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Book Reviews

Corbin, Jane, Al-Qaeda: The Terror Network that Threatens the World, (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002). 315 pages. $24.95

Reviewed by Robert Windorf




coverClick here to purchase "Al-Qaeda: The Terror Network that Threatens the World" directly from Amazon.com

Although al-Qaeda has faded from the daily headlines focus on Iraq, the terrorist organization is hardly dead and buried. Indeed, there is a good chance that the organization will strike again against the West, in particular, the United States. For anyone looking for a well-written and researched book on this radical Islamic organization, Jane Corbin’s Al-Qaeda: The Terror Network that Threatens the World makes for a comprehensive read. Corbin is a senior reporter for the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, Panorama and has become an expert on Middle Eastern terrorist movements. She also did a Panorama Special “Towards Zero Hour”, following 9/11, which revealed in considerable detail how the hijackers plotted their assault on the United States.

The fundamental thrust of Al-Qaeda is to reveal who and what al-Qaeda is and what are its objectives. It is also about the West’s response to the threat of this particular terrorist group. As to al-Qaeda’s objectives, Corbin quotes Osama bin-Laden (1998): “Every grown-up Muslim hates Americans, Jews and Christians. It is part of our belief and our religion. Since I was a boy I have been at war with and harboring hatred of Americans.” Simply stated, al-Qaeda’s objectives are to free the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia (the home of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina) from being “occupied” by American troops and being dominated by the West. This means overthrowing local, pro-Western governments and striking at the West and Israel.

Corbin traces the roots of al-Qaeda back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and follows the adventures of bin-Laden as he became involved in the anti-Soviet war effort. She also notes his growing hostility to the Saudi regime and the United States. At the close of the failed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, bin-Laden has emerged as a key international personality in what was soon to grow into a truly international organization of terror.

One of the strong points of Corbin’s book is her examination of how the West failed to fully detect the growing threat from al-Qaeda. As she notes, the West’s political correctness and very openness was adeptly used against it, even after the bombings in East Africa in 1998. Corbin states of the Western response:

“It is a tale of weakness and exploitation and a failure of imagination. Al-Qaeda, fundamentally a product of the Arab world, could only flourish in a free and forgiving climate, unlike that of many Middle Eastern countries, where harsh regimes stick to the only form of rule recognized and respected by militant Islamic organizations. Bin Laden’s group turned instead to the softer underbelly of the West; to democracies with respect for human rights, more open immigration policies and laws that restricted intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Bureaucratic turf wars, complacency, military timidity and political weakness, not to mention political correctness, contributed to our inability to deal with these extremists, until it was too late to save the lives of thousands.”

Corbin also offers insights into Allied military operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, following the end of the Afghan war. Operation Tora Bora, which ended the first round of fighting, probably let Osama bin Laden out of the country and into Pakistan, in part due to relying on inept local forces. Operation Anaconda, which followed, was also not the raging success the U.S. military portrayed it. Rather, Corbin suggests Afghanistan will not be a story of quick military victories, but will have to be a long-term commitment, considering the country’s complex political realities and the porous nature of the borders with Pakistan, itself divided with cleavages between more secular and fundamentalist Muslims as well as a myriad of tribal and regional loyalties.

Corbin offers a sobering, journalistic account of a major problem facing the West –something destined to be around for a long time. She believes that Western governments must continue to reassess terrorist laws and what political correctness means – both from a societal stance and from a security viewpoint. Corbin concludes with this warning: “It is not a question of whether we will see another terrorist outrage but when and where – and how many innocent lives it will claim.”

Con Coughlin, Saddam – King of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2002). 350 pages. $26.95


Click here to purchase "Saddam – King of Terror directly from Amazon.com

By Scott B. MacDonald

It has become popular to write about Saddam Hussein. Indeed, a small sea of ink is now dedicated to explaining how a man who became one of the most powerful Arab leaders in modern times emerged from a hard and deprived childhood. Yet, Saddam is now well-known through the world for presiding over a near-totalitarian regime and for bringing the world down the path of another Middle Eastern war. One of the books that stands out from the pack is Con Coughlin’s Saddam – King of Terror, which in some ways harkens back to Samir al-Khalil’s Republic of Fear (1989) in terms of chronicling the brutish, but methodical nature of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime.

