The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden, and the Future of Terrorism

Simon Reeve
Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999
294 pp., $26.95 hc

Paul Haber
Political Science

The premise of the book is laudable: to report on the status of militant Islam by focusing on two of the most notorious personages and their networks. While the book has its strengths, it will frustrate readers wanting to understand better the roots and machinations of this warfare. The primary reason for this failure is Reeve's excessive attention to extraneous detail, especially in the long sections of the book dedicated to the exploits of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing now serving 250 years in a U.S. maximum security prison, his accomplices, and law enforcement that pursued and eventually judged him guilty in an American courtroom. The fact that so much of the book is taken up with detailing personalities and high intrigue pursuits in a "human interest" writing mode means that the more important subjects of Al-Qaeda and the broader networks of Islamic fundamentalism receive short shrift. If Reeve had reversed his emphasis, this book might have been much more worthy of its purchase price and the time necessary to read and discuss it. As it is, it positions him for guest apperances on jingoistic TV talk shows more than it has value for those students and citizens who know now, if they did not before September 11, that insurgent Islam is something we must learn about if we are to pursue and maintain our identity as informed citizens.

By now, most readers will appreciate that the United States contributed substantially to the formation and arming of the Afghan jihad. Reeve briefly covers this now familiar ground. What is less well-known is how these U.S.-trained and -equipped freedom fighters/terrorists have targeted more than 25 other countries that they perceive as being corrupt or despotic. Case in point: Algeria, where "approximately 900 battle-hardened Afghan verterans...formed the core of Algeria's Muslim extremists, responsible--along with government troops--for horrific massacres" (3). Readers knowledgeable about how larger powers armed lesser powers during the Cold War to fight proxy wars, and then how the lesser powers used these arms for other purposes after the proxy wars were over (including turning the weapons on their own people), will strongly support the hypothesis that there is more continuity than change in the post-Cold War world.

Reeve positions this "new terrorism" against the backdrop of the "old terrorism" of the 1970s and 1980s. This historical terrorism, carried out primarily by a militant left in Europe and South America, had, according to Reeve, at least definable (if unrealistic) goals. This "new breed of terrorist attacking the West has few aims. They just want to kill and punish for what they believe is Western Imperialism and the global oppression of Muslims" (4). If you think that such a contrast needs more elaboration, then we think alike. While Reeve may or may not have the capacity to provide us this kind of contextualization, we do not find out due to the fact that he sets for himself the task of reporting the grisly and spectacular. For example, for reasons that remain elusive to this reader, he finds it necessary for us to know the details of death. The following quote from his long and tedious discussion of the events of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is illustrative:

Small chunks of concrete, moving faster than speeding bullets, ravaged the left side of his face. The blast ripped apart his vertebrae, tore his intestines from the side of his abdomen, and ruptured his arteries, spleen and kidneys. Before Stephen Knapp had time to close his eyelids tiny particles of concrete peppered his eyes, then his body was thrown backwards. (11)

Like the flood of "human interest reporting" that saturated the airwaves following September 11, Reeve is obsessed with the acts of heroism that almost inevitably accompany crises. We are also provided with numerous profiles of law enforcement officers on the scene, in excruciatingly extraneous detail. To mention just one example among many, after telling us what James Fox, the FBI Assistant Director in charge of the New York bureau was having for lunch at the time of the bombing (swordfish and chips, if you must know), we are treated to a portion of his wit: "Some guys get into Foreign Counter-Intelligence and it gets in your blood. It got into mine. Others want to break down doors and put handcuffs on people and get scumbags off the streets" (17).

Reeve's reporting style is far too often obnoxious and boring. One of his most annoying habits is to offer up speculations concerning the motives and feelings of people he does not know, nor does he apparently possess adequate theoretical depth from which to richly imagine. After Yousef left Manhattan and looked back across the river at his handiwork, Reeve treats us with the insight that "Yousef must have felt a stab of disappointment. The towers were still standing" (24).

Individual FBI agents receive high marks from Reeve as he retraces the investigation from New York to Pakistan, drawing connections whenever possible between Yousef the technical mastermind and bin Laden the financier. Since America is apparently in the middle of a love fest with law enforcement, this tone will harmonize well with the dominant chorus in popular culture today. The new jackals do not fare so well. Yousef, for example, is arrogant, with "an ego as vast as his crimes" (50)--an ego that drives him to get caught rather than lie low and escape detection. The interminable accounts of individual terrorist actors are usually replete with negative profiles, including Reeve's inexplicable penchant for ridiculing the physical traits of those involved. Reeve also seeks to undermine both Yousef and bin Laden's fundamentalist credentials by detailing their material excesses and sexual exploits.

