Rather Be


The Making of a Terrorist

By: Jonathan Randel

Jonathan Randal was born in New York and educated at Exeter and Harvard. He worked for Time, The New York Times, and Washington Post as a war correspondent. His other books include The Tragedy of Lebanon and After Such Knowledge.

Osama: The Most Infamous Terrorist

By: Daniel Jin

With the recent increase in acts of terrorism worldwide, the media have been portraying people of Middle Eastern descent as terrorists; in reality, they “want to live” and “are not fighting to die.”1 Jonathan Randal, the author of Osama: The Making of a Terrorist, not only gave an in-depth account of Osama bin Laden’s actions, he also wrote of the history of Islamic terrorism and the United States’ response. Through many shifts in ideology, Osama shifts from a secluded son of a self-made millionaire, to become the most renowned terrorist of the 21st century and founder of the biggest global terror organization of his time. Through the bias inserted into his book, Randal asserts that the rise of Osama is directly related to the United States’ initial lack of action and retaliation. The era of Osama Bin Laden marked a new age in global conflict: a War on Terrorism.

The story of Osama begins with a series of foreshadowing: a résumé of Osama’s deadliest attacks, including his infamous September 11th suicide bombing of the Twin Towers. The attack on the Twin Towers was the result of years of planning and a “nineteen-man suicide squad” composed of “four hijacking teams.”2 It is said that the objective of modern day terrorism is to “inflict maximum casualties with maximum publicity” and Osama had “succeeded beyond his wildest dreams” in those terms.3 This attack was the costliest attack ever accomplished by Osama, costing more money than Al-Qaeda had spent blowing up American embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the terror bombings in the metros of Paris in 1995 combined. Previous to these bombings, Al-Qaeda had evolved into a feeder organization for the Taliban, supporting it with radicals willing to become martyrs. Eventually, Al-Qaeda would emerge to surpass the Taliban in size and strength. Osama, through luck and charm, slowly rose through the ranks of the Taliban while bolstering the credibility of his own organization—Al-Qaeda, which means “the base” in Arabic. Al-Qaeda sheltered and trained young men and women from all over the world who fostered radical jihad ideals. Using Afghanistan as a safe haven, Al-Qaeda taught and armed its pupils with knowledge, money, and the weapons to perform acts of terror.

For years, crude oil was cheap, but as a result of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, crude oil prices more than quadrupled. At long last, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) used its “oil weapon” “against Western nations and consumers.”4 Saudi Arabia suddenly became the world’s largest oil exporter and its economy upsurged. With its economy boom, came the opportunity for businesses to excel, like the masonry business of Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden. As an illiterate but brilliant immigrant from Hadhramaut, Yemen, he slowly advanced up the economic food chain. Mohammed began exercising his talents as a bricklayer, which quickly turned into being a general handyman for various palaces. Eventually, he started his construction company in the early 1930s. By fostering trust and utilizing connections made from his days as a handyman for palaces, Mohammed’s construction company was given numerous contracts. As a successful businessman, Mohammed was able to care for over 20 women, many of whom he was not married to, and fostered 54 children. It was to one of these women, a woman named Alia, that Osama Bin Laden was born. Osama was known to be the “family black sheep.”5 While many of his siblings were off in Western countries getting educated or working in the Saudi Bin Ladin Group (his father’s ever-booming construction business), Osama preferred to stay within his Islamic world. Many of his peers and siblings described him as a strict and humble Muslim man who “did not flaunt his wealth or hang around with the children of other rich families.”6 Yet despite his outwardly proper character, he and many of the Saudi elite shared a “subversive secret: the Muslim Brotherhood.”7 The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt as an underground organization devoted to restoring the golden age of Islam and establishing an Islamic caliphate state. The Brotherhood was often seen as an incubator for much of the later ensuing radical Islamic action that would occur. Many members of the Brotherhood became teachers, and in such a fashion, exercised enormous influence on impressionable young Saudis such as Osama. During his college years, Osama spent increasing amounts of time working on construction contracts for his family company. What attracted Osama was the Brotherhood’s campaign of terror in Syria against the Alawite regime that nearly succeeded. This would be the spark that ignites the flame. With the full blessing of the Al-Saud, the royal family in Saudi Arabia, Osama turned his full attention to the war in Afghanistan.