Coughlin sets the tone of his book in the very beginning by stating: “Writing a biography of Saddam Hussein is like trying to assemble the prosecution case against a notorious criminal gangster. Most of the key witnesses have either been murdered, or are too afraid to talk.” To Coughlin, Saddam is a creation of his roots, much like Hitler and Stalin, who also overcome their less auspicious starts in life to take absolute control of their respective nations. As he notes, “The shame of his humble origins was to become the driving force of his ambition, while the deep sense of insecurity that he developed as a consequence of his peripatetic childhood left him pathologically incapable in later life of trusting anyone -- including his immediate family.”

Saddam began his political career as a political thug, gradually climbing up the ranks of the Baathist party, especially following the 1968 coup that brought them to power. The climb to power was one marked by ruthlessness and tenacity. Much like Stalin, Saddam focused on the machinery of the state, quietly assuming power. By July 1979, Saddam officially became the president of Iraq, then one of the more developed and wealthiest Arab nations. He followed this by purges of the Baath party, the military and the bureaucracy. In the place of many of the fallen, Saddam placed his family and trusted cohorts.

What makes Saddam such an interesting historical figure is that he was not content with ruling just Iraq. Bigger dreams beckoned. In many regards, he saw himself as a modern-day Saladin, being the man to re-unify the Arab world and re-take Jerusalem. In this, he sought to carve up his bigger neighbor Iran, which had incited Iraq’s local Shitte population. The ensuing war was to last from 1980 to 1988, result in wrecking the Iraqi economy and leaving thousands dead or wounded from the brutal, yet inconclusive conflict. Only a couple of years later, Saddam launched the invasion of Kuwait. That was to end up with the near-destruction of the Saddam regime.

What Coughlin finds the most interesting is Saddam Hussein’s ability to survive. Despite major setbacks, numerous coups and assassination attempts, and the hostility of the United States, the “bully of Baghdad” has managed to cling to power. He attributes this to Saddam’s ability to maintain control over the security apparatus, rely on only a very small group of people, and the regime’s manipulation of the country’s oil wealth. The last always allowed Saddam to buy the necessary weapons from the outside world and to have some degree of largesse for keeping the key troops happy.

Coughlin’s book is certainly timely and informative. It paints a picture of a man who is clearly an over-achiever in the most bizarre sense – a dictator willing and ready to eliminate, though continuous purges anyone that remotely resembled a threat. At the same time, Coughlin is certain that Saddam has been active in seeking to re-arm Iraq, including with weapons of mass destruction. As he noted: ‘even the medical supplies shipped in by the U.N. were exploited by the regime, and ended up being sold on the black market in Jordan, the profits being channeled back to the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. The lion’s share of the substantial income Saddam received from these various illicit activities was spent on arms.” Most of the arms came from China, North Korea, Russia and Serbia.

Whether or not one agrees with the Bush administration’s decision to pursue war with Iraq, anyone reading Coughlin’s book comes off not wishing Saddam Hussein well. At the same time, it also makes one wonder about difficult nature of the rocky soil that Iraq will offer for any attempt to create a democratic government in a post-Saddam society

Robert Beaumont, The Railway King: A Biography of George Hudson, Railway Pioneer and Fraudster, (London: Review, 2002). 274 pages UK Pounds 14.99

Reviewed by Scott B. MacDonald


Click here to purchase The Railway King: A Biography of George Hudson, Railway Pioneer and Fraudster directly from Amazon.com

In a world currently marked by corporate scandals and the controversial figures behind them, it is often instructive to remember that we have been on this stage before. History is filled with scoundrels, rouges, and hucksters. Despite being labeled as such, not all scandal-linked individuals are necessarily “evil” and, indeed, in a warped way, some good has come out of their efforts. One such individual that has been much vilified, but arguably did some good was George Hudson, known in the 19th century as the “railway king”. In his well-researched and easily readable The Railway King, Robert Beaumont, a journalist for the York-based Yorkshire Evening Press, undertakes the challenge of a man who “led a turbulent and mould-breaking existence”. According to Beaumont, Hudson was many things, probably the most significant of which was his role in Great Britain’s industrial revolution, in particular, with the development of railways.

