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Osama's Book Club

What has Osama bin Laden been doing all these years? Some suspect that he's cave-hopping while trying to evade the U.S. military. Others have posited that he's plotting his comeback, training a brand new coterie of jihadis. But in his most recent video, released September 7, he inadvertently gives away his game: He's been holed up in the Waziristan Public Library.

Specifically, he's been reading books that purport to explain his own rise and the failure of the United States to capture him. In his video, Osama plays the role of Oprah, urging viewers to read two such tomes: Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris and Emmanuel Todd's After the Empire. I don't usually act on the orders contained in bin Laden's messages. Still, I thought that rereading Scheuer and reading Todd (whom I previously had not heard of) might reveal something about bin Laden's state of mind.

At some level, you can see what might have attracted bin Laden to Imperial Hubris. Scheuer, who once ran the CIA's anti-bin Laden operation, insists that the Al Qaeda leader and other Islamists don't "attack us for what we are and think" but for "what we do." "Their goal is not to wipe out our secular democracy," he writes, "but to deter us by military means from attacking the things they love." Bin Laden's goals, Scheuer argues, consist of eliminating both U.S. aid to Israel and Israel itself as a Jewish state; removing U.S. troops from Muslim lands; ending American support for "apostate Muslim regimes" in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere; and protecting Arab oil from Western exploitation by selling it at higher prices. Insofar as some of these pet causes have earned bin Laden sympathy in the Muslim world, Scheuer wants us to neutralize them: He urges a reconsideration of U.S. policy toward Israel, a move toward energy self-sufficiency, and an end to neo-imperial ventures like the Iraq war.

But he also thinks that, while such changes in policy would make our struggle against Islamists easier, the United States cannot back down from its battle with Al Qaeda. "Simply put," Scheuer writes, "the enemy wants war and is not listening; he has no reason to listen, he is winning. We have no choice but to fight." And Scheuer's battle plan is anything but pacific: It's Sherman's 1864 march to the sea and the Allied fire-bombing of Axis cities during World War II. "To secure as much of our way of life as possible," he argues, "we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific Islands and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden. Progress will be measured by the pace of killing and, yes, by body counts." Is this really what bin Laden wants Americans to read? Does he have a death wish? Or did he not get to page 241?

Things get even stranger when you consider the other book Osama recommends. Todd, a French social scientist, gained his reputation from a 1976 work, The Final Fall, predicting the eventual collapse of Soviet communism. After the Empire, which appeared before the war in Iraq, was either ignored or dismissed by American intellectuals. Todd is a demographer who believes that human progress can be measured in literacy, birth rates, and infant mortality rates. In After the Empire, he contends that dramatic increases in literacy eventually push countries toward democracy, but that, in the initial phase, mass consciousness can lead to violent upheaval and to the clash of tradition with modernity. That happened when Cromwell seized power in seventeenth-century England and again during the French Revolution. The Muslim world, he argues, is currently going through exactly this kind of transition. But, because it is only a transition, Todd rejects any notion of an enduring clash of civilizations: "The violence and religious frenzy are only temporary. ... [A]fter a distinct phase of modernization, societies are quieting down and finding forms of non-totalitarian government that are acceptable to a majority of the population." He counts Turkey, Algeria, and Iran among those Muslim countries that are further along this path, whereas Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have just begun the switch.

Todd sees bin Laden as part of this transition process--and a fairly minor and eccentric part at that. "The Al Qaeda organization, a band of mentally disturbed but ingenious terrorists," Todd writes, "emerged from within a relatively small and circumscribed part of the planet, Saudi Arabia, even if Bin Laden and his associates recruited a few Egyptian turncoats and a handful of lost souls from the poor suburbs of Western Europe." While Scheuer would recommend a renewed focus on Al Qaeda, Todd thinks that the Bush administration has exaggerated the threat. Not only does he see bin Laden as "mentally disturbed," but, in the grand sweep of history, he also sees him as largely irrelevant.

What does all this say about bin Laden? Has the Al Qaeda leader become a sophisticated analyst of global trends--one who is willing to put aside minor differences, such as the fact that one author wants him dead and the other thinks he is loony? That theory certainly doesn't hold up once you consider his whole statement, the rest of which is filled with obligatory references to Allah and vintage anti-capitalist claptrap blaming "major corporations" for Iraq, Vietnam, and the assassination of John Kennedy. (The Waziristan library must have copies of Mark Lane's work.)

In fact, what is striking about the video is how much of it is devoted to appealing to the proletariat in all of us. Bin Laden is still clearly a champion of radical Islam, but he may be trying to broaden his appeal by marrying his theological views to the anti-imperialism that Arab revolutionaries championed in the 1960s and '70s. This would explain why Scheuer and Todd--whose books both include strong anti-imperialist streaks-- caught bin Laden's attention. Maybe Osama is turning from Mohammed to Marx and Mao. If next year's reading list includes Imperialism and All Reactionaries Are Paper Tigers, then we'll have our answer.