The Exile by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

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The Exile by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Steve Cotterill
Reviewed by Steve Cotterill
Summary: A fascinating analysis of the history of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda from before the 9/11 attacks to the present day.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 640 Date: May 2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408858769

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An account of the fate of Al Qaeda and the Bin Laden family since the events of 9/11, The Exile plunges into the murky waters of international terrorism, espionage and politics. Detailed and meticulous, the book tackles the subject from all angles, providing a panoramic view of the subject and acting to enlighten and inform the reader.

The Exile is a thick tome, and heavy too. It's written in an informative, dry tone and crunches through fact after fact in a professional fashion. It's at once fascinating and heady, the sort of book that you will either read obsessively, or in chunks. Picking up the tale of Al Qaeda in 2001 the authors, journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, set about demystifying and explaining the terrorist network, exposing it to the light. In many respects this means looking into a different world, one of smoke and mirrors, cloak and dagger and other cliches that would not be out of place in an espionage novel. In doing so they exposed how little, I as a reader, understood the world of jihad and the ways that modern, guerrilla warfare is conducted. As such the book was extremely illuminating, if only for the way it caught me up with the rest of the world. They are even handed, more interested in exploring the way things develop than offering judgment (which, in truth, they do not need to do).

The authors proceed through events in a chronological fashion, picking up threads of disparate actors in the jihadi movement and recounting their experiences. It is a boon that the book has a set of appendices, consisting of notes and brief biographies for the people concerned, because there are so many different people involved and the names are often quite convoluted. This makes it hard to know who is who occasionally. I certainly found I was referring to it on more than a few occasions.

Taking 2001 as the starting point is interesting, because the book really charts the fallout of the 9/11 attacks and the way that they changed Al Qaeda as well as the west. From the quote that starts the book 'Shit, I think we bit off more than we can chew', uttered by Moktar, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, through to the very end, the authors have a gift for reporting what happened in a very human way.

The book has moments that will make the reader wince, or which seem awfully ironic. We are used to seeing the terrorists as almost cartoonish figures, but the authors undermine this by revealing how flawed they are. For example, it is reported that upon being told that America's response to the 'Planes Operation' would be to destroy the Taliban and hunt down Osama without mercy, Bin Laden's response is to reject the advice as too pessimistic. In a similar vein, there's part of the narrative which focuses on Al Qaeda's time in Iranian custody (being kept as an ace in Tehran's hole, so to speak) where the women, held in custody, demonstrate for freedom and human rights. From a western perspective, this seems highly ironic, given the ideal state that Al Qaeda and their fellow travellers seem to desire.

Connected to this, the way the book dives into the intimate, domestic situation of the Bin Ladens is fascinating and rather tragic. We are told in detail about each of Osama's wives; Najwa, Khairiah, Seham and Amal and his children. Their domestic arrangements seem so ordinary and yet so strange and its here that the way the Sheikh viewed the world seems to part from western ideals so dramatically. He behaves like a medieval king, marrying off members of his family for gain, treating his wives kindly, lovingly, but still really using them to breed, both brides and warriors. This family-based empire building really does feel like it's something out of the past and the whole of the terrorist world as portrayed in The Exile feels this way, like a collision of past and present. Modern technology really does seem to only support the older ways of doing things, making it feel as if the idea that on its own technology is a great leveller. This disconnect is actually frightening, and the attitudes towards women rather sickening. The fact that one of the women had hidden her face from the age of three just felt sad.

I would recommend this book, if only for the purposes of seeing the world the way it is; messy, confused and chaotic. It was extremely enlightening, sobering and scary. It underlines how little we know, but also how starry eyed many of the people in the jihad movement are. For example, the fact that one member, a Mauritian, tries to appeal to the Iranians' fellow feeling of hate towards the USA, only to be rebuffed because their main concern was Iran's survival, only shows how out of touch they are even among people in the Middle East.

It is a slow read, but a worthwhile one. I commend it. If you enjoy books like The Exile, you will may also like Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America by Walid Phares.

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