Hudson began life in 1800 in relatively poor surroundings in Yorkshire. He was apparently kicked out of his home for fathering an illegitimate child. From those humble beginnings, Hudson was to work his way up at a drapers firm. However, in 1827, fortune smiled on him as a distant relative died and left him a small fortune. He took part of that inheritance and bought shares of the North Midland Railway. Over time, he came to control over a third of Britain’s rail network, which mostly hubbed out of York. Indeed, Hudson made York a commercial hub as he quickly grasped, ahead of many others, that rail travel was the wave of the future. In this, he was similar to those that understood that the Internet was a revolutionary breakthrough. He was also an excellent salesman, which helped him sway many to put their money into his company’s shares. At his high point, Hudson employed tens of thousands of workers, was a leading member of the Conservative Party, and laid hundreds of miles of virgin track.

Yet, for all the positives of Hudson’s life, there was a downside. As did the Internet in its time, rail in its time was a major force in financial markets, capable of creating and destroying great fortunes through speculation. In this Hudson was a primary force. He was a man of vision and an excellent salesman. He was also a polarizer – people tended to either really like and trust him or hate him. Part of the reason for this Beaumont notes, was that his subject was “a mass of contradictions: immensely hard-working, yet dangerous self-indulgent; tremendously generous, yet a purveyor of the sharpest financial practices; poorly educated and roughly spoken, but a quick-witted visionary; and unbearably arrogant, yet strongly humble at the end.”

What did Hudson in was his financial practices – sloppy at best, intentional at worst, he offered investors big dividends, but eventually questionable profits. In a sense, the finances behind Hudson’s many railway companies were like so many ponzi-schemes, with new money in, new money to old investors, while the newest contributors waited for their profits. At the same time, Beaumont notes: “The problem was that he had difficulty in differentiating between his own interests and those of his companies, but that is a failing common to autocratic businessmen.” (Look at the former heads of Tyco International, WorldCom and Adelphia). He further elaborates: “It is essential that George Hudson was simply behaving in exactly the same manner as the other managers and directors of Britain’s railway companies across the country. They were making up the rules as they went along, as occasionally happens in fast-growing new industries.”

Hudson was eventually voted out of the House of Commons, saddled with large debts from failed companies, hounded by creditors and angry company boards, and viciously attacked by his detractors. At one stage, he fled to France, where he lived well below his former splendor. Hudson finally was able to return from exile and be re-united with his wife, who he had left behind. He was to die in 1871, though his name was to remain considerably tarnished until recently.

Considering the current round of fascination with business scandals and the key personalities involved, Beaumont’s book about George Hudson reminds us that these figures are far more complex than being transfixed between simple faces of good and evil. At the end of the day, they must be seen as simply individuals, forced to make decisions about how to conduct their business – for the better or the worse. However, for this reviewer, Hudson remains a far more sympathetic figure than the top management at Enron, WorldCom or Qwest. Rules and regulations concerning corporate governance were rudimentary during Hudson’s day; today the rules and regulations are far more clear-cut. While Hudson is perhaps entitled to a fair shake in the historical sense, it is likely that Bernie Ebbers, Kenneth Lay and Ralph Nuccio will have to wait much longer. We strongly recommend Beaumont’s The Railway King.

Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editors: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant and Robert Windorf, Senior Consultant

Associate Editor: Darin Feldman

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President

Web Design: Michael Feldman, Sr. Consultant

Contributing Writers to this Edition: Scott B. MacDonald, Keith W. Rabin,
Jonathan Lemco, Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, Barry Metzger, Russell Smith,
Ilissa A. Kabak, Andrew Novo, Jonathan Hopfner, C. H. Kwan, Dominic Scriven and Andrew Thorson

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