Sunday, 8 December 2013

Book Review: The Age Of Sacred Terror, by Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon (2002)

Published just one year after the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001, The Age Of Sacred Terror remains one of the most thorough and thoughtful examinations of the origins and causes of Islamic extremism.

Authors Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon were senior members of the National Security Council, a vantage point that allowed them to witness the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked international terrorism throughout the 1990s. The authors were among the few who saw the rising threat and attempted to raise the alarm both inside and outside government, and were already preparing a book on the subject prior to the September 11 attacks, but a country preoccupied by the Bill Clinton- Monica Lewinsky sex-in-the-White-House scandal was not ready to heed the warnings.

Key terrorism milestones include the 1990 murder of Meir Kahane in New York City, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 coordinated attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

In between there were also several thwarted attacks that rang loud alarm bells, including the 1993 plot to bomb several New York targets, including the FBI and UN buildings, the 1995 Bojinka plot to simultaneously destroy as many as 12 airliners en-route to the United States, and the 1999 millennium conspiracies to bomb the Radisson Hotel in Jordan and Los Angeles International Airport.

Combined with Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden issuing open letters declaring war on the United States, the dots were there, prominently displayed and waiting to be connected. Benjamin and Simon go about their task of peeling back the dense layers of conspiracy with patience and evidence, drawing the lines between the conspirators, tracing back to often similar sources of funding and inspiration. The threats were getting louder, the attacks more brazen, better coordinated and better financed, and the jihadist calls for mass civilian casualties were explicit.

For those paying attention, the 1998 embassy attacks in Africa were a qualitative turning point, the final proof that Al-Qaeda had the wherewithal, resources, savagery and logistics to mount coordinated mass-casualty attacks on US targets in two countries at once, with no qualms about taking the lives of innocent Muslims in pursuit of their twisted agenda.

The best sections of the book delve deep into the psyche and origins of Islamic extremism, all the way back to the teachings of ibn Taymiyya in the 13th century, one of the first Muslim scholars to openly question the direction that Islam was heading in, and calling for a violent form of Jihad to counter oppressors.

From there the book follows the thread of various extremist leaders and their agendas across the generations, to the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood early in the 20th Century, and finally men like Bin Laden with the resources to take the battle to new level of barbarism. The book does a masterful job of compressing history and conveying the sense of a battle across centuries, where today's terrorists harken back to perceived injustices from hundreds of years ago as if they occurred yesterday.

The Age Of Sacred Terror also includes a full and often painful review of the state of readiness of each law enforcement agency in the United States in the years leading up to 2001. The FBI comes in for some scathing criticism for an uncooperative and head-in-the-sand stance, missing clues and refusing to follow-up when some alarms went off that Bin Laden-linked operatives were already in the United States and receiving flight training.

But no government agency escapes some level of accountability, and although President Clinton receives credit for understanding the threat and trying to increase the state of readiness, his personal failings certainly got in the way of the country being able to focus on more important matters. The incoming Bush administration had other priorities, and failed to comprehend the magnitude of the threat until it was too late.

The book falters towards its end, a review of other forms of terrorism appearing to be rushed, and some long chapters about how the Unites States can counter the terrorist threat containing at least as many half-baked ideas as good ones.

These are minor faults. The Age Of Sacred Terror is a well-written and well-researched book about one of the most important challenges of the early part of the 21st century, written by insiders who saw the writing as it was appearing on the wall.

Published in hard cover by Random House.
446 pages plus Glossary, Notes, and Index.

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