The intrigue and linkages are key to this telling of the story. Reeve is keenly interested in weaving stories with all possible connections into a tight fabric of international terrorist network. Thus, he explores the possible--but unproven--connections between Yousef and Timothy McVeigh. This is a book chock-full of circumstantial evidence.

When Reeve is able to pull himself away from the minutiae of intrigue and engages critical questions, he too often fails to deliver. Take, for example, the origins of what we call terrorism, which I will define as targeting civilians in pursuit of political goals. While he suggests from time to time the relationship between exploitation/repression/domination and militancy, his penchant for intrigue means that these linkages do not receive the kind of attention this reader believes they warrant. Reeve could have used the Yousef and bin Laden stories as a gateway for exploring the complex motivations of killing noncombatants in the service of jihad. Instead, he obsesses on detailing the exploits of two men. And, as alluded to above, Reeve even fails the reader on this count. Yousef in particular is treated as a psychopathological playboy and phony (126). The political beliefs of Yousef and his followers, in what I would certainly agree are a perversion of Islam, are for Reeve secondary.

The discussion of bin Laden begins in the Philippines, where we find him interacting with the radical Islamic separatist movement, Abu Sayyaf (Bearer of the Sword). This is of course the location where the Bush Administration is currently sending military advisors while simultaneously suggesting that this may well be the next beachhead in what the Secretary of Defense has referred to recently as a possible forty-year war. As is customary, we learn much more about the sex life of bin Laden and his failed plans to kill President Clinton and the Pope than we do about the origins and complex historical trajectories of Filipino politics and the radical movements it has spawned.

The picture Reeve paints of Osama bin Laden has much in common with that of Yousef. Reeve is at pains to describe them as pitiful physical creatures. Bin Laden is a "tall, lanky man with a high-pitched voice, and a thin, fragile body" (158). He is "the 17th son of one of the Middle East's greatest magnates, Mohammad bin Oud bind Laden, and his 11th wife, a tiny Syrian woman" (ibid). Bin Laden is bossy and arrogant (166). Both men are portrayed as eventually tiring of youthful follies and settling down to the business of mass murder. Unlike Yousef, bin Laden brings to the task considerable wealth, estimated by some to be in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars of personal wealth (162) with the capacity of raising much more from within the Saudi family and elsewhere (164). Reeve provides a rather superficial psychological profile of bin Laden. He is characterized as coming to the conclusion that he could not excel in the family business, being outdone most importantly by an older brother. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he saw his chance to prove himself by bankrolling "Islamic fighters, men who were committed to the course of fundamentalism, but were disempowered by a lack of financial support. ...To the beleaguered Afghan rebels he must have seemed like a holy savior" (163 and 164). Bin Laden is presented as an insecure man for whom the holy war became an antidote to life's existential anxieties.

The sections on Al-Qaeda are the most engrossing of the book. Reeve of course summarizes the now familiar U.S.-bin Laden relationship. Reeve tells us how the break came when, after the U.S. helped expel the Soviet forces, it pressured the mujaheddin to "form a broad coalition government that included General Najibullah (whom the Soviets had originally put in power)" (168). This was totally unacceptable to bin Laden and like-minded others, for it signified to them the immorality of the United States. He returned to the Saudi Kingdom, which he declared upon arrival to be corrupt. "Everywhere he looked he saw apathy, evidence of Western cultural imperialism and moral degradation: women disobeying Islamic law in their dress and Westerners flaunting themselves on the streets and drinking alcohol" (169). The fate of the Saudi regime was sealed for bin Laden and many others when they cooperated with the United States in the Persian Gulf War. Bin Laden was expelled from the country in 1991 and had his citizenship revoked in 1994. He and many others remain incensed that U.S. troops are stationed on Saudi soil. Understanding more profoundly why this is viewed by so many in the Islamic world as an abomination is important. But don't look to this book for that understanding.

It was then that bin Laden revamped the organization now known to us all--Al-Qaeda, the same organization that bin Laden headed up when he was on the U.S.'s good side. Reeve quotes a disgruntled former associate of bin Laden to characterize three types of men involved in this network: "people who had no success in life, and nothing in their heads and wanted to join just to keep from falling on their noses...people who loved their religion but had no idea what their religion really meant, and people with nothing in their heads but to fight and solve all the problems in the world with battles" (174).

