World

You are what you read: Osama bin Laden

By J Brooks Spector 22 May 2015

Some stories are just too much fun to ignore. In a week of disasters that has included the capture of a World Heritage Site like Palmyra in Syria by the nihilist fighters of ISIS, US intelligence sources have made public the catalogue of books that were available for reading in Osama bin Laden’s hidey hole in Abbottabad, Pakistan – until he was killed by US Navy Seals four years earlier. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at the reading list.

About a year and a half ago, there was a bit of a scuffle over what, if anything, South African President Jacob Zuma read before he turned out his bedside lamp in his official residences, or at his Nkandla country estate. In an effort to gain a glimpse of any presidential reading list, there was some wrangling with then-presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj over whether or not the president’s office should even bother to tell the rest of us whether Zuma dips into Plutarch’s Lives of Nobel Grecians and Romans, Machiavelli’s The Prince, an annotated copy of South Africa’s National Development Plan, or perhaps The Freedom Charter, for his evening’s inspirations. This writer even took a stab at trying to identify what was crucial in the reading plans – and the publicity about them – of various world leaders, but never cracked the code on Jacob Zuma’s literary preferences.

In the past several days, however, in contrast to the shroud of secrecy that has been drawn across Jacob Zuma’s sources of information from the printed page, courtesy of the US intelligence community, the world now has insights into the literary tastes of the late Osama bin Laden when he was idling away all those years in his lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a kind of coordinating manager for the national fraternity of American intelligence agencies and offices, has now released what they claim is the full list of the books found in bin Laden’s hideaway, along with excerpts of some of his organisation’s documents for the edification of a very curious world.

It turns out, according to this book list that, among other things, Osama bin Laden and his colleagues were intensely interested in the mysteries of computer programming. But they also were reading books on American strategic policy and history (knowest thine enemy?) by establishment writers such as Bob Woodward, as well as conspiracy theorists on the Illuminati and the Federal Reserve Bank. Inevitably, too, one of Noam Chomsky’s screeds, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, was part of the syllabus that the increasingly isolated al-Qaeda leader may well have believed helped corroborate his views about America’s imperial ambitions and corporate corruption. There were also other darker volumes such as conspiracy-mongering titles like Bloodlines of the Illuminati by Fritz Springmeier, The Taking of America, 1-2-3 by Richard Sprague, and Secrets of the Federal Reserve by Eustace Mullins, a noted Holocaust denier, on the bookshelves of bin Laden’s man cave.

Interestingly, at least on the basis of the list released the other day, bin Laden and his pals didn’t seem all that interested in such things as Marxism and socialism, or the specifics of the Arab – Israeli conflict. And there wasn’t even a single copy of that tired old, endlessly recycled forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, even though it continues to be issued by some publishing houses in the Middle East. Moreover, they didn’t appear to be particularly intrigued with fathoming the secrets of building a homemade nuclear device, or even what nuclear scientists sometimes call a “dirty bomb” – that is, a conventional high explosive device surrounded by a layer of radioactive materials that, when exploded, helps kill people as well as poison the soil, air and water wherever it has been detonated.

Commenting on this collection, The New York Times noted, “Among the books, periodicals and letters found in Osama bin Laden’s hide-out in Pakistan was a copy of the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer’s 2004 book, ‘Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror,’ which describes the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as ‘the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.’ ”

But, as the Times went on to explain, “Also in his library was a copy of Michel Chossudovsky’s conspiracy-minded book ‘America’s ‘War on Terrorism,’ ’ which argued that 9/11 was simply a pretext for American incursions into the Middle East, and that Bin Laden was nothing but a boogeyman created by the United States.” Still, bin Laden also had access to some Foreign Policy articles as well as studies by the Rand Corporation (a think tank with rather close ties to the US Department of Defence) on counterinsurgency strategies, perhaps to help bin Laden and his aides get the jump on their would-be antagonists.

