The dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden by a team of Navy SEALs has sparked a renewed interest on the man who was the world’s most wanted terrorist and al-Qaida, the global organization he founded decades ago.
There’s been no shortage of books written about al-Qaida over the past decade, but it can be hard to figure out where to start.
Many require advanced knowledge of security policy and the Middle East that most people don’t have. Some were written hastily to cash in after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
We asked four experts for their recommendations: Frank Cilluffo, director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute; Robert Pape, founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism; Yonah Alexander, director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; and John Sawicki, Duquesne University political science professor.
“The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright
Wright’s book covers both the history of al-Qaida, the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and the life of bin Laden starting from his childhood. It also explores the U.S. government’s efforts to hunt bin Laden and combat al-Qaida. Pape calls Wright’s book the “most thorough coverage of the origins of 9/11.” Cilluffo recommends it as the first book to read on the subject.
Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, manages to be both deep and accessible — something that many of the more technical takes on al-Qaida fail to accomplish.
“Not only does [the book] give insight into al-Qaida and bin Laden, but it does so in a way that’s a genuine pleasure to read,” Cilluffo said.
“Holy War, Inc.,” “The Osama bin Laden I Know, ”“The Longest War” by Peter Bergen
Journalist Peter Bergen produced the first televised interview with bin Laden on CNN in 1997 and had been studying him years before Sept. 11, 2001. His expertise and extensive fieldwork make Bergen’s three books required reading according to Alexander.
“He was there. He interviewed bin Laden,” he said. “It gives you a different perspective than writing from Washington. It’s different if you touch the ground in the field.”
Cilluffo particularly recommends “Holy War, Inc.”
“This book, in a way, put bin Laden on the map as an individual,” he said. “It explained what his goals were, his involvement with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, his tactics and what makes him tick.”
“Ghost Wars” by Steve Coll
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll’s book looks at the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan and how that affected the development of al-Qaida.
Sawicki calls the book “a skillful interpolation of the vast sea of political currents in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, from the Soviet invasion to the cusp of 9/11.” And following the killing of bin Laden in suburban Pakistan, Sawicki believes the book adds a lot of relevant “contextual color” to current questions about U.S. relations with Pakistan.
Though far from being narrowly focused on Afghanistan, Sawicki says the book is also a detailed and well-written analysis of al-Qaida’s transformation from a tribal movement into “the networked, diffuse, franchised system of today.”
“Through Our Enemies’ Eyes” by Michael Scheuer
Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer based this book on declassified and publicly available statements and writings by bin Laden and al-Qaida members, among others.
In the book, which was initially published anonymously because of the author’s involvement with the CIA, Scheuer tries to help people better understand the mindset of bin Laden and his organization. Pape called it the “most comprehensive analysis of the speeches, statements and manifestos of Al Qaeda’s senior leaders.”
“The 9/11 Commission Report”
Widely known but not as widely read as many experts would like, “The 9/11 Commission Report” provides the government’s take on the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and recommendations on how to stop another terrorist attack. Sawicki says it is invaluable.
“Perhaps because of its sheer size and the political overtones of the past decade, [the report] has not gotten the attention it deserved,” he said. “The bipartisan study synthesized an amazing amount of testimony and information — mostly for the first time.”