America's Greatest Enemy: Pious, Brave, Generous, and Intelligent?

By Elliot Engstrom

Osama bin Laden
Michael Scheuer, Oxford University Press, 304 pages


"First we obliterate America," Osama bin Laden told his son Omar in 1996. "By that I don't mean militarily. We can destroy America from within by making it economically weak, until its markets collapse."

Such personal insights into the life and mindset of one of the most wanted men in American history are what make Michael Scheuer's new biography, Osama bin Laden, a must-read for any student of foreign policy. While thousands of books, papers, and treatises have been written about the Middle East, Al Qaeda, and bin Laden, few-if any-authors have both Scheuer's intimate knowledge of bin Laden and his willingness to state the facts exactly as they are.

Scheuer's assessment of the most famous terrorist in America forces the reader to leave behind any preconceived notions about bin Laden, and instead to consider him as he truly is-a human being.

Osama bin Laden forces Americans on all points on the political spectrum to come to terms with some uncomfortable facts. On the pro-war right, Americans must take an honest look at American foreign policy and its past blunders. At the same time, the politically correct left must realize that Osama bin Laden is not merely a rogue extremist among tolerant and peaceful Muslims, but rather is substantially revered and supported in at least some portions of the Middle Eastern Muslim community in what is widely seen as a defensive jihad blessed by God.

As the chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit from 1996-1999, one would expect Scheuer to have a great wealth of knowledge about the man. However, what jumps out to the reader is the author's objectivity. Perhaps this is not so much because objectivity is a rare trait, but rather that it is lost on a modern American foreign policy which, according to Scheuer, sees the world that it wishes to see rather than the world as it is.

"Washington did not chalk off Lord Howe as a fool and a womanizer," he writes. "Eisenhower did not think he could defeat Rommel in North Africa by calling him a criminal." Likewise, Scheuer argues that we should not dismiss Osama bin Laden as a mass-murdering Islamo-Fascist, but rather should consider him as a human being with human motivations in order to bring us closer to understanding how to truly defeat him.

Scheuer specifically states that his goal is not to exalt or praise bin Laden, but rather to give an objective assessment of our enemy in order to better understand and ultimately defeat him. In the fashion of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, the author states that in order to truly defeat an enemy, one must truly know that enemy. However, this objective assessment includes a side of bin Laden not commonly seen in American mass media.

"If I had only ten qualities to enumerate in drafting a thumbnail biographical sketch of [bin Laden]," writes Scheuer," they would be: pious, brave, generous, intelligent, charismatic, patient, visionary, stubborn, egalitarian, and most of all, realistic."

This realistic portrait of bin Laden's life begins in his early years as a privileged Saudi Arabian youth. Before discussing the infamous terrorist that the world now knows, Scheuer shows the reader a bright, motivated, and admired young man who excelled at both manual labor and academic studies.

Scheuer's story reveals that Osama bin Laden did not one day wake up and decide to be an anti-American terrorist, but rather was influenced throughout the course of his youth by key people and experiences which led him towards a realization that the United States was his natural enemy.

However, Scheuer's assessment does not show only the influences in bin Laden's life related to his future anti-American jihad, but also the more personal aspects of his life.

"Anyone writing about Osama notes the close relationship between him and his mother, Allia, as well as Allia's stout defense of her eldest son," writes Scheuer. Among many of the interesting facets of this relationship are the facts that bin Laden's mother came from a largely secular family, "dressed fashionably," and was responsible for exposing bin Laden to the world outside of Saudi Arabia's puritanical form of Islam.

While his mother was a huge influence, the story of bin Laden's father equally exposes a great piece of what made bin Laden the man he is today. Scheuer chronicles bin Laden's work for his father's construction company, and the son's later formation of his own such companies.

Job-site construction experience would prove crucial in bin Laden's later conflicts with the Soviets and Americans. For example, S presents oral Scheuer presents oral ccounts of a determined and brave Osama bin Laden on the Afghan battlefield fighting the Soviets, driving his bulldozer to the front lines to dig new trenches for his mujahedeen.

