OSAMA BIN LADEN
By Michael Scheuer (Oxford University Press 278pp £14.99)
MICHAEL SCHEUER SPENT twenty-two years in the CIA. From 1996 to 1999 he was head of the Agency’s bin Laden unit . This was c a l l ed ‘Alec S t a t i on’, a f t e r Scheuer’s son. During these years bin Laden embarked on his exodus from Sudan, and established himself in Jalalabad and Kandahar among the Afghan Taleban loyal to Mullah Omar. When Alec Station was closed down and its staff reassigned, Scheuer resigned from the CIA to become a private-sector expert on US foreign policy and Islamist terrorism.
Rather, Scheuer insists that his work is the first syst ematically t o explore b i n Laden’s t heolog i c a l l y informed strategic objectives. Although the book provides few significant new details about the world’s most wanted fugitive, it usefully connects the different stages of bin Laden’s career and describes the skills that have helped him along the path he has chosen. For example, during his time managing projects for his family’s construction firm, bin Laden learned how to muck in with the multinational workforce, an exper ience that has helped him to run a polyglot ter ror ist organisation. Although the organisation has internal resentments and tensions (for example, between Egyptians and Yemenis), this has never enabled Western intelligence services to prise it apart. Bin Laden’s experiences leading foreign jihadists in Afghanistan also proved valuable to al-Qaeda, which learned never to emphasise their prowess on the
Scheuer’s f o r t h r i ght v i ews have brought him trouble. He believes that US foreign policy is largely to blame for the West’s problems with the Muslim world and that al-Qaeda is merely an extreme manifestation of a much wider Islamist insurgency. More specifically, Scheuer thinks that uncritical US support for Israel is the root of the problem. Among his more outlandish claims are that American Jews have divided loyalties. He bases this assertion on the decis ion in 1991 by Rahm Emmanuel – President Obama’s former chief of staff – t o s e r ve i n I s r a e l ’s a r med f o rc e s , although, as a US citizen, he might have chosen t o pa r t i c i pa t e i n Operation Deser t S t o r m. Such v i ews l ed t o Scheuer’s abrupt resignation from the influential Jamestown Foundation, a major think tank specialising in foreign policy and counter-terrorism. He still instructs NCOs, junior marines and US army officers in the wiles of America’s foremost enemy.
Bin Laden: project manager battlefields at the expense of the larger contr ibution of local jihadis. His one major mistake was to allow the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to do exactly that, as well as to terrorise Iraqi Sunnis and Shias. This enabled the US to forge a coalition that has hammered al-Qaeda in Iraq, even as it opened the door to enhanced Iranian influence in that country. According to Scheuer, bin Laden will be seeking to establish al-Qaeda in the more peripheral provinces of Iraq, with a view to funnelling South Asian f i ghter s i n t o Gaza and s outher n Lebanon. One character i s t i c of b i n Laden that Scheuer emphasises is his total implacability in implementing his strateg ic vision, which is to expel all deleterious ‘foreign’ influences – notably Israel – from the entire region.
This vision involves substituting the distant enemy (the US) for the local Middle Eastern autocrats who exercised
Scheuer’s book is not a full biography of the Saudi terrorist chief, although Scheuer is presumably well placed to write one. It is a much slighter book than both Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens, which appeared in 2008, and Jason Burke’s classic Al-Qaeda. Nor is it yet another attempt to work out where bin Laden might be hiding, although Scheuer does show how bin Laden, an experienced mountain walker who apparently memorised every rock and gully of Tora Bora, could have slipped away with the help of the Pashtun tribes he had armed t o f i ght t he Soviets and Pakistani In t e r -Ser v i ce s men like his deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Starting with the 1998 East African embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, bin Laden sought to draw the US into fighting on a battlefield of his choosing, in order to replicate the defeat the jihadis claimed to have inflicted on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The attacks on 9/11 served that purpose. Together with a war in Afghanistan that costs over a hundred billion US dollars a year, all subsequent terrorist gambits have been designed to further drain the US domestic economy, while making the American (and European) public both permanently fearful and ready to scale back their global commitments. Once that has happened, vulnerable autocrats throughout the Middle
LITERARY REVIEW March 2011
East will fall, taking down the clerical stooges who justify their corrupt rule, and the jihadis and their allies will have a clear shot at Israel. Then the rule of the latterday Salafists will commence, with gover nment according to the relevant sections of the Koran. One set of oligarchs will be replaced by the supposedly more virtuous rule of scholars and other wise men who are equipped, bin Laden believes, with the moral authority to get r id of any ruler who becomes tyrannical. There does not seem to be much support for that project in Tunis o r Cai ro, a ny more t h a n t he re i s among Europeans for a future superstate.
Even if he is killed, bin Laden will be the inciter-inchief, a Che Guevara-poster Saladin, pinned to every
S p h e r e s a n d L o a t h i n g i n S t P e t e r s b u r g PERFECT RIGOUR: A GENIUS AND THE MATHEMATICAL BREAKTHROUGH OF
By Masha Gessen (Icon Books 242pp £14.99)
I OCCASIONALLY TALK to sixth-form students who are wondering whether or not to study maths at university. I point out that maths leads to an incredible ar ray of career opportunities, from finance jobs in the City to the animation industry in Hollywood, from secur ity posts at GCHQ to modelling the climate.
However, I am always quick to stress that studying maths is about more than just getting a pay cheque. It is also about exploring a landscape of abstract mystery and striving for solutions to baffling and beautiful problems. For the last couple of years, I have made this point by spending a couple of minutes telling students the inspiring story of Grigori Perelman. Masha Gessen’s Perfect Rigour recounts the same story in more detail, char ting the l i fe of Perelman from schoolboy prodigy to the maverick maths genius who provided the first great mathematical proof of the twenty-first century.
Perelman’s mother, Lubov, had a promising career in maths before abandoning it in order to raise Grigori. She nurtured a similar talent in her son, and when he was ten he joined one of the Soviet network of maths clubs, where students were intensely drilled with problems deliberately set to stretch even the most brilliant young minds.
In 1982, aged sixteen, he competed as a ‘mathlete’ in radical teenage Muslim’s wall. Indeed it is the capacity of al-Qaeda to survive which is most chilling. Scheuer estimates that two-thirds of its leadership and between five and seven thousand fighters have been slain since 9/11. Yet the West is no closer to killing the core group (for they will not be captured), who are presumably sheltered in Pakistan, and franchise operations are metastasising all the time: not just in Somalia or Yemen, but in Mali and Mauritania, all with links to the Western Muslim diaspora. While Michael Scheuer’s book contains much that is highly debatable, the reality of this threat fully justifies the priority Western governments and their intelligence agencies assign to it. To order this book for £11.99, see LR bookshop on page 12
the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). He won a gold medal, achieving a perfect score. Non-mathematicians are naturally tempted to view mathematicians as odd, as most of the world fails to grasp why anybody would care about apparently bizarre and abstract questions, such as: are some infinities larger than others? Even fellow mathematicians, however, would consider Perelman odd.
He sat quietly at the back of class, only speaking when somebody else made an error or when a solution had eluded everyone else. He had no need for friendship or play, no desire to show off or be praised, and no time to daydream
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LITERARY REVIEW March 2011