Thursday, October 20, 2016

Growing Up Bin Laden by Najwa and Omar bin Laden (Book Review #53 of 2016)

Growing Up Bin Laden

(I read this book as part of a lot of several in order to learn more about the history of Al Qaeda and ISIS. A list of books in the order I recommend reading them is located at the bottom of this post.)

I noticed that there were zero one-star reviews for this book, and I'd say that's about right. It is a clear portrait of life in the austere Islamic jihad from people who saw it from the inside and got out. You might have to take some of the things in this book with a grain of salt, but much of it rings true. I finished Steve Coll's book on the Bin Ladens before beginning this one, and I recommend them in that order. Coll gives greater background into the life of Osama bin Laden's (OBL) father and where the details are fuzzy in Coll's account, this book makes more clear. Coll lacked access to the information in this book, he was unaware that OBL had taken his family on a trip to America, for example. The most glaring difference between the account of Najwa and Omar Bin Laden would be Omar's insistence that his father averted his eyes at women, and largely treated them respectfully, in contrast to other men who were abusive. But soldiers testify that when OBL was killed, there was a large porn stash recovered from the site, similar to what was found at other Al Qaeda sites. Omar wrote of an OBL who shunned much of technology and television; perhaps OBL's habits changed when he was sequestered away in his secret compound. But there are plenty of examples in the book of the many sins of OBL that were unknown to his family until long after the fact. Osama bin Laden's family was kept largely in the dark about all of his activities, but were not completely shielded from the aftermath.

Osama's own stories to his family and other relatives give the authors a glimpse into Osama's childhood. His wife leaves his father, Mohammed, at an early age; Osama is just one of 54 children. He has an understanding stepfather. There are a couple of occassions where he meets with his father, which makes things awkward for his stepfather. Osama is a young boy when Mohammed dies.

Omar is Osama Bin Laden's fourth son and simply wants his father's approval and love, competing for it with his other siblings. He relishes even just having a photo taken with him, or being held by him-- these things rarely happen, less so as OBL becomes more engrossed in his operations in Afghanistan. Najwa, OBL's first wife, was born and grew up in Latakia, Syria and was a cousin to OBL. Just as OBL's father Mohammed had married a Syrian, so would Osama. She liked to play sports and music and eventually the two become infatuated with each other that OBL arranges to ask for permission to marry; he was 17, she was 14.

OBL and Najwa move to Saudi Arabia where Najwa needs to engage in a much more conservative lifestyle. Women do not even pray in the neighborhood mosques in Saudi Arabia. Najwa paints a rosy picture of OBL-- a construction worker, a nature lover, an economics and management major, the father of young children who is respectful and listens to her. They lived in Jeddah, Najwa loved going to Mecca. She writes that they went to Indianapolis for two weeks in 1979, Osama traveled to Los Angeles, ostensibly for his father's construction business but much is left to speculation.

Osama never graduated and after 1979 became more interested in Islamic studies and lifestyle, more involved in politics and concerned about the world. The Seige of Mecca in 1979 (I highly recommend Trofimov's book) is not mentioned, but it is clear that 1979 is a turning point-- perhaps beyond the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December. When they are in America, they encounter the odd stares from strangers at the airport, looking at her hijab. Osama is highly interested in the Islamic reforms of the 1970s, the Palestinian jihadi Abdullah Azzam is his mentor and convinces him to join the war in Afghanistan. OBL comes home and regales his sons with war stories, hosting other jihadi fighters and recruiting more resources.

Omar apologizes to the reader and public for his father, but he also loves him as any son loves a father. He wants to earn his father's affection. Osama is a champion memorizer and recitor of the Koran. Omar never writes much about his own religious devotion. He injures hifa father accidentally when they are playing outside, and OBL has to go to the hospital. Osama becomes increasingly harsh and angry with the boys, caning them for little reason, except he is nice to his wives. Osama wanted to discipline the boys and prepare them for hardship. To lessen their dependence on material things and increase their devotion to Islam.

Because of OBL's desire for "many children for Islam," he marries his second wife after Najwa bears him five children. He only did it if Najwa approved, they talked it over. He would add two more wives and the family moved to Medina. The house becomes filled with children and luxuries are moved out. Osama was against modern medicine, against refrigeration, but allowed the family to use electricity. One odd aspect of the austerity was the minimum hydration, even in the heat of summer. For Najwa this is difficult because she new him before his austerity. Osama even opposes asthma medication for a child striken with the ailment, putting him at risk. Again, it is hard to square this with the man and his creature comforts at his Pakistani compound when he was killed.

