Book review: Making money off Usama

March 20, 2004

Title: Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of the Terrorist
Author: Adam Robinson
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing
Year of copyright: 2001
ISBN 1-84018-597-X
Review copy: Paperback
Price: £7.99 (US hardcover published by Arcade Publishing - $US23.95)
Pages: 288
No index, glossary or bibliography

Usama bin Ladin (yeah, that's the right spelling) is today the most widely known man in the United States - and possibly around the world. The American media has seen to that. Given this, it was only a matter of time before some author or the other sought to capitalise on his notoriety and pump out a biography. Writing, after all, they say, ends up like prostitution - you do it for the money.

In the British edition of this book, one, surprisingly, finds no details about the author's background. The same world which knows about bin Ladin is also expected to recognise the name Adam Robinson. The company which has published the book in the US provides brief details about the author on its website - he is, it says, a writer and journalist who has worked in the Middle East for 10 years and began researching the biography nearly a year before the World Trade Center was attacked. He is also said to live permanently in the Persian Gulf region.

The book is a slash and burn job. Robinson claims that he has had contact with the bin Ladin family and that numerous contacts have provided material for the book; given these kind of claims, the book has a surprisingly third-hand feel about it. Some of the publicity for the book claims that he visited Saudi Arabia; others do not make this clear. He is said to have visited Beirut where the young bin Ladin did the latter part of his schooling. I find it difficult to believe that the book was planned so long back. Surely if this project had been in the works as long as the author claims - for over a year before September 11 - then there would have been more of a ring of authenticity in the writing.

Most of the material has come from newspapers and TV; the extent of research is thus restricted. There are Westerners such as Robert Fisk of The Independent, a London-based quality broadsheet, who have interviewed bin Ladin; Robinson did not speak to people such as these. All of which leads one to theorise that this book could well have been written in the Persian Gulf with the aid of an average clippings service and a TV tape archive. Most of the quotes are from clippings and old TV interviews.

Given this paucity of actual material about bin Ladin, the author is forced to fill in the pages (288 of them and pretty small print too) with ancillary details - the history of Saudi Arabia, a little bit about the history of the town in Yemen from where bin Ladin's grandfather came, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a few, rather stererotyped ideas about life in the Middle East. Nothing illustrates his ignorance better than the use of the stereotyped translation of jihad as holy war. In Arabic, the word jihad means struggle. Period.

According to Robinson, bin Ladin was not close to his father because his mother came from Syria and was not able to adapt to the cloistered life in Saudi Arabia; the boy was thus marginalised. He went to Beirut to complete his schooling and became a drunkard and womaniser; flipped the other way when he returned to Saudi Arabia; fought with the Afghan resistance and became a hero, and later, when his offer to help fight against Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait was ignored, turned against the Saudi royal family and took up a campaign against the US presence in the Saudi kingdom. The author traces the genesis of the Al Qaeda movement and follows bin Laden as he moved to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan.

The tone of the book is pro-Western apart from a slightly pro-Palestinian tilt. The author's knowledge of the Middle East is superficial at best and is exposed at the end when he theorises about the one man whom he feels could end the phenomenon of terror - Ariel Sharon. Robinson feels that if the US were to apply pressure on Israel and Sharon were to settle with the Palestinians, then there would be no reason for a terror network such as Al Qaeda to exist. Yeah, and tomorrow I can buy a goose that lays golden eggs as well.

The book is badly proofed - words are missing here and there. Names are left out when Robinson is unaware and he labours under twin misconceptions: that bin Laden and his cronies made extensive use of encrypted email and steganography (hiding a coded message within a picture or music file by making numerous small changes to data - Robinson calls it stenography, unaware that a stenographer is a person who takes dictation and then types letters). The FBI held a press conference two weeks after the bombings, specifically to point out that the plotters had used ordinary unencrypted email and that steganography had never been used. Over two million images were analysed by the Centre for Information Technology Intergration and no evidence was found of the use of steganography. This illustrates the level of 'research' which has gone into this book.

Possibly, I should have been forewarned by a couple of things and saved my money. One was the presence of quotes from Bush and Blair on the jacket - and surely not authorised ones. Both appeal to the jingoistic minded in the West. The other is the fact that the same publishing company put out a book titled Jihad in the first half of 2002 by a supposed SAS man named Tom Carew; the BBC put this claim in doubt in November 2002.

Books sell because of many reasons - there are well-written ones which could even be by unknown authors; there are crappy efforts by big names. This book seeks to capitalise on the name bin Ladin and make a profit off the man whom the West calls the CEO of terrorism. I am reminded of many American authors who tried a similar approach following the invasion of Kuwait. My advice: save your money until a person who knows the Middle East writes an authentic account.