, childhood acquaintances, and others who had first-hand knowledge of the Saudi terrorist. Bergen took the unusual approach of letting those he interviewed speak for themselves, arranging the book topically and chronologically, rather than creating a single narrative. This approach makes for a harder read but allows the different views of bin Laden and al Qaeda’s history to shine forth, helping the reader understand the organization’s complexity. The Longest War also draws on these interviews and looks at al Qaeda after 9/11, but most of the text focuses on U.S. counterterrorism efforts after 9/11. Much of The Longest War is a blistering critique of U.S. interrogation abuses, the misuse of 9/11 to justify the war with Iraq, the under-resourcing of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, and other mistakes that have hindered or undermined the struggle against al Qaeda.

Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in Al Qaeda From 1989-2006. Combating Terrorism Center, 2006.

One of the post-9/11 bureaucratic successes is the creation of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, whose superb analysts have focused much of their work on primary-source analysis of al Qaeda. Cracks in the Foundation uses al Qaeda documents captured in U.S. military operations to tell the organization’s story and explain its often bitter debates about ideology, strategy, and goals. As the title suggests, particular attention is paid to disagreements: the issues on which leaders differed and the paths al Qaeda took in its history that proved disastrous for the jihadist organization. As with Bergen’s The Osama Bin Laden I Know, this is not a straightforward narrative and is more for specialists, but it offers a nuanced and detailed look at the divisions in a movement too many outsiders think is unified.

Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979. By Thomas Hegghammer. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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Saudi Arabia is at the root of the modern jihadist movement. Hegghammer details the organizational and ideological origins of the Salafi-jihadist movement out of which al Qaeda sprang, describing the complex world of religious politics in the country during the 1970s and 1980s. This foundation is then used to explain the growth of al Qaeda and rival movements both inside and outside the kingdom. It culminates in a discussion of al Qaeda’s disastrous attempt to bring revolution to Saudi Arabia in 2003 and the successful Saudi counterterrorism campaign in the years that followed. Hegghammer’s scholarship is thorough and insightful, and his work is all the more remarkable because of the closed nature of Saudi society and the difficulties scholars have in gaining detailed information on social and political activities in the kingdom.

Brothers in Arms: The Story of Al-Qa'ida and the Arab Jihadists. By Camille Tawil. Saqi Books, 2011.
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Drawing heavily on interviews, Tawil, an investigative journalist, explores jihadist groups in Algeria, Egypt, and Libya in the 1990s. All suffered defeat at the hands of the local regimes they opposed: some became disenchanted and renounced jihad, while others went global and joined al Qaeda. Many key al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden’s heir apparent, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were seasoned in these struggles and bear the scars to this day. Tawil shows how the al Qaeda core operating from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan exploited local divisions and agendas and describes the frictions experienced by local groups when considering whether to work directly with bin Laden’s organization. Given the importance of al Qaeda affiliates, such as al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, such knowledge is vital to understanding the future of the organization and its associated movements.

Osama Bin Laden. By Michael Scheuer. Oxford University Press, 2011.
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Osama Bin Laden offers a detailed biography of the Saudi terrorist. Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the al Qaeda leader and convincingly demonstrates his importance in shaping the modern jihadist movement. Unlike Scheuer’s recent polemical works that blast U.S. policy, this book mostly focuses on bin Laden and his milieu. The author at times slips into policy critiques that are less convincing, and parts of the book read like inside baseball, because he spends considerable time criticizing other writers. But Osama Bin Laden is nuanced and insightful in its treatment of the late Saudi leader. I came away from reading the book thinking that al Qaeda will find it difficult or impossible to replace bin Laden with someone of similar stature.

The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future. By Bruce Riedel. Brookings Institution Press, 2010.
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Riedel, a Brookings colleague, takes on al Qaeda’s history, both before and after 9/11, through biographies of four of its leaders: bin Laden; his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; the Taliban leader Mullah Omar; and the dead Iraqi jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. These portraits are used to illustrate different aspects of the movement and, in contrast to many works on al Qaeda, offer many insights into jihadism in South Asia as well as the Arab world. Riedel offers a compelling case that al Qaeda successfully rebounded from its post-9/11 defeat in Afghanistan and the worldwide intelligence campaign against it and has reemerged as a major threat to the United States and its allies.

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