Osama bin Laden & Al-Qaeda

This week's big news is, of course, Osama bin Laden's death. But we'll be living with the aftereffects of his crimes for a long time.  So it might be worth your time to learn a bit more about him and al-Qaeda.  One of the most fascinating books I've read on the subject (although it covers a lot more than Osama and terrorism) is The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the Twentieth Century by Steve Coll. It's a fascinating account of the intersection of religion, power and money in Saudi Arabia, a portrait of a family of international jet-setters, and the story of how a young Osama found mentors in Islamist teachers and scholars after his father's death, putting him on a path that involved a complete break with his family and culminating in 9-11. For an absolute page-turner, pick up Growing up Bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World. Najwa (bin Laden's first wife) recalls what it was like to live in almost complete isolation at her husband's orders, often giving birth in primitive conditions (she had 11 children in all). Osama's son Omar recalls a strict father who did not allow him toys and denied him water on desert hikes. According to many readers, the best part of the book is Omar's account of how he gradually began to comprehend what his father was actually doing and how he came to completely break away from Osama and the world of al-Qaeda. If your interest is less in bin Laden and more in the terrorist network he led (and that is still out there), you might consider starting with The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9-11. New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright traces the movement from its ideological origins in the early 1950s up through the September 11 terrorist attacks. One of the more compelling and disturbing aspects of the book is Wright's close examination of how al-Qaeda's terrorist operations are actually planned and carried out, usually leaving so many clues that it's hard to believe 9-11 couldn't have been prevented. For a more general look at the cultural and economic realities that produce al-Qaeda members, look no further than The Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy. An Arabic speaker of Lebanese origin, author Fawaz Gerges explores the perceptions held by many young Muslim men and the motivations that lead many of them to become jihadists. It's a vivid, powerful and disheartening book.

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