The Times added, “Al-Qaeda had become a kind of giant corporation. His self-prescribed syllabus included works on global issues, like climate change, and ran a spectrum from historical works to crackpot conspiracy tracts. The eclectic nature of the list speaks to both Bin Laden’s reach as Al-Qaeda’s leader and his limitations as an international fugitive; his ambitions to think globally and his naïve susceptibility to theorists who talk conspiracy to explain the perfidies of the West; his fascination with America and his determination to find new ways to attack it by trying to understand the dynamics of its political and economic systems.”

As it has ever been, the rich, famous – and the infamous – all love to read their press clippings (even including the more critical ones), especially if they have been holed up in a modestly furnished villa in a small town in the backwaters of northern Pakistan. Including in the al-Qaeda reading programme were also two works by one of bin Laden’s early mentor, Abdullah Azzam, The Defense of Muslim Lands and Join the Caravan, about jihad. And, in addition to materials about the US, the cache also had a stash of documents about France that included Wage Inequality in France and France on Radioactive Waste Management, 2008.

Still, there was little evidence that bin Laden (or his buds) were into spy thriller fiction like Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears or similar works, let alone the deeper veins of fiction. Nevertheless, the Abbottabad library did contain a copy of US Congressional report, Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s program of research in behavioural modification. Joint hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, United States Senate, Ninety-fifth Congress, first session, August 3, 1977. United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Intelligence, that might well have been the raw material for one of those thrillers. Or maybe the whole gang had a pirated copy of the George Clooney film vehicle, Men Who Stare at Goats, and they wanted to suss out the territory more thoroughly.

The kinds of more thoughtful writing that might have helped him understand his primary enemy just a bit better was not much in evidence. There was no Mark Twain, no William Least Heat Moon, no Gloria Steinem, no Alistair Cooke, no Saul Bellow, no James Baldwin – and not even any Malcolm X. And, of course, there doesn’t appear to have been any poetry, or even a copy of the Bible, at least not one in English. Bin Laden did have a Qur’an as well as copies of key Islamic texts such as volumes of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, Arabic to English dictionaries, and a book on Arabic grammar. However, an Arabic Calligraphy Workshop and Grappler’s Guide to Sports Nutrition that were part of this grab-bag were “documents probably used by other compound residents” according to the people who released the list, presumably meaning bin Laden just wasn’t that much into improving his handwriting or managing his carbs intake better.

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This is the full bin Laden English language book collection:

The 2030 Spike by Colin Mason

A Brief Guide to Understanding Islam by IA Ibrahim

America’s Strategic Blunders by Willard Matthias

America’s “War on Terrorism” by Michel Chossudovsky

Al-Qaeda’s Online Media Strategies: From Abu Reuter to Irhabi 007 by Hanna Rogan

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast

The Best Enemy Money Can Buy by Anthony Sutton

Black Box Voting, Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century by Bev Harris

Bloodlines of the Illuminati by Fritz Springmeier

Bounding the Global War on Terror by Jeffrey Record

Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions by Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson

Christianity and Islam in Spain 756-1031 A.D. by CR Haines

Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies by Cheryl Benard

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

Conspirators’ Hierarchy: The Committee of 300 by John Coleman

Crossing the Rubicon by Michael Ruppert

Fortifying Pakistan: The Role of U.S. Internal Security Assistance (only the book’s introduction) by C Christine Fair and Peter Chalk

Guerrilla Air Defense: Antiaircraft Weapons and Techniques for Guerrilla Forces by James Crabtree

Handbook of International Law by Anthony Aust

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky

Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer

In Pursuit of Allah’s Pleasure by Asim Abdul Maajid, Esaam Ud-Deen and Naahah Ibrahim

Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II by William Blum

Military Intelligence Blunders by John Hughes-Wilson

Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s program of research in behavioral modification. Joint hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, United States Senate, Ninety-fifth Congress, first session, August 3, 1977. United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Intelligence.

Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies by Noam Chomsky

New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 by David Ray Griffin

New Political Religions, or Analysis of Modern Terrorism by Barry Cooper

Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward

Oxford History of Modern War by Charles Townsend

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy

Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower by William Blum

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall (1928)

Secrets of the Federal Reserve by Eustace Mullins

The Taking of America 1-2-3 by Richard Sprague

Unfinished Business, U.S. Overseas Military Presence in the 21st Century by Michael O’Hanlon

The U.S. and Vietnam 1787-1941 by Robert Hopkins Miller

Website Claims Steve Jackson Games Foretold 9/11, article posted on ICV2.com (this file contained only a single saved web page)

Art Education: The Journal of National Art Education Association, “Islamic Art as an Educational Tool about the Teaching of Islam” by Fayeq S Oweiss (March 2002)

Arabic Calligraphy Workshop by Fayeq S Oweiss

Published Work Sample from Fayeq S Oweiss (2004)

Resume for Fayeq S. Oweiss, PhD (2006)

Delta Force Extreme 2 Videogame Guide

Game Spot Videogame Guide

Grappler’s Guide to Sports Nutrition by John Berardi and Michael Fry

Guinness Book of World Records Children’s Edition 2008 (scans of several pages from)

Is It the Heart You Are Asking? by Dr. Islam Sobhi al-Mazeny (suicide prevention guide)

Silkscreening Instructions

– – – – – – –

The collection, as released, also seems to have included some al-Qaeda human resources documents. Really. As The Washington Post recounted some al-Qaeda application forms, “To join Al-Qaeda in Osama bin Laden’s day, prospective recruits had to take an arduous and risky journey to the network’s haven in the mountains of north-western Pakistan, the heartland of global Islamist militancy. Then they had to fill in an application.

“The three pages of questions show how Al-Qaeda, in its vision of itself as a disciplined network of committed militants, blended the mundanely bureaucratic with the frighteningly absurd. Among the queries: ‘Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?’ and ‘Who should we contact in case you become a martyr?’ The last line provided space for the address and phone number of next of kin.

“The application, which was among nearly 80 documents and other materials, including books and press clippings, seized from Bin Laden’s compound during the raid by Navy SEAL members in May 2011, was declassified on Wednesday by the Obama administration.”

While Osama bin Laden was locked away in his isolated villa in rural Pakistan, he seems to have been without access to the Internet or regular newspaper and magazine subscriptions, let alone an opportunity to access a well-stocked library or even a decent bookstore. One wonders how he or his minions made the choices of books and pamphlets that became must-reads for those long, languorous days in the Abbottabad Hilton. Did someone check the pages of The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books every week for the band, or did someone review the recommendations on the Amazon.com website – or did he and his friends just leave it to the fates of whatever itinerant visitors brought over to the compound?

Given what is known now, unless one accepts Seymour Hersh’s new assertion that bin Laden was actually a close-hold captive of Pakistani intelligence forces until he was turned over the US, perhaps it might even have made sense for the US Embassy in Pakistan to have set up a small branch library near to bin Laden’s bolt hole. One of those so-called American Corners, a kind of miniature library, duly set up in Abbottabad, might even, conceivably, have helped some of the people in bin Laden’s circle to be just a bit more up-to-date on things America, and maybe just that little bit less susceptible to some of the wackier conspiracy theorists that seem to have fed the team’s fantasies.

Perhaps that is just “blood under the bridge” as far as bin Laden and his friends go. Maybe such people were so convinced of their reality that no amount of evidence would have ever changed their views. Still, it is also true demand for “American Corners” continues to grow all around the world among knowledge-hungry people, including communities throughout South Africa. The thoughts and ideas obtained from books in such libraries can help open minds rather than close them, and it just seems a great shame that it becomes harder and harder to find support for libraries within the budgets of hard-pressed governments. DM

Photo: A screen grab taken from an undated video provided by the Office of United States Director of Central Intelligence (ODNI) on 20 May 2015 titled ‘Despotism of Big Money’ recovered during the 2011 raid on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, shows Bin Laden speaking. EPA/ODNI/HANDOUT

Read more:

  • Osama Bin Laden’s Bookshelf Reflects His Fixation on West at the New York Times;
  • In Osama bin Laden’s Library: Illuminati and Bob Woodward at the New York Times;
  • What was on Osama Bin Laden’s bookshelf? At the BBC website;
  • Osama bin Laden’s bookshelf: Noam Chomsky, Bob Woodward, and jihad at The Guardian
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