If there was one aspect to remember from bin Laden's years working for his father, it was his acquisition of a will to both passionately lead while remaining in and among those who followed him, a quality that would serve him well as a key figure in Al Qaeda.

Even when Scheuer leaves bin Laden's young life to discuss the beginning of his militant years, the picture is not the standard view of an extremist Muslim often put forth.

The author illustrates how rather than always being an important figure on the battlefield, one of bin Laden's most significant roles was ferrying money between the elites with whom he had grown up and the Islamic fighters on the ground. Osama bin Laden's privileged youth contrasted with his personal drive to be among the average militant make him a unique character in the Middle Eastern landscape, rather than just one more Islamic fighter bent on destroying the United States.

If the above cited uniqueness of bin Laden was not already enough, Scheuer goes on to show how the Afghan war made him even more of an individual.

Through dozens of first-person accounts and historical recollections, he argues that while bin Laden did not himself have a huge effect on the Afghan war of the 1980s, the war gained for him the respect of Arab mujahedeen fighters and Afghan warriors alike. With such information, the question of why bin Laden chose to lure the United States to Afghanistan in 2001 begins to be answered.

Whereas many cite bin Laden's declaration of war with the United States as itself evidence of how the man hates Americans for what we are, Scheuer makes a compelling case that this declaration as less due to bin Laden's inherent hate for America and more due to his strategic plan for ridding the Middle East of the influence if Israel, corrupt Islamic dictators, and the West.

"No one, whether in the United States, the West, or the Muslim world," writes Scheuer, "can justifiably profess doubt that U.S. policies motivated bin Laden, and have inspired other Muslims to support that struggle by picking up arms, donating funds, or offering prayers."

In short, Scheuer argues that bin Laden came to realize that the oppression of true Muslims that he saw throughout the Middle East was and is only possible due to American support. Therefore, in his mind the jihad that he declared against America is not offensive as is often thought by some due to events like the 9/11 attacks, but defensive due to the fact that the support for operations against Muslims in Muslim lands comes directly from the United States.

Scheuer contends that despite what many argue in the name of political correctness in the United States about Osama bin Laden being a rare and outcast individual, a great many Muslims believe that what he is doing is blessed by God.

In chilling detail, he recounts bin Laden's carefully laid plan to provoke the United States, lure it to Afghanistan, and then bleed out its financial resources. Anyone who has paid attention to the last ten years must painfully admit-he has certainly accomplished this.

Perhaps the most-awaited part of the new biography is Scheuer's assessment of where bin Laden is today and what he is doing. While he does not claim to know where the man is, the author disagrees with many contemporary scholars by stating that he still considers bin Laden to be an influential player who has a continuing significance in power.

In Scheuer's assessment, Al Qaeda not only is alive and well, but also different than any enemy the United States has ever faced. They have the typical steadfast motivations of any such underdog group, are extremely organized and disciplined, and make remarkable use of a key tool: the internet. Online, Al Qaeda can disseminate orders and make both large and small scale plans.

Scheuer's conclusions will likely leave some readers both stunned and fearful at what is to come. However, Scheuer equally explains what the United States must do if it is ever to defeat Osama bin Laden and men like him:

"Live in the world you inhabit," Scheuer writes, quoting Robert E. Lee. "Look upon things as they are. Take them as you find them. Make the best of them...Do not imagine things are going to happen as you wish. Wish them to happen right. Then strive to make them so."

For anyone who wishes to have an objective, realistic view of our world, Michael Scheuer's Osama bin Laden is a crucial book to read and understand. The portrait reveals not only how little most of us know of a man we speak about a great deal, but also the amount of misinformation which has been fed to the American public about him.


Elliot Engstrom is a member of the University of Georgia School of Law Class of 2013. He recently graduated from Wake Forest University, where he majored in French with minors in history and journalism.