Osama bin Laden, By Michael Scheuer

How the West got Bin Laden all wrong

This book about Osama bin Laden is dedicated, among others, to the "US Marine Corps and the CIA, the Republic's first and best defenders".

One could argue that the reason the US Marine Corps is fighting, and suffering casualties, in Afghanistan, as it had done until recently in Iraq, is the result of the past actions of the CIA, the organisation where Michael Scheuer was a senior official.

Scheuer's defence would be that he was personally not guilty on the issue of Iraq and, indeed, had commented on the damage done by the invasion. In any event, his expertise – as the chief of the unit hunting the founder of al-Qa'ida between 1996 and 1999 – lay in the pursuit of Bin Laden. His thesis is that America and the West have got Osama totally wrong by presenting him and his followers as swivel eyed fanatics, fixated on waging a homicidal jihad against apostates.

Much of this misrepresentation, he says, derives from the US and its allies buying in to propaganda from the Saudi regime. This version from Riyadh has a young Osama straying from a devout and benign Saudi path to one of violence after being seduced by other non-Saudi Arabs, in particular Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian cleric who is now al-Qa'ida's No 2.

The reality, says Scheuer, is that Bin Laden was the product of Saudi Arabia's intolerant and aggressive Wahhabi culture, which grooms angry young Muslims for terrorism. Scheuer's Bin Laden is a man of intellect, compassion and piety; a brilliant media manipulator and a master strategist who has single-handedly drawn the Americans into the quicksand of Afghanistan.

But this version, like the Saudi one, suffers under scrutiny. Scheuer makes sweeping statements in support of his argument, often without credible backing, while those giving different views are summarily dismissed.

A critical explanation for this panegyric to Bin Laden could be that Scheuer and his team had tried and failed for so long to kill him that an adversary had to be created who is near omnipotent; an insurgent supreme whom no one could have tackled.

Scheuer insists that his main aim in writing the book is to convince the US and its allies that they must understand Bin Laden and his motivation (the Scheuer version) in order to win the "war on terror". But, in reality, al-Qa'ida does not appear to have a system directing operations worldwide. The greatest threat to the West now comes from home-grown terrorists. The real powers of persuasion now belong to preachers such as Anwar al-Awlaki, born and raised in the US, based in Yemen, using reasoned arguments and the internet to turn disaffected young Muslims towards violence. Jihad has moved on.