Summary and book reviews of Osama by Jonathan Randal


The Making of a Terrorist

by Jonathan Randal

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2004, 352 pages
    Sep 2005, 368 pages

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Book Summary

How is it possible for one middle-aged Saudi millionaire to threaten the world's only superpower? This is the question at the center of Jonathan Randal's riveting, timely account of Osama bin Laden's role in the rise of terrorism in the Middle East. Randal–a journalist whose experience of the Middle East spans the past forty years–makes clear how Osama's life epitomizes the fatal collision between twenty-first-century Islam and the West, and he describes the course of Osama's estrangement from both the West and the Saudi petro-monarchy of which his family is a part. He examines Osama's terrorist activities before September 11, 2001, and shows us how, after the attack on the World Trade Center, Osama presented the West with something new in the annals of contemporary terrorism: an independently wealthy entrepreneur with a seemingly worldwide following ready to do his bidding. Randal explores the possibility that Osama offered the Saudis his Al-Qaeda forces to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991; he traces the current sources of Osama's money; and he tells us why the Iraq war has played into the hands of the terrorists.

With his long-maintained sources in the Middle East and his intimate understanding of the region, Randal gives us a clearer explanation than any we have had of the whys and wherefores of the world's most prominent and feared terrorist.

Behind The Book

With his long-maintained sources in the Middle East and intimate understanding of the region, Jonathan Randal sheds light on Osama bin Laden's role in the rise of terrorism. Here, Randal uses his years of research to separate fact from fiction when it comes to basic questions Americans have about Osama.

3 reasons why Osama is happy with the Bush administration's war in Iraq

  1. The ideology-driven war dreamed up by Bush's neoconservative advisors allows foreign jihadi terrorists to blend in with a legitimate nationalist resistance movement against a western military occupation. That's hard to beat for no cost piggybacking.
  2. Participating in the Iraqi resistance to the United States allows the jihadis a foothold in the very heart of the Middle East. Iraq is rich in water as well as oil and is right next door to Osama's birthplace, Saudi Arabia, which remains his principal target.
  3. The presence of foreign jihadis may not please many Iraqis, but in the rest of the Arab and wider Muslim worlds they are seen as hurting the world's only superpower.

4 myths about Osama

  1. He was a boozing skirt chaser as a young man–pure disinformation.
  2. He is a religious authority. Not so, he needs more learned Muslims to formulate his fatwas.
  3. He hated all things western from his earliest youth. He got on well with Westerners, including Americans, when he was a young man working for his family's giant construction company, which employed many Western engineers.
  4. He is rich as Croesus. The American government created the myth that he was worth $300 million dollars back in 1996, years after his much more modest inheritance was frozen.

5 facts about Al Qaeda

  1. It has survived the capture of as many as two thirds of its top cadre, but still presents a formidable force.
  2. Al Qaeda needs far less money to function than the United States believes to be the case.
  3. Despite American government suggestions that it has staunched the money flowing into Al Qaeda coffers, in fact that is far from true because informal transfer systems and cash are its stock in trade and the United States has little idea what to do on this score.
  4. Although Al Qaeda certainly has trained and financed at least some of the men involved in terrorist operations from Morocco to Istanbul and Bali to Kenya, many of the foot soldiers are locals who were never trained in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Such is the power of emulation that Osama and September 11th exert.
  5. Most of its operations are standard low-tech straight out of western military manuals for guerrilla warfare. September 11th was the main exception. The Madrid train bombings in March 2004 used cheap electronic wristwatches to set off explosives on multiple trains, and that suggests the terrorists are getting smarter and outgrowing suicide car bomb operations.


For days after September 11, 2001, I wondered if Osama bin Laden, along with the rest of the world, had watched the real-time footage of those fully fueled airliners, hijacked by suicidal pilots and their henchmen, as they rammed into the Pentagon and the twin towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center. For reasons I still do not completely fathom, everything else about 9/11, as the attacks soon were called, was subordinated for me to that possibility. Perhaps it was that in years past, high up in his Afghan redoubt carved into the Hindu Kush, he had indulged a rich man's fascination with gadgetry, delighting in showing visitors his computers, satellite telephones and dishes and other high-tech paraphernalia. Did he now savor life imitating art, a pastiche of kitsch reruns of Hollywood horror movies complete with plummeting bodies, billowing flames, imploding buildings, brave firemen rushing back up the stairs to their deaths? Did ...

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BookBrowse Review


Considering how little is known about Osama bin Laden, some might think it a little challenging to produce a 300 page biography of the man. However, by setting what is known of bin Laden's life in the context of the larger regional issues, this is what Jonathan Randal has done. Osama has received generally positive reviews; negative comments are not so much to do with his fact gathering but his presentation of the facts in a light that is not flattering to the USA government, from Clinton through to the present.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (389 words).

Media Reviews

New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

The volume does a nimble and often highly compelling job of leading the reader through the labyrinth of information and speculation about Al Qaeda and the broader jihadi movement, showing how Islamic terrorism has evolved and proliferated over the last two and a half decades . . . [Randal] provides a succinct account of how the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan brought together Islamic radicals from around the world, inflamed their self-righteousness and anger, and gave them faith in their ability to bring a superpower to its knees.

New York Times Book Review - Ben Macintyre

[A] meticulous account of the emergence and spread of the terror virus [and a] map of world that produced him and his fellow Islamists.

Boston Sunday Globe - Richard A. Clarke

An account that is simultaneously detailed and fast paced . . . witty, opinionated, and highly urbane . . . Of all the flutter of bin Laden and Al Qaeda books, Randal has produced the most readable and informative.

The Washington Post's Book World - Robert D. Kaplan

The problem with Randal's book is that while there are enough useful insights to make it a worthwhile read, its lack of understanding or empathy for the realities in which any American administration -- Republican or Democratic -- is forced to deal reduces the text in many places to the same old, tired criticisms of American policy that, while perhaps justified, insufficiently advance the reader's knowledge or understanding. The author inveighs against the hypocrisy of American support for authoritarian regimes, even as the United States calls for more democracy in the Arab world. The remark shows insufficient understanding of how great powers, even when they seek to advance universalist goals, must also deal with the world as it is. Moreover, if some of those repressive regimes were to collapse, even more turmoil and consequent human suffering might ensue....Randal the seasoned man-of-the-world is more insightful than Randal the expatriate. Nevertheless, American policymakers would do well to excuse the latter in order to glean perceptions from the former.

Booklist - Vanessa Bush

This is a fascinating, informative look at the man considered the foremost terrorist threat to the U.S.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This study of the terrorist leader is an outstanding achievement, especially in light of the inherent difficulty in writing at length about so elusive a man, who rarely appears in public, has left few written traces yet has a larger-than-life stature.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A masterful work of reporting.

Reader Reviews

nathan.j campbell

im only 15 but istill think the book is one of the best i've read


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