"By 1995 the FBI and CIA were convinced bin Laden was heavily involved in terrorism" (184). By early 1996 the CIA had set up a special bin Laden task force in Langley that coordinates efforts by eleven federal agencies that "has mounted the largest, most expensive and most extensive investigation ever into a single individual charged with international terrorism" (185). Reeve details many of bin Laden's exploits in the book's most interesting and least hyperbolic final chapters of the book. The scale of Al-Qaeda operations includes an extensive mix of aborted plans, failed missions and successful operations--including the 1998 attacks on American embassies in east Africa. Reeve details bin Laden's alleged efforts to get portable nuclear devices, biological and chemical weapons, and his links to Saddam Hussein. President Clinton approved an operation to extricate bin Laden in 1998, the same year that bin Laden issued his "declaration of war" that authorized the killing of Americans wherever and whenever possible (194). Clinton launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against bin Laden's base in south-west Afghanistan but the mission failed as bin Laden caught wind of the operation and was hundreds of miles away when the missiles landed.

Perhaps no other section of the book reveals better the lopsided reporting of Reeve than his brief reference to the U.S. bombing of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan where bin Laden had set up shop. Targeting was based on the premise that it was used by Al-Qaeda to manufacture chemical weapons. When it is revealed to be producing medicines for human and veterinary use, all Reeve can muster by way of analysis is "the wisdom of the attacks must be questioned" (202). He essentially views this mistaken target as counterproductive to the war against terrorism. Unlike his moral condemnation and disdain for the taking of innocent life by militant Islam, these bombings receive no such critique. When America kills innocent people, it is a strategic or targeting error. When militant Islam does the same, it is terrorism.

"Communists and Islamic terrorists are both, it seems, highly organized, highly trained, and determined--at any cost--to destroy the Western way of life" (222). Thus begins Reeve's chapter entitled "Militant Islam." While not all sections of the chapter are this banal, Reeve nevertheless fails to provide much here that an avid reader of Time Magazine has not already read and reread. While he does not add much in the way of insightful analysis, he and many others raise issues that are in dire need of serious analysis. One of the most significant is an ongoing effort to coordinate disparate militant groups around message, and if possible, strategy designed to promote their aims of strengthening radical Islamic movements, take down corrupt states and replace them with Islamic states, and defend themselves and retaliate against Western threats. Reeve suggests that the momentum is with these organizations. If true, the implications for global power politics are massive. In 1998, the 18th convention of the Islamic Group of Pakistan was held in Islamabad. It attracted delegates from more than thirty Islamic organizations. The message coming out of the meeting was the necessity of acting effectively in concert against common enemies, in word and deed. This is the coalition of organizational forces whose threat galvanizes the Bush Administration's efforts to build its own coalition against terrorism.

Reeve echoes the concerns of many when he focuses attention on the fragility of Pakistan. The heads of state meeting between the United States and Pakistan in February 2002, wherein Pakistan received generous amounts of financial and moral support, suggests that the Bush administration is equally concerned. Estimates of men under arms in Pakistan who are connected with militant religious schools known as "madrasses" have reached as high as 325,000. Many of these armed men went to defend Afghanistan. Citing the ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, Reeve summarizes the plans of militant Islam, that of bringing down corrupt and thereby weak regimes: Pakistan first, Saudi Arabia second, and then Egypt and Turkey (227-28).

The machinations of what many observers claim to be a perversion of Islamic jihad is undoubtedly cause for concern. Not only are the carriers of this doctrine poised to influence the future of the Middle East and Central Asia, but they also are clearly bent on waging massive attacks on Western targets. As Reeve documents, September 11 was not the first attack. As most of us know, it is unlikely to be the last. Reeve refers to a secret study conducted by the Pentagon entitled "Terror 2000." Perhaps the most unsettling finding is the probability that terrorists will "increasingly turn to weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological agents" (259).

The question the book misses is how to respond to the complexities of this "new terrorism." Not only how to prevent acts of violence against non-combatants by Islamic organizations that Edward Said--no apologist for U.S. foreign policy--has referred to on numerous occasions as criminal acts. But also how to discourage recruitment into these movements. And, perhaps even more importantly, how to lessen the widespread sympathy they produce, the frequency with which many of the world's poor and their advocates can say without irony: I may not agree with their tactics, but I understand their outrage. This consciousness, endemic in many parts of the world, is born from rational resentments in response to the United States and the post-Cold War version of globalized capitalism our foreign policy promotes.

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