- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Great powers often attract peculiar enemies. Or so a thoughtful Briton a century ago might have observed as a self-anointed mahdi (messiah) was running amok in the Sudan butchering, among others, an imperial favorite, Gen. Charles George Gordon of Khartoum.
That mahdi has long vanished, but the Sudan is still one heck of a place which the British wisely withdrew from in 1956. Now it's America's turn. In recent years, meaning since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its clients, the United States has earned the wrath of yet another quack miracle man, Osama bin Laden. For the record, bin Laden does not claim to be the mahdi, but only a new caliph of Islam, the Commander of the Faithful, dedicated to destroying God's enemies, namely us.
That and a good deal else can be found out about him and his organization, al Qaeda in Rohan Gunaratna's new book, "Inside Al Qaeda." It is not light reading and the author, who is from Sri Lanka, a nation long plagued by terrorism, supplies no journalistic touches to his story. Just as well. The American public does not need to be entertained about al Qaeda or its leader. It does need to know the nature and extent of the threat and perhaps a few hints about the organization's vulnerabilities. This Mr. Gunaratna delivers in less than 250 pages of densely written fact and interpretation.
There is a long chapter on bin Laden himself a man with a curious background. His father was Yemeni, his mother Syrian. Bin Laden was raised in Saudi Arabia and grew up rich thanks to a father who went into construction, and more importantly had close ties with then cash-soaked Saudi royal family. Bin Laden is not well-educated, has no degree, and never studied engineering. He has resided in Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan though his current whereabouts are famously unknown.
The author spends time on how bin Laden transformed himself from a fighter against Soviet imperialism to America-hater. In this he is a visceral descendent of the likes of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, whose bones have since returned to Cuba. On bin Laden's hate list, however, one can throw in Israel, other "Crusader" Western states, and India as well, that is, anyone or anything that stands in bin Laden's way in fulfilling his ultimate ambition uniting Islam under his leadership.
Bin Laden has reached beyond his Arab base and has sought to lead Muslims from Morocco to the Moluccas, Sunni and Shi'ite alike in a counter-crusade against the West. A tall order to be sure and even at the height of his prestige in the early days after September 11.
Out of the present hurly-burly one thing is clear. The nation-state has failed throughout the Third World much of that world being Muslim. For those who thought it could not get worse when the region was seized with Soviet-inspired, if not directed, "socialism," well, guess again.
But that's a side issue. What concerns most Americans is al Qaeda's threat to them. Can another September 11 happen again? Mr. Gunaratna is an expert on al Qaeda, but gives us no assurance on this point. He does suggest that part of al Qaeda's lethality is that it isn't just like other terrorist groups, then and now. That presents law enforcement with a unique challenge. On this point he is quite convincing whether the subject is ideology, organization or finance.
The author also shows how wide al Qaeda's network is even though it was cobbled together in a few years under our very noses. Mr. Gunaratna is particularly good at showing how al Qaeda has taken over other organizations or established affiliations with like-minded groups. He also shows how and why our defenses have proven so inadequate Europe's by contrast have been even more laughable. Nor will the fixes be quick in coming.
This may not change dramatically, we are told, if bin Laden is already dead or incapacitated. Yet his replacement will be vital for al Qaeda in a world where the leader's charisma for once the proper word is primary and everything and everyone else is decidedly secondary. As for what great powers do with these unwelcome enemies the watchwords are patience, persistence, and above all, never forgetting, never forgiving. After all, it took Her Majesty's forces 13 years to arrive at Omdurman in payback for Gordon.

Roger Fontaine is a writer in Washington. He served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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