Jason Burke: Al Qaeda – The True Story of Radical Islam (Penguin Books, 2004)
Book Review by Elias Davidsson, October 19, 2014
Pretentious and disingenious
Burke’s book appears at first sight as a serious, scholarly, contribution to the study of Al Qaeda. It is heavily annotated, contains a glossary and a useful index, a map of Afghanistan and is well structured. Yet, as I will attempt to show, the book is essentially a slick fraud. The purpose of my review is to warn potential readers, nothing more and nothing less.
A substantial part of the book is devoted to the history of the so-called jihadist movement. Due to the nature of the subject matter, we may surmise that most sources used to compile such a history cannot be verified by readers, because of the inaccessibility of witnesses and the difficulty to authenticate documents allegedly issued by Islamic militants. There are, however, other means to gauge the credibility and integrity of the author, particularly in cases where sources are not only accessible to the wide public, but should have been cited by the author, had he been faithful to the truth.
Let us first consider how the author covered the role of one Ali A. Mohamed, a mysterious but crucial figure to whom author Peter Lance devoted an entire book (“Triple Cross”). Author Burke mentions Mohamed at two locations in his book (p. 104 and 147). He presents Mohamed casually as a “former American special forces supply sergeant” who trained Islamic militants in Peshawar and cased the US embassy in Nairobi (Kenya) for bin Laden. In an extended endnote on p. 311, the author provides slightly more information for those particularly interested. Yet, the author completely obfuscates Mohamed’s intimate cooperation with the FBI and the CIA and the fact that he also trained Islamists in the New York and New Jersey area with the knowledge of the FBI. In short, the author obfuscates the fact that Mohamed worked for the U.S. government while helping Al Qaeda. Given that the book was published in 2004, the author also obfuscated the fact that Mohamed, arrested and charged in the U.S. in connection with the bombings of the US embassies in East Africa, was spared a sentence and placed into the witness protection system, as is typical with US agents. The author could hardly have been oblivious to the above facts. If he was, it would represent gross incompetence on his part.
On p. 102 the author claims that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (widely known as KSM), reportedly incarcerated in Guantánamo, “was one of the key planners of the 11 September attacks.” The author does not bother to substantiate this claim. It is true that this claim was published in the mainstream press but its basis is merely an unauthenticated transcript issued by the Department of Defense that purports to represent a confession by said person. That piece of paper contains also the claim by the alleged confessor to have planned the murder of the Pope and the destruction of a bank in Washington State that did not exist at the time of that person’s arrest. If this is the type of evidence on which the author relies, how can readers trust those sources that they cannot even access?
On. p. 59 the author debunks the straw-man claim that bin Laden was funded by the CIA. Actually no serious person has made that claim. But he conceals from his readers evidence of a relationship between the CIA and Bin Laden, sustained until 9/11. This relationship was revealed by the French daily Le Figaro and Radio-France International in October 2001. According to these fairly reliable sources, CIA agent Larry Mitchell visited bin Laden at the American Hospital in Dubai on July 12, 2001, during bin Laden’s treatment there. Although both the CIA and bin Laden denied to have met each other at this opportunity, author Richard Labévière cites in his book “Les coulisses de la terreur” further sources confirming this meeting. Even if one would consider such sources as controversial, concealing these reports from readers does not inspire confidence in the author’s integrity.
Chapter 15 is devoted to the 11 September attacks, namely to the event that, as it were, crowned the terrorist accomplishments of the global Islamic terrorist movement, that is the subject of the book. In this case the author did not need to rely on evidence gleaned from dark corners in Afghanistan or on dubious statements made by dubious characters in interrogations. The evidence regarding 9/11 is readily accessible and could be gleaned from U.S. mainstream media, Congressional hearings and other open sources.
The author apparently acknowledges this fact, albeit in a slightly different formulation, writing on p. 235: “The mechanics of the [9/11] plot have been examined in infinitesimal detail.” While many details have been revealed, it is not accurate that the plot had been examined in “infinitesimal detail”, and certainly not by the U.S. authorities. Already on the morning of September 12, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned that the task of the FBI was not to “solve a crime” but to prevent new attacks. This warning was repeated four weeks later by the Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, as revealed by the New York Times. The White House, for its part, fiercely opposed a public inquiry into the events and only grudgingly accepted to establish a Commission of Inquiry 411 days after the events. The terms of reference of this Commission, its budget and its composition were all meant to render its findings stale. Even the chairman and vice-chairmen of the Commission admitted later that the Commission had failed. Nothing of that is found in Burke’s Chapter 15.
The author blithely claims that Islamic terrorists “armed with simple box cutters,” took control of airliners. The team that hijacked flight UA175 was allegedly led by Marwan Alshehhi, while that of flight AA11 by Mohamed Atta. (p. 234). Yet the names of these individuals do no appear on any authenticated passenger list (or flight manifest), no one saw them at the respective airport and their bodies were not identified at the crash site. Actually the names of none of the 19 alleged hijackers appear on any authenticated passenger list, none were seen by airport personnel and the body of none was identified at the crash sites. Incidentally, the official story only mentions “box-cutters” in relation to flight AA77, not because box-cutters were found at the crash site, but because “box-cutters” were mentioned in one phone call allegedly made from that aircraft.
A third “suicide pilot” named by Burke is Hani Hanjour, a diminutive bungler, who allegedly steered a Boeing 757 at more than 400 mph horizontally (20 feet above the ground) into the second floor of the Pentagon, a feat that even professional pilots would hardly be able to accomplish with a passenger airliner. Hani’s flight instructors designated his flight skills “so shoddy…that they questioned whether his pilot’s license was genuine.” One former employee of the flight school quoted by the New York Times on May 4, 2002, said about Hani “I’m still to this day amazed that he could have flown into the Pentagon. He could not fly at all.” One flight school repeatedly complained to the FAA about Hanjour but apparently the FAA ignored these complaints. Hani clearly enjoyed protection from “higher ups”. These facts, again, are obfuscated by the author, as they would undermine the legend he blithely presents as truth. The fact that the U.S. authorities never produced evidence in support of their official legend on 9/11 – neither regarding the identities of the alleged hijackers, nor about the identities of the crashed aircraft – is not mentioned by the author.
It is difficult to believe that the author was entirely oblivious to the above facts. The question arises why a perceptive intellectual such as Noam Chomsky was led to write in a blurb to the author: “Based on careful on-the-ground investigation and penetrating inquiry, this fine study, the most illuminating I know, gives remarkable insight into Islamic militancy.”
I call on Burke to explain to his readers his omissions and his unsubstantiated claims, as presented above.