This is a longer version of a book review I posted at Amazon.com. What I'm posting here is not so much a review as a summary--for those who don't want to bother reading the book!--of the story told by Bodansky, in which bin Laden is portrayed as an implacable foe of the U.S., but not demonized as he has been elsewhere.

At least that's how I read it. Some reader-reviewers at Amazon.com read the same book and said it had convinced them bin Laden's a monster. Go figure.


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I bought this 1999 book because I was intrigued by author Yossef Bodansky's more recent appearances on MSNBC. I found it fascinating. Its central theme is the author's insistence that sponsoring states, especially Iran, are behind all the Islamist terrorism of recent years.

I don't have the expertise to judge Bodansky's claims. But I find it interesting that for him, the true villains seem to be unscrupulous government officials. Bin Laden comes off well.

I recall things I've read elsewhere. A Newsweek article claimed that bin Laden became a terrorist because he'd been thwarted in his hope of overthrowing the Muslim government of his native Saudi Arabia--which he'd wanted to do for personal political reasons. An editorial in my newspaper said he was disgruntled when he ceased being lionized as a war hero after the end of the Afghan struggle against the Soviets, and was willing to seize any pretext to keep himself in the limelight.

Bodansky tells a different story. He explains the background of the Islamist movement. Then he mentions specific things that happened when bin Laden was in his teens, which contributed to turning Saudi youth against Westernization. He also reports an atrocity of that earlier Afghan war, for which bin Laden wrongly believed the U.S. was responsible.

He goes on to say that after the war, bin Laden seemed ready to settle down. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait changed everything. Bin Laden, with genuine war-hero credentials, tried to persuade his government to let him put together a multinational Muslim force to defend the country and liberate Kuwait. They turned him down. (One wonders how different history might have been if they'd let him try.)

Bodansky says bin Laden was far from alone in opposing the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. He was actually a moderate among Saudi Islamists. But the government didn't appreciate his moderate stance, and tried to muzzle him. When it became clear the Americans would be there for the long haul, he had to leave, to protect his extended family from threatened economic reprisals.

Bodansky says he apparently didn't go to Sudan to become an agitator. Once again, he was ready to settle down. The Sudanese government recruited him for the international terrorist movement--initially, because of his expertise at setting up financial networks. Within the movement, he became a loyal team player who rose through the ranks. There's no indication he's ever been power-hungry.

Bodansky discusses an alleged deal between the Clinton Administration and Islamists circa 1997. There have been charges that his claims were politically motivated. But critics have overlooked his statement that the same CIA agent approached Egyptian Islamist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (now bin Laden's chief deputy) a decade earlier, when Republicans were in power. Zawahiri supposedly broke off that contact because he thought he was being asked for $50 million. The second time around, the spook made clear he was offering that sum. But Bodansky doesn't claim any money changed hands. If his story is true, it's possible the whole thing was CIA skullduggery.

His point, however, is that the Islamists believed they had a deal and were betrayed. They promised not to do certain things in the Balkans; their agents didn't do those things, and the U.S. had them arrested anyway.

Supposedly, the deal had also included a U.S. promise to ignore Islamist activities in Egypt in return for their showing restraint in the Balkans. Bodansky claims a terrorist attack in Luxor, Egypt--which could easily have killed American tourists, but didn't--was carried out to test the U.S. response. President Clinton didn't say much about it, possibly because he was preoccupied with Iraq. So the Islamists concluded the deal really had been authorized by his Administration.

Bodansky says they made another deal with the Saudis in July 1998, whereby no action would be taken against bin Laden in Afghanistan, nor would there be calls for his extradition, as long as he refrained from ordering terrorist strikes in Saudi Arabia. That was apparently the only condition. But there may also have been an implied promise that he wouldn't embarrass his enemies by claiming credit for strikes in other regions--which he never did while he was being protected by the Taliban.

The Saudis led the Islamists to believe the U.S. was a party to this arrangement. The Saudi government didn't want bin Laden harmed, because it feared the reaction of domestic militants. It seemed plausible that the U.S. was eager enough for good relations with Saudi Arabia to go along with that. So the Clinton Administration's bombing of Afghan bases that August was perceived as another betrayal, even though it followed al-Qaida's attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa.

If Bodansky has his facts right, his criticism of that U.S. bombing seems justified. If a rumored "terrorist summit" had been scheduled, the U.S. should have anticipated that all the talk would have resulted in its being called off. The inadvertent bombing of mosques was a p.r. disaster. And there was no near miss of bin Laden; he was 300 miles away.

Writing in 1999, Bodansky actually mentions a three-nation terror "axis"! His axis--more plausible than President Bush's, in the sense of an actual connection among all the countries--consists of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. He claims Iran and Syria are the two main terrorist-sponsoring states, and they don't want minor player Iraq to be taken over by a pro-Western regime because it's the land route between them. (Hmm.)

A final thought. I sense that on some level, Bodansky admires bin Laden. But still, when an MSNBC interviewer asked him about the likelihood of the Americans' capturing the al-Qaida leader, his reply was something like this: "They shouldn't be thinking about capturing him. They need to kill him."