Abdullah Azzam was assassinated in 1989 and Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. Saddam has a farm with his network of former Afghan jihadi warriors and believes that Saudi Arabia will call on them to defend the holy soil from Saddam's imminent invasion. Rather than seek Osama's guidance, the Saudi government raids his farm suspecting him of terrorist activities. OBL's family writes that the last straw was when international troops took up the defense of Saudi Arabia, female troops in the American ranks being the largest insult to Islam. It was here that Osama decided the Saudi regime must go, and the Western crusaders be removed from anywhere close to Mecca. OBL moves his family to Khartoum where they again establish a somewhat happy/stable life of austerity. Farming sunflowers gives bin Laden pleasure. Only contracting malaria causes OBL to finally cave to receiving medical treatment.

In Sudan, the family has Christian neighbors and interacts with another religion for the first time. While the kids played with each other, Osama disliked the Christian families-- he also disliked the pet pigeons of his children. The man comes across as truly cruel here, and surrounding himself with increasingly creepy and cruel individuals. There are men threatening rape as punishment, a friend who was raped and killed as being guilty. A servant taht kills a pet monkey becauses he believes it to be a Jew. These men are not impressive and jive with the descriptions given by FBI interrogator Ali Soufan in his book (below), where he writes that many of Al Qaeda were not very knowledgeable about the Koran or Islam and rather easily duped if they felt there was something in it for them monetarily or in terms of prestige.

The co-author, Jean Sasson, takes the time to explain to the reader OBL's activities in Sudan that the family was apparently kept in the dark about in the 1992 period. OBL's brothers arrive to plead for bin Laden to return, perhaps promising amnesty, which OBL rebuffs and then they fear the worse. Assassins visit their house at one point. It's clear bin Laden's refusal to return to Saudi has angered powerful people.
OBL takes Omar on a trip to Afghanistan to begin the preparation to bring the rest of the family when it is safe and possible. Omar misses his mom, and the destination is kept secret until Omar arrives in country.

One piece that was unknown to me was OBL's tense courtship of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He needed Omar's blessing to live and operate in the area, but it was a long time before he finally received the greeting of welcome. The Taliban's religious philosphy was even more strict than the Wahhabism of Al Qaeda. Yet, the Taliban listened to dreams and tolerated ancestor worship. Expressing sorrow over death is seen by all as the same as criticizing Allah, since it is his will that someone died. Bin Laden can finally relax when Mullah Omar welcomes him and invites him into an alliance. They see Israel and America as part of the same force, and Israel as the stronger of the two. Hence, attacking the weaker America seems to be the smarter idea.

Omar is relieved when his mother and the rest of his family arrives. There are more births, and Najwa encourages OBL to spend more fatherly time with his sons. Omar develops a rebellious streak and loses favor to his brother Mohammed. He writes that he doesn't believe any of his brothers could be OBL's lieutenants, they were not raised as soldiers, and he is skeptical of media or intelligence reports otherwise. Among other sad things the boys withness is their puppies being used as experiments of nerve gas. "My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons." With many wives and 20 children, their paths will of course be diverse.

Omar takes a trip to Sudan and has an adventure ostensibly trying to find a bride. He returns to Afghanistan in time to learn of the Tazania and Kenya bombings and to see Al Qaeda's elation. He witnesses President Clinton's cruise missile strike that actually did kill many Al Qaeda fighters, though not as many as it could have. Omar begins mulling an escape plan at this point. He leaves to start a new life in Jeddah but returns after his grandmother tells him he has been summoned back. He learns from OBL's men that there is a giant plot underway, and Omar begins to dread the future. His father has lowered his expectations for what he will become, and he uses his mothers next pregnancy as a way to plead for her to leave the country before giving birth. Eventually, OBL relents. Omar witnesses 9/11 from his uncle's home in Saudi Arabia, his mother had left with three children to her home in Syria just days before; she was likely warned of what was about to happen. Omar begins an awkward new life, marrying, divorcing, and marrying a much older British woman. Wikipedia tells me he's now considered bipolar and is constantly paranoid, not difficult to imagine. 

Jean Sasson closes the book with some explanations that the family reached out to her to write the book because she had written other works on on the history of women in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia. I give this book 4.5 stars, a must-read if you're interested in Osama bin Laden and the history of Al Qaeda. Many are skeptical of how little Omar knew, but what he provides here is an interesting portrait and probably useful for intelligence profiling.

