three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
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The Making of a Terrorist

A-OsamaWhen Osama bin Laden offered the services of his Afghan jihadists to the Saudi Foreign Minister during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, his help was politely refused. The meeting embodied Osama’s unique position: close enough, through his father Mohammed, to have access to the Saudi power structure, but distanced from that same group by his association with the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Soon his Saudi passport was rescinded, and he began his fateful march from the Sudan to Taliban-led Afghanistan to an infamous position in world events. Forgoing an exhaustive biography for a focus on the significant events of bin Laden’s life, Osama untwines the convoluted relationships among families, countries, and ideologies that produced this young century’s most notorious terrorist.
Knopf. 339 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0375409017

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"In chapters that dive deep into Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, and other front lines, Randal makes clear how the old Al Qaeda construct fits into what is really a mosaic of preexisting religious, ideological, nationalist, and anarchic groups." Richard A. Clarke

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The beauty of Randal’s narrative is how richly it’s rooted in his reporting experiences. He peppers telling anecdotes throughout—sometimes from Osama’s era, sometimes from an earlier, but still relevant period." Faye Bowers

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Laced with … polemic invective, Osama obviously isn’t a scholarly, dispassionate work of history. It is a skillful, yet highly opinionated, examination of the rise of modern Islamic terrorism by a veteran reporter who foresees no real solution in the immediate future." Ike Seamans

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In Osama, Randal does a good job at helping the reader sort through these Middle Eastern nations and gain understanding of their relationships with each other. … Most of us who are not scholars will welcome such a tutorial." Mary J. Elkins

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Osama is part memoir and part polemic against the West’s longtime unwillingness to confront radical Islam. … Unfortunately, Osama leaves the reader unenlightened about what turned a millionaire bastard son into the world’s most notorious terrorist." Jonathan Karl

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Randal is at his best when intuiting the nuances of terrorism and the particular Middle Eastern culture from whence it springs, and at his worst when characterizing the United States, which he has visited but not lived in for decades, and which he occasionally reduces to clichés of the very kind he abjures about the Middle East." Robert D. Kaplan

Critical Summary

Former Washington Post foreign correspondent Randal admits up front that he never met the subject of his book. To bridge that understandable gap, he calls on 40 years’ worth of sources and contacts to elucidate bin Laden’s life and, even more, the world that shaped it. The author eschews journalistic neutrality, favoring a judgmental stance towards the failings of U.S. policy in the Middle East. This stance sounds a dull, tired note for many critics, as does the disingenuous title: Osama bin Laden appears less a subject than as a means to understand the foundations of today’s terrorist culture. However, Randal’s informed, nuanced presentation of the Islamic world makes the book a worthwhile read.