- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

When Feb. 12 passed without the terrorist attack feared by the FBI, one reading Adam Robinson's "Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of the Terrorist" could easily imagine the "evil one" chuckling in delight.

Mr. Robinson depicts bin Laden as one, who in addition to orchestrating some of the world's deadliest terrorist attacks, loved to bait the West with false alarms. From his days in Sudan, bin Laden would sweep his headquarters for bugs, only to leave them in place, so he could drop tantalizing hints to eavesdropping intelligence operatives. Mr. Robinson writes that he would later do the same with cryptic e-mail messages sent to his al Qaeda colleagues, at least up until the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The assertion of bin Laden, hiding somewhere in a heated cave beneath a remote snow-covered mountain, taking delight at baiting the West, fits so cleanly with his deviant mind that few would question it. One picks up Mr. Robinson's book hoping for insight into the man who has twisted the teachings of a great religion into nothing more than a quest to kill ordinary people. The book promises much, claiming the author had begun his project well before September 11 with extensive interviews with bin Laden's family the equivalent of the Rockefellers of Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, the book contains so many detours and digressions, the author never manages to deliver a compelling portrait of the man behind the mask. Early on, he makes the unpardonable error of placing the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, as the "centerpiece" of the Hajj the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. A patient reader might make allowances. Perhaps the author does know what he's talking about and an editor, under pressure to bring the book to market as quickly as possible, screwed things up. The prose (on pages 22-23 if anyone wishes to check) does get a little fuzzy.

Unfortunately things go downhill in the following 250-plus pages. Apart from the irritating typos, a nuisance in the world of quickie book publishing, the text offers little beyond what is already commonly known about bin Laden. The author suggests that the close relationship between Osama's father, Mohammed bin Laden, and three consecutive Saudi kings Saud, Faisal and Fahd offers insight into Osama's relationship with his own series of terrorist mentors. But the idea just hangs, without really being explored in any depth something a writer with access to bin Laden's family should be able to pull off. Mr. Robinson never manages to take the reader inside the head of bin Laden.

With access to bin Laden's extended family his father had many wives and dozens of children one would likewise hope to get a feel for the sheer horror and shame Osama's siblings now face. How have their lives changed? Have they become more devout Muslims practicing the Islam defined with values such as compassion, mercy and peace? Always generous in giving to the poor, has the family moved to give even more? The reader hasn't a clue.

Mr. Robinson at times hints of a bias against religion itself, claiming that Islam was a drug for the 20-year-old bin Laden, just back in Saudi Arabia after two years of debauchery in Beirut. At the time, he was clearly a confused young man who found solace in a life of faith, nothing sinister about that. Only years later did bin Laden's thoughts turn to terrorism and did his perversion of Islam begin to gel.

The book reads like what is derisively known as a "clip job" something written from a pile of newspaper and magazine articles, today augmented by hours of surfing the web. The absence of footnotes only reinforces this impression. The text lacks any visual expression. What did the desert look, feel and smell like during annual family outings during bin Laden's childhood? What was the inside of Osama's favorite cabaret in Beirut like? Did sweat mingle with clouds of cigarette smoke as the roulette wheel spun to the tune of clanging ice cubes while patrons downed glasses of Johnnie Walker Black? The writing style requires a vivid imagination to keep a reader from falling asleep.

The book ends by letting President Clinton off the hook. He tried his best but was outfoxed by the wily bin Laden, the author asserts. He then goes on to dismiss efforts by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair since September 11 to a secondary role "in the history books of the future," should the civilized world ultimately prevail over Islamic terrorism.

As a final insult, the book's epilogue concludes by saying that only peace between Israel and the Palestinians will cause "the diseased branch of Islamic fanaticism [to] wither and die." While the argument itself holds great weight in both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, it contradicts an underlying theme of the entire book that bin Laden cared little for the Palestinians and adopted their cause only in later life as an excuse to kill people.


Willis Witter is assistant foreign editor of The Washington Times.


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