Osama initially spent most of his time fund-raising and even persuaded his family’s construction business to send supplies and heavy equipment to aid Afghanistan. He was also remembered for visiting the wounded and acts of battlefield heroism. Osama’s turning point came during the battle at Jaji, where he was praised for helping win a significant moral victory against the Soviet Union. Shortly after this victory, Osama founded Al-Qaeda, which would become the biggest terror organization of his time. The significant difference which contributed to Al-Qaeda’s huge influx of new members was diversity. From the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood had a tradition of recruiting only among the elite while the Jihad attracted Muslims of all different socioeconomic statuses. Al-Qaeda accepted and trained any race and status of people, with its inner core consisting of Egyptians and various other ethnicities. Osama’s ideology was to “recruit everyone, seasonal dropouts, yesterday’s drunk, last year’s adulterer…”8 Inclusiveness, coupled with abundant money led to the rise of Al-Qaeda as the dominant jihad organization. Osama’s actions would lead to his Saudi citizenship being removed and his Saudi assets frozen, effectively rendering himself an exile. His first land of refuge was Sudan, which experienced a coup in 1989. Eventually, America’s first retaliation would be to work with the Sudanese government and force Osama out of Sudan. In the years to come, many people, including Randal, believed that had Osama stayed in Sudan, it would have been much easier to capture and kill him.

No sooner was he comfortably back in the safety of his old Afghan “stomping grounds, beyond easy reach… of the United States,” the United States caught a lucky break.9 From then on, many Al-Qaeda agents and high ranking officials within the organization would be captured and they would, piece by piece, go on to reveal everything about Al-Qaeda and Osama’s operations. During the early 1990s and 2000s, Osama’s finances puzzled American officials. American officials admitted that “where Osama [kept] his money, how he [moved] his funds around, what their origin is, who he [paid]—all that [remained] murky.”10 Al-Qaeda also caught a lucky break in the case of its planner, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (or KSM as he was referred to by American counterterrorism officials). KSM was a master of disguise and master planner with all his operations being “years in the planning.”11 Only months after September 11th did American Intelligence realize KSM was at the very center of the attacks against New York and Washington, along with those against the East African embassies and many more. For years, KSM had been instrumental in the planning of acts of terrorism for Al-Qaeda, but in spring of 2003, his luck finally ran out and American and Pakistani agents caught up to him. Osama’s luck would soon run out too. On May 11, 2011, the press released that Osama was killed in a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Prior to this event, letters between him and other militants reveal discontent at their actions. Osama urged his fellow jihadists to “look out for opportunities to assassinate President Obama.”12 He went on to write that Biden should not be touched because he was incompetent and would only help lead America into a crisis.

In this book, Jonathan Randal paints the idea that the United States and Saudi Arabia’s initial neglect were in a sense responsible for the rise of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Not only does Randal shift the blame towards the United States, he specifically targets policy moves made by the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. He argues that had Osama remained in Sudan in 1996, the capture or death of Osama would have been much swifter. Randal also points out that the cruise missiles Clinton ordered against terrorist training camps in Sudan were ordered with limited intelligence and turned out to be a disaster. These missiles “proved to be embarrassments for the administration.”13 Not only was Osama not in the training camps at that time, the missiles proved to any doubtful Muslims that Allah had “intervened” to save Osama’s life and that the United States was “prone to overkill” civilians.14 This action had many unforeseen consequences and convinced many questioning Muslims to join the Jihad. Randal portrays the rise and continued successes of Osama Bin Laden as the fault of the United States and its lack of action towards him.

Jonathan Randal started off his professional life serving in the United States army as a private, but was first and foremost a foreign correspondent for numerous publications including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time. As a war correspondent, he covered areas including the Congo, Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Bosnia, and countless other combat zones. Randal was called to testify for the International Criminal Tribunal in 2002 and set a precedent of limited immunity from involuntary testimony for war correspondents. As a war correspondent that covered multitudes of combat zones, Randal tends to possess a very analytical, knowledgeable point of view from his countless years of experience in the field and writing about global events. Having been born in Buffalo, New York, educated at Harvard University, and having spent years abroad in France, as well as having settled in France does hint that Randal has a certain level of partiality towards the Western world; however, this book suggests otherwise. Randal wrote scathing criticisms towards certain United States presidents’ administrations and was more critical of the Western powers’ actions than that of the Middle Eastern powers’. In 2004, when Randal wrote this book, the hunt for Osama was still going strong and the Iraq war had just started. In 2003, the United States followed suit in the United Nations invasion of Afghanistan. In essence, the war in the Middle East was in full effect. In a time when Osama hadn’t been caught, there must have been a scapegoat or an answer as to why Osama was able evaded capture all this time. The only logical person or organization to blame was the administration of previous presidents and their unwillingness to act against Osama earlier. In the case of the Clinton Administration, the cruise missiles directed at the Afghan training camps only served to heighten “Osama’s reputation [beyond] mythic proportions.15 During a tense situation like the hunt of Osama, there is always plenty of blame to go around and logically the government receives most of it.

