Flanked by his senior adviser, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and his military commander, Mohammed Atef (who was killed in mid-November in an American air strike near Kabul), bin Laden inaugurated the World Islamic Front. The Front's main target: the U.S.'s military and commercial presence in Saudi Arabia. The Front's pamphlets prescribed the remedy: "Tear (all Americans) to shreds, destroy their economy, burn their companies, ruin their welfare, sink their ships and kill them on land, sea and air." In the three years since then, the Front—especially its most secretive suborganization, bin Laden's al-Qaeda ("The Base")—has begun fulfilling each of these threats.
What are the roots of this ferocity? Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 292 pages) attempts to answer this question. The author is Peter L. Bergen, a producer and veteran Afghan newshound for CNN (which, like TIME, is owned by AOL Time Warner), who interviewed bin Laden in 1997.
If bin Laden's vainglorious style seems better suited to another century, that's precisely his objective. As Bergen explains, bin Laden hopes his jihad will lead to the rebirth of the Khalifa, a pan-Islamic theocracy that disappeared with the Ottoman Empire after World War I. In bin Laden's vision, Muslims from Andalusia (southern Spain) to the Philippines will live under one ruler—a caliph—in a faithful reproduction of Arabian society as it existed shortly after the Prophet Muhammad's death around 632.
Bin Laden does not intend to rule as caliph. He expects to die. He once told a journalist that he enjoyed the idea of his death as much as his interviewer enjoyed life. On one occasion, bin Laden claims, he found himself within just 30 m of a Soviet bombardment "and was so peaceful in my heart that I fell asleep." Such tales, however unlikely, have made him a hero to many young Muslims. Bin Laden, says Bergen, "is perhaps better understood as the Pied Piper of jihad; his invitation to holy war resonates among disaffected and underemployed Muslim youths from Algeria to Pakistan to California."
Bin Laden's rich, devout, successful father died in a plane crash when Osama was a child. Subsequently, writes Bergen, the son, perhaps seeking a father substitute, "would be influenced by religiously radical older men." These have included such people as al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian medical doctor thought to be al-Qaeda's Eminence grise; Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Afghan guerrilla commander; and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Afghanistan's radical Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party). Hekmatyar is perhaps the unholiest of them all. Among correspondents who covered the Soviet occupation of his country, this corrupt, Gucci-clad politician was infamous for directing the slaughter of many more fellow guerrillas than Russians. He also tried to keep away from any fighting. Hekmatyar once agreed to rendezvous with me at a Hezb base near Soviet-occupied Kandahar. After driving ahead of me and waiting for no more than a few minutes, he fled back to safety in Pakistan before I had had time to arrive. Bergen reports that Hekmatyar now skulks in exile in Iran. Northern Alliance forces who recall the atrocities he directed against them in Kabul in the 1990s will doubtless want him to stay there.
Bergen, whose TV interview with bin Laden in Afghanistan was the first such encounter broadcast in the West, finished his book's first draft in August. Some passages show signs of having been frantically re-edited to accommodate news of the Sept. 11 atrocities. But his research appears thorough and convincing. For the moment the book seems likely to be the best available study of the terrorist.
Can bin Laden's acolytes achieve their pan-Islamic caliphate? Despite all the blood that's being shed, Bergen thinks not. The fantasy makes powerful propaganda, but, as Bergen writes, their Khalifa has about as much chance of being realized "as the Holy Roman Empire has of suddenly reappearing in Europe." Nevertheless, Pied Pipers can create lasting legends. The danger is that even after bin Laden's death, his histrionics will continue to inflame young Muslims' imaginations.