Review Essay

While America Slept: Understanding Terrorism and Counterterrorism

In This Review

The Age of Sacred Terror

The Age of Sacred Terror
By Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon
Random House, 2002, 490 pp. $25.95 Purchase

Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. foreign policy establishment confronted a simple but profound dilemma. Now that the Cold War dragon had been slain, to paraphrase former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey, which of the many snakes at America's feet deserved the most attention? Was it instability from failing states, the potential for a resurgent Russia, China's military modernization, or Islamist terrorism? In the absence of clear guidance, the national security bureaucracy did not systematically organize itself to counter one particular threat. Meanwhile, in the remote corners of the Muslim world and in the shabby suburbs of major Western cities, al Qaeda operatives displayed no such confusion. Slowly and steadily, they were building up their capabilities and cadres to expand their jihad against the West. These two parallel stories came together in tragedy on September 11, 2001. In an important new book, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, two former counterterrorism officials on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council (NSC) staff, vividly recount this history, describing how al Qaeda emerged and how America responded.


In its public rhetoric about terrorism before both American and international audiences, the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, correctly distinguishes between violent extremists who profess to act in the name of Islam and the millions of peaceful, honorable Muslims around the world. The United States is not declaring war on Islam, U.S. leaders assure the world; it opposes only those deviants who abuse the religion in the name of their twisted messianic visions.

Benjamin and Simon usefully point out that the virtues of this public position notwithstanding, it should not be confused with the truth. Their book's most important and lasting contribution is its exploration of the relationship between al Qaeda's toxic message and the Muslim mainstream. They examine in considerable detail the gradual evolution of Islamist political thought, describing the timeless influence of Islamic thinkers such as the thirteenth-century theologian Taqi al Din ibn Taymiyya and the eighteenth-century preacher Muhammad

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