Book review

This book reveals what 9/11 (and after) may have been like from Osama Bin Laden’s point of view

The book details Osama’s cloistered life in Abbotabad, his squabbles with family, his dwindling power over his once subservient outfit, and his assassination.

The invocation of the exceptional is one of the finest ways to attain legitimacy in the sphere of the political. That is basically what Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist of state had to say on the nature of political sovereignty. Leaders like Donald Trump and Recep Erdogan have shown themselves to be masterful manipulators of the real (or imagined) crisis and use it to legitimise their own conservative and reactionary policies.

Similarly, it has been argued that the events of 9/11 gave a real sense of legitimacy to America’s imperialistic tendencies and provided a solid reason for it to re-assert its military and economic power in the world. What is often left unsaid is that before 9/11 Osama bin Laden was just another player among the global Islamist terrorists and only through its exceptional impact was he able to legitimise himself as its sole and sovereign leader.

9/11 was truly an exceptional event, not only because of the scale of violence but also, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says, due to its nature as spectacle. Broadcast almost live into millions of homes across the world, the visuals of the planes crashing into the twin towers have almost been seared into collective memory. The uncanniest thing, however, was that its architect, Osama bin Laden, never actually saw the visuals himself on that fateful day as the authors of The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight write:

“It is very important we are able to watch the news today,” Osama insisted, directing the guard this way and that…But wherever the bodyguard moved the dish the mountains got in the way of the signal…it became obvious to everyone that they were going to have to listen to the radio, while the rest of the world watched.”

Only a crackling old radio brought to him and the rest of the Al Qaeda shura or council the news that his plan had been successful. It was at this moment that he once again asserted his sovereignty over Al Qaeda, legitimising himself and his cause through the terrible destruction he had wreaked on the Americans. In the blink of an eye he had become the sole leader of the global terrorist movement, and also the most wanted man alive.

The Exile, by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, is a book which details the events that followed 9/11 from the perspective of the other side in the conflict. It follows the bin Ladens and the other council members of Al Qaeda as they fled from American vengeance for nearly a decade until Osama was finally tracked down and killed in May, 2011. This is the first time that anyone has described the events that followed 9/11 from the perspective of the members of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The Exile shows Al Qaeda not as a secretive international group comprised of thousands of faceless and brainwashed followers but an organisation composed of a handful of men, many of whom were actually opposed to or in the dark about Osama’s plans for 9/11.

A man in exile

For the first time, a book details his life in hiding, revealing not a baleful spectre but a more banal and mundane image of a man cut off from his followers, managing family squabbles, financial problems, and internal politics, all the while endlessly re-running tapes of the spectacle that he was never able to watch live.

The assassination of Osama Bin Laden has been covered in a range of books and movies, some even written by US Seals with competing claims on having shot him dead in Abbottabad. Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty was based on the hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda, but as Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark write, it was also a kind of propaganda machine for the US government, with all the information and inputs that went into the making of the movie being monitored by the highest government sources.

Their book, on the other hand, seeks to respond to many unanswered questions, such as where Osama had taken refuge with his family, between the period of the attack and his assassination many years later. It was never known for certain the kind of life he led in the wilderness or deep in the mountains of Afghanistan.

What was also hidden from the public was the great game of international politics, involving players like Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which surrounded the hunt for Osama and his followers. This book has made an attempt to track down those obscure years on the run following 9/11, and provides an immense amount of chronologically arranged detail on Osama’s cloistered and claustrophobic life in Abbotabad, his squabbles with his extended family, the deaths of his sons, and the dwindling of his powers over his once subservient organisation.

Digging deep

The book also reveals the extent of torture that many first rung operatives like Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, Ramzi al- Shibh, Abu Zubaydah, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith were subjected to in the infamous “Black Sites” and Guantanamo. The case of Abu Zubaydah, tortured and held without trial in Guantanamo, is a shocking one, which reveals the extent to which America had to compromise on its own liberal and ethical ideals while fighting a war in their very name.

The role of Iran and its General Qassem Soleimani in holding captive most of Al Qaeda’s top leadership as well as the wives and children of Osama is also brought to light here for the first time. These captives became pawns in the internal struggle between Iran’s reformists and hardliners, the latter desiring to use them to extend their influence in the region while the former wanted to hand them over to America to improve relations.

Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark are extremely experienced writers and journalists, with many books on similar topics, like The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 Where the Terror Began on the kidnapping of American tourists in Kashmir and The Siege: the Attack on the Taj which was on the 26/11 attacks. But this book must have taken an immense amount of research, as it covers almost 15 years in the life of practically all of Al Qaeda’s top leadership as well as the extended bin Laden family.

The writers must have gone through treasure troves of secret documents and diaries, conducted many personal interviews with Al Qaeda leaders and members of Osama’s family and even met with high ranking government and military officials from Iran to America. The authors’ signature and speciality have always been the ability to draw a connection between seemingly unrelated individuals and events and the larger international political dealings that they are usually invisibly a part of.

Thus the book manages to take into account events that preceded and succeeded 9/11 to lay out the workings of terrorist networks that ran all the way through West Asia, Afghanistan, Europe and Africa. It also recounts the actions of the Americans, especially the CIA and the FBI, as they hunted the terrorists in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, carrying out mass surveillance and devastating drone strikes which more often than not killed innocents, including children.

Strands of speculative fiction

The book is a massive one, well over 500 pages of research with hundreds of footnotes, references and citations. In spite of this, it reads very well and is written in a lucid, dispassionate journalistic style. The section narrating Osama’s assassination by the crack team of Navy Seals is especially well-written and gripping. However, while the amount of research the authors put into the book cannot be doubted, at some moments much of it seems like fiction, especially when they write about Osama’s feelings when one of his wives left him or his frustration when his lieutenants could not set up the satellite dish to broadcast the attack on the Twin Towers.

Many of these sections seem speculative at best, and it is hard to believe that any amount of research would have been able to stitch together all the facts as cleanly as this book does. The authors are quite definite in their desire to write for a non-academic and popular audience, but to let loose their own speculations on so many instances just negates the quality of their immense research.

In many places the writing seems too hurried and the journalistic style is perhaps not the best choice for a book of this length. Many serious researchers would also not like the way this book chooses to weave a complete and comprehensive narrative of this period of recent history, plugging up all the gaps and holes in a story which by its very nature must remain fragmentary and incomplete. However, its very comprehensiveness would make it extremely popular with an even larger majority who would be happy to learn in the space of a few sittings “what had really happened”. In an age of disinformation and untruth, The Exile is an invaluable document written by the finest investigative journalists of our time, which finally provides some authoritative answers to questions which many governments would prefer remain shrouded in mystery.

The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, Bloomsbury

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