Osama: The Making of a Terrorist is not just a biography of Osama Bin Laden. It also presents “a history of the contemporary jihadi movement” from its emergence in the 1980s to the Iraq war, according to Michiko Kakutani, a writer for The New York Times and critic of Randal’s book.16 Kakutani gives Randal flak for criticizing the Bush and Clinton administrations too harshly and not blaming other governments or organizations that could have prevented the rise and reign of Osama like the United Nations and its subsidiaries. Kakutani is not the only person to think this way; Robert D. Kaplan, a writer for The Washington Post, comments that Randal cites “the same old, tired criticisms of American policy” without regard or sympathy for the realities in America.17 With these criticisms in mind, Kaplan still agrees that Randal’s book is a “worthwhile venture” consistent of asides from a life of reporting in the Middle East. Overall, critics mostly agree with Randal’s rendition of occurrences during Osama’s life and their causes and effects.

The claims made by Randal in Osama: The Making of a Terrorist are thoroughly supported by evidence that vindicates the author’s points. He utilizes a balance of the right amount of evidence along with historical and personal anecdotes to allow for a semi-pedestrian diction that allows for both the common person and professional to grasp. Furthermore, Randal includes multiple sides to the same event in order to enhance his credibility; for example, after the cruise missile crisis with the Clinton administration, he narrates the story through both the United States government’s point of view and the Sudanese government’s point of view. Randal states that “Washington was bogged down trying to sell the botched… attack to querulous Americans” while Sudan was requesting that United Nations or the United States launch an investigation into the missile attack.18 As a result, Randal’s well managed balance and multiple points of view allow the reader to fully comprehend the story of the rise and reign of Osama Bin Laden.

Randal’s book addresses the change in foreign policy regarding terrorism in the United States with the rise and reign of Osama Bin Laden. Initially, during Osama’s stint in Afghanistan and when he witnessed the near-success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the United States seemingly disregarded the events and occurrences in the Middle East unless these events pertained to the United States’ War on Communism. With the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, more foreign policies were passed and a War on Terrorism began. Economically, Saudi Arabia and the United States were allies and the oil crisis in the Middle East towards the close of the 20th century led lawmakers to pass policies that protected America’s oil interests in the Middle East. As acts of terrorism began rocking the American peoples’ worlds, from a “U.S. embassy in Kenya [being] ripped apart” to the Twin Towers bombing of September 11th, public outrage against terrorism in the United States increased.19 As the public’s fear of terrorism grew, the United States government was able to utilize that fear and pass increasingly invasive legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act which included, among other things, enhanced surveillance, anti-money laundering constraints, and much more intensive border security. The September 11th attack on the Twin Towers served as a tipping point and accelerated the approval of these legislations. In a sense, the fear of terrorism may have over exerted the attention of the American Armed Forces. For example, the Iraq War has long been a reason many used to explain why Osama was able to evade capture for so long. The American military was too spread out and their attention diverted to too many different places in order to effectively accomplish the goal of ousting Osama Bin Laden. Osama: The Making of a Terrorist accurately reflects and addresses the social, political, and economic changes that have come to America as a result of the rising fears on terrorism.

Osama Bin Laden is a name that has often been thrown around in association with terrorism, however many don’t realize his true story and how modern day radical Islam and Jihad came to be. Randal’s ability to write about Osama’s life and tie it to modern day events backed with multiple perspectives allows for a thorough understanding of Osama’s era. Ultimately, Osama’s era came to a deadly conclusion due to the resilient and perseverant efforts of Western powers and Western sympathizers.

[1] Randal, Jonathan. Osama: The Making of a Terrorist. Random House, Inc, 2004. 81.
[2] Randal, Jonathan. 10.
[3] Randal, Jonathan. 10.
[4] Randal, Jonathan. 47.
[5] Randal, Jonathan. 58.
[6] Randal, Jonathan. 60.
[7] Randal, Jonathan. 61.
[8] Randal, Jonathan. 91.
[9] Randal, Jonathan. 126.
[10] Randal, Jonathan. 201.
[11] Randal, Jonathan. 266.
[12] Adams, Paul. Osama Bin Laden documents released. Washington DC: BBC, 2012.
[13] Randal, Jonathan. 133.
[14] Randal, Jonathan. 45.
[15] Randal, Jonathan. 144.
[16] Kakutani, Michiko. BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Portraying America As Midwife to Terror. The New York Times, 2004.
[17] Kaplan, Robert. Going to Extremes. The Washington Post, 2004.
[18] Randal, Jonathan. 141.
[19] Randal, Jonathan. 133.