My colleagues Nir Rosen and Peter Bergen — both fellows in foreign policy at the New America Foundation (where I also work) — are leading American interpreters and chroniclers of the world’s two most dangerous and intriguing personalities — Osama bin Laden in Bergen’s case and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Rosen’s.
Peter Bergen’s new book, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History or al Qaeda’s Leader just earned a stunning review as the lead piece in the just issued edition of the New York Review of Books. I highly recommend the entire long piece.
But the opener sets out a path for a quality accounting of bin Laden:
When Osama bin Laden speaks, people listen. They tend, however, to hear different things. Take the coverage of his latest voice-from-the-mountain tape, released in mid-January. The New York Times and The Washington Post both headlined with the words “Bin Laden Warns of Attacks.”
The equivalent two highbrow Arabic-language newspapers, al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, led instead with the news that the al-Qaeda leader had offered a truce.
Neither version was wrong. As all four papers went on to explain, bin Laden had done both things: threatened to strike America again, and proposed a hudna, or cease-fire. Yet the difference in emphasis pointed to the roots of deeper misapprehensions. How, more than four years after September 11, and after so much subsequent bloodshed, can this fugitive terrorist still command the respect and admiration of a good number of his fellow Muslims?
And why, after the mobilization of so many resources, has America’s campaign against him produced such unsatisfactory results?
One simple answer is that neither most Americans nor many Muslims have been listening closely enough. As a result, neither has fully understood the man, his motivations, or his aims.
Whereas bin Laden continues to manipulate and mislead his Muslim audience, America has failed either to undermine him effectively or to speak persuasively to the Muslim public.
When finished with the glimpses of bin Laden’s personality and goals unearthed by Peter Bergen from those who know him, the next vital read for those interested in the personalities of hard core Islamic radicalism need to read the brilliant New York Times Magazine piece, “Iraq’s Jordanian Jihadis“, by Nir Rosen.
Rosen tells the surprising story of how al-Zarqaqi and Jordan have become part of the epicenter of modern Islamic terrorism.
This important article opens:
Jordan has long been thought of as the quiet country of the Middle East. People called it the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom and went there for a rest. King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah II, who assumed the throne in February 1999, were friendly enough with the United States, respectful toward Israel and measured advocates of modernization.
As for the Islamist stirrings that have roiled the region since the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was widely believed that the king’s domestic security service, the Mukhabarat, had infiltrated every group that might think to stir unrest. But in truth Jordan had not been insulated from the radicalism that has engulfed the Mideast in our time: in 1970 and ’71, Jordan’s Palestinians, who then, as now, made up a majority of the country’s population (today, 5.6 million), erupted, and their insurrection was brutally put down.
And in the course of finding ways to sustain its political dominance, the Hashemite monarchy gave the Muslim Brotherhood — the local variant of an Islamist movement that began in Egypt in the 1920’s — control of educational policy, which would hold dark implications.
Now we know that the quiet kingdom was producing the man thought to be spearheading the deadliest aspects of the Iraqi insurgency — and who brought the fight back to Jordan in three hotel bombings last December: Ahmed Fadeel Nazal al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after his hometown of Zarqa, a poor city an hour’s drive north of Amman.
How the quiet kingdom of Jordan could produce a man who has become known as the Sheik of the Slaughterers is a question at the heart of contemporary jihad.
Zarqawi is exceptionally cruel, but he is otherwise not such an exception. Jordan is home to many jihadis, young men from much the same milieu that produced Zarqawi, and especially since the United States invaded Iraq nearly three years ago, Jordan has increasingly become a not-so-quiet place, a place where local Islamists cross easily into Iraq and back, a place where a jihadist underground can seem almost a normal part of a nation’s life.
And if such an underground can become normal in quiet Jordan, what is to keep it from becoming normal in any Muslim country?
Let’s jump out of terror-watch mode for a moment though and consider another interesting race — that for Secretary General of the United Nations.
Interestingly, a name that appears on every serious list as a potential successor to Kofi Annan, whose term ends on December 31st of this year, is Prince Zeid Raed al-Hussein of Jordan.
Richard Holbrooke identifies Prince Zeid as a “dark horse” candidate for the UN Secretary General job, but he has a major ally working quietly (believe it or not) on his behalf: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
Bolton is currently the President of the UN Security Council (during the month of February) and is encouraging earlier deliberation on the potential successor to Annan than is traditional. What is traditional is for a name to come out of nowhere at the end of a complicated, opaque international negotiation and be announced practically at the very last moment.
Sources close to Bolton report that he has been meeting quite a number of the leading candidates for the Secretary General position, interviewing them as it were, and according to one source, the candidate who stands out so far among all others — in Bolton’s mind — is Prince Zeid.
UN Protocol dictates that Asia be the home of the next Secretary General, but Bolton has been arguing that “merit alone” should determine who is hired for the job and who not.
But perhaps Bolton shouldn’t push so hard. Last week, I had dinner with one of Asia’s leading Ambassadors to the U.S. who told me that Asia would consider Prince Zeid as one of theirs. A leading Chinese diplomat told me the same thing.
Given that the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, the Korean Foreign Minister, Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore, and an Indonesian candidate all have their hats in the Secretary General ring, this comment about the Jordanian prince is fascinating.
But geopolitically, the other compelling reason to support Prince Zeid is that he’d be a leading alternative archetype to Jordan’s other well known personality, Zarqawi.
Zeid is a Muslim and descends from the royal line of princes and kings who claim direct descendency from Muhammad.
I agree with John Bolton that merit should dictate who takes the helm as UN Secretary General, but I find myself also agreeing with him that elevating someone like Zeid to the position of Secretary General might send a number of constructive signals to the Muslim world — that they matter and have leaders engaged in constructive stake-holding in the global system.
— Steve Clemons