Al Qaeda and ISIS books:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
The Rise of ISIS - Jay Sekulow (1 star)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll (Book Review #52 of 2016)

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in an American Century   (4 stars)
(I read this book as part of a wider set to better understand the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. See full list of books below this review.)

After I finished this book, I followed up with Growing Up Bin Laden and highly recommend them in this order. Coll's book gave me much information about Osama Bin Laden (OBL)'s father that was unavailable to Bin Laden's wife and son in the latter book. But OBL's family provided much more detail on the events outlined by Coll, and their memories and timelines match up well. Coll's book is much more about the wider Bin Laden Group than Osama himself. After all, Mohammed Bin Laden had 25 sons and 29 daughters, and of course their paths would have much diversity. It's a misconception in the West that the Bin Laden group bankrolled OBL's lifestyle, he had access to a small fraction of the state and according to Growing Up Bin Laden (and The Black Banners by FBI agent Ali Soufan), that money was used up quickly and OBL and Al Qaeda were often hard-pressed for cash. The Bin Laden story reads a bit like The Godfather trilogy, or perhaps the soap opera Dallas, where the brothers all go their different ways but bear the same name. They are united by name and palace intrigue.

Much of this book focuses on the rise of Mohammed Bin Laden and the rise of his construction empire and relationship with the Saudi royal family. But Coll begins the book with a glimpse into the life of Salem bin Laden, who was known in America as a playboy, hosting a "royal continental party" with no end until his death in a plane crash in 1988. Salem was Mohammed's eldest son and became responsible, after Mohammed's death in 1967, for maintaining the business empire and its relationship with the Saudi royal family, members of which he hosted on his jaunts across America. Salem courts American women and hosts lavish parties in juxtaposition to his half-brother Osama who is living in caves helping wage war against the USSR and developing his devotion to austere Wahhabism.

American political powers have always had a complicated relationship with Saudi money and influence. Coll writes of how King Faad contributed to a Cayman Islands bank account to fund Iran-Contra under Reagan in the 1980s. There are plenty of other books written about this influence (See House of Bush, House of Saud as just one example). Salem's chief job seemed to be to keep both the Sauds and political powers in America happy in ways that would pay off well for the Saudi BinLadin Group. He is both a Western-educated playboy with multiple relationships with women but also a seemingly sexist and over-protective brother to his sisters. His mercurial personality is a symptom of his insatiable desires and of course this ends tragically-- he dies at 42, crashing an ultralight aircraft he was flying without a helmet.

Mohammed bin Laden was born in Yemen and migrated to Jeddah where he worked in construction. Mohammed's time in Jeddah coincided with British Arabist/diplomat/spy Harry St. John Bridger "Jack" Philby, who had become an advisor to Saudi monarch Ibn Saud. Oil was the interest of both the British and Americans, and both Philby and bin Laden had connections to Standard Oil of California's interest in Jeddah that later morphed into Saudi-ARAMCO in 1936. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and suddenly money poured into construction projects. Mohammed bin Laden the bricklayer had started a construction company and came to the attention of Saudi monarch Abdul Aziz; Bin Laden began building mansions in Saudi Arabia. The American firm Bechtel began many modernization projects in Saudi Arabia, including building pipelines. Bechtel contracted some of this work to Sulaiman S. Olayan's General Contracting Company. The GCC was essentially what the Binladin Group would eventually become. Mohammed Bin Laden's company starting building mosques around the Middle East, then received larger contracts for dams and canals. Once Bechtel left, Bin Laden picked up their contracts and constructed a power station in 1951. By now, Mohammed had 15 sons and nine daughters and his company became the preferred entity for building the House of Saud's largesse. King Faisal cemented an alliance with bin Laden as he came to power in 1964. Coll recounts Faisal's governmental reforms and his battling Baathists and other insurrectionists after 1967.

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 to Alia from Syria, who was likely an Alawite. Alia was just one of 22 wives the construction magnate had. OBL had little contact with his father as his mother left him at an early age. The profligate Mohammed died in a plane crash in 1967, leaving behind his business empire. Coll did not have the access to bin Laden's childhood that is recounted from OBL's family's retelling in Growing up Bin Laden.

King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew in 1974 and King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took the throne. Faisal had been courted by the US for years and would maintain the policy of trading oil access for aid, trade, and protection. Meanwhile, Salem bin Laden took the reins of his father's empire. Salem set a precedence for migration to America where his children and other family members would live and attend universities. His lifestyle led some to question whether or not he was "looney." In contrast, his half-brother OBL began reading the works of Muhammed Qutb, brother of radical Sayyid Qutb who helped found the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Coll writes that the 1973 Israeli-Egypt war was a formative moment for OBL. When radicals seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Binladin group helped the government combat the seige (I highly recommend Trofimov's The Seige of Mecca). Apparently some of the Bin Laden clan were also arrested as part of the group of attackers. OBL was also influenced by the same ideas as this group and would later adopt the same goals of purifying Saudi Arabia of its Western influences.

1979 also marked the Soviet invastion of Afghanistan and the Saudi-spearheaded response of supporting the jihad. This effort united OBL's interests with that of his secular siblings; it united both secular and separatist across Saudi Arabia, something that helped cement the House of Saud's grip on power for the time being. Coll writes that the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war and its aftermath also influenced OBL. (Again the much better details of how OBL was influenced in these years, and his Western travels and education that Coll does not cover are in their book).

In 1980, Yeslam bin Laden became chairman of the Saudi Investment Company in Switzerland, also adopting a Western lifestyle and marrying Western women. After Salem dies in 1987, Bakr bin Laden became chairman of the Saudi Binladin group. He was responsible for maintaining the family's trust accounts in Switzerland. This account was transferred after the end of the 1991 Gulf War and would never be used in a Western banking system again. Osama, raised largely separate from his family's lifestyle, owned 2.4% of the company in the 1980s. OBL, frustrated by the Saudi's decision to turn to the US for protection against Saddam in 1990, is eventually forced to move his former jihadi fighters to Sudan (events not covered well by Coll), where he plots terrorist activities. When OBL refuses to heed his brothers' requests that he return to Saudi Arabia, he flees to Afghanistan and his family sells his shares in the Binladin Group, denouncing his activities in 1994.

Interestingly, OBL's nephew Abdullah became a Harvard academic who also began to preach Islamic extremism in America in the 1980s, coming under FBI investigation in 1996 along with his brother, Omar. Abdullah and Omar may have preached anti-semitism but there was little anyone could do about their activities because Abdullah apparently had a diplomatic passport (and perhaps Omar did as well). Coll reported that Abdullah sold his home in Virginia months before 9/11 and left the country before the attacks. Omar possibly had some connection to planning the attacks but was ferried out of the country with the rest of the Bin Laden family after 9/11, the family receiving explicit permission from Colin Powell to fly while the rest of the nation's flights were grounded. Omar was never interviewed by the FBI, despite large files and an ongoing investigation on himself and Abdullah. Coll speculates as to whether Abdullah and Omar were raising funds for OBL's terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Four of the 9/11 hijackers lived just down the street. The FBI raids the group Abdullah chaired, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, in 2004 in an investigation on terrorism financing; the group was banned elsewhere and testified against in the 9/11 commission hearings.

I find accounts on this part differ. Some say that Abdullah left before 9/11, but a New Yorker article from November 2001 documents that Abdullah was the only bin Laden to remain in the US for a time after 9/11. He claims he was willing to help the FBI but they never asked. Coll writes that the Saudi embassy told the FBI they could not interview him because they claimed him as an attache with diplomatic immunity. It appears that Omar was the one doing the preaching and perhaps fundraising, and that his ties to Abdullah were not allowed to be completed. Wikileaks revealed that Abdullah would be the bin Laden to officially request OBL's death certificate in 2011.

As I write this in 2016, Congress has just overidden Pres. Obama's veto on a bill that lets 9/11 victims sue the Saudi's for potential involvement, an effort that Coll's investigative reporting has fueled. The bin Laden family engaged in various PR and legal moves in the US and elsewhere to protect their assets both from confiscation and investigation. (In his biography by Ron Suskind, Former Treas. Secretary Paul O'Neill documents the investigation of financing of terrorism after 9/11 that reached a "dead end" when it got to Saudi Arabia.) The Washington-oriented Carlyle Group's involvement with the bin Ladens and their connections in escorting the family (and other Saudi nationals) out of the country ASAP after 9/11, even those under FBI investigation, is a frustrating (if largely forgotten) part of history.

Coll documents the CIA's relationship with the Saudi government and the mutual distrust. The CIA were listening to Osama in Afghanistan and apparently getting little help from the Saudi government. Coll breaks down the translation of OBL's interviews before and after 9/11. While various Arab and Islamic scholars and sociologists I have read recently criticize the use of a "clash of civilizations" to describe the current state of affairs, that is clearly how OBL saw the problem because it is written as such in the Quran. The Binladin group continues to grow under the leadership of its chairman Bakr, and continues to be responsible for lucrative building projects in Saudi Arabia.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If interested in Osama bin Laden, don't read this book without reading Growing Up bin Laden. This website appears to have the entire recorded history on the bin Laden family, much of which is left out of this volume and would fill many volumes if every lead were pursued:
Other books on the history of the Middle East and Saudi Arabia would also be helpful. Also, consult other sources more recent than this book, it would be interesting for Coll to write an update based on now-available information.

Other books on Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and ISIS I read coincidentally:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
The Rise of Isis  - Jay Sekulow (1 star)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)
Jihad Academy: The Rise of ISIS (not yet read)

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov (Book Review #51 of 2016)

The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine

I recently reviewed several books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history, modern critiques of Islam and views to reform, and books about human rights in Islamic countries written predominantly by women (full list at bottom of this post). I did that to set a foundation for trying to understand the development of ISIS and other radical groups, for which I read several other books on modern militant Islam (list also at bottom). This list will grow as new books become available and I find time to read older books as well. But this book should be read in the context of having read the others.

The Siege of Mecca is a must-read for understanding the roots of Al Qaeda, the history of US and European interaction with Islamic extremism, and for putting much of today's struggles into context and the beliefs of jihadis such as ISIS who eagerly await the Mahdi. I had read other books on the US' relationship with Saudi Arabia before (ex: House of Bush, House of Saud), but all seem to ignore the events of 1979. In 2016, the tragedy of Benghazi comes to mind quite a bit, but in 1979 there were attacks on US embassies around the world due to the seizing of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a radical Islamic group wrongly attributed to the US (and Israel); it is a wonder how an Ambassador or other staff were not killed then. Most of the world has forgotten November 20th, 1979 because it was lost in the Iranian hostage crisis, the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, and other events. Trofimov has done an outstanding job researching this book and bringing events to light. Since reading this book, several others have mentioned this book, including one by Bin Laden's family. The events in the aftermath of 1979 help explain both the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of the religious police and more overt Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and its export abroad in the 1980s to today, and the US policy of establishing bases in the Middle East to show strength.  

The author begins with a history of the community of brothers in the Wahabbi sect in Saudi Arabia. There is much in the history of Wahhabism that the books on the history of Islam and the Middle East on the list below were quite helpful in understanding. The House of Saud made a Faustian bargain with cleric Muhammad ibn Wahhab in which the Sauds would be the ruling family while the Wahhabs would be the dominant religious sect.

At the time of the Siege, Saudi Arabia was ruled by Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who was King of Saudi Arabia from 1975 to 1982. His father had been King Faisal, who had abolished slavery in 1962 and been committed to other reforms and closer ties with the West before being assassinated by a rebellious nephew in 1975. These kings were seeing a growth in oil revenue and and survived on the deals made with religious clerics long ago. Bedouins began to move into the growing cities, bringing their more conservative backgrounds with them. Among influential clerics of the day was Abd al-Aziz Ibn Baz, who would later become the Grand Mufti. Ibn Baz was a prominent Salafi who was part of a wider conservative network that Trofimov documents brainwashed members. It was during this time that the doctrine of the Mahdi, which many incorrectly associate mostly with Shi'ia Islam, was revived.

In the 1970s, members of the Black Panthers and other foreign dissident groups were learning in Saudi mosques and schools. There was a growing sense of insecurity as Saudi Arabia relied upon the West for military aid and technological know-how in building projects while being completely reliant on oil exports to support the entire economy and social state. There was greater uncertainty as Saudi Arabia's chief rival, Iran, threw off the yoke of its US-backed dictator in favor of a religious state. The CIA had been weakened by Congressional investigations, its failure to see what was happening in Iran, and the Jimmy Carter administration more interested in peace than espionage. To the Wahhabists, Westerners on sacred Saudi soil were akin to Christian invaders in the Crusades.

Juhayman ibn Muhammad ibn Sayf al-Otaybi was one member of the group which seized the Grand Mosque. He studied the Hadiths even though establishment clerics discouraged the process due to how complicated the Hadiths are. Juhayman was a devoted disciple of Ibn Baz and became opposed to the Saudi royal family's policies and lifestyles which were clearly out of conformity with strict Islamic principles. Juhayman's father had made the same charge against King ibn Saud in the 1920s. Juhayman's intensely conservative beliefs caused him to break with Ibn Baz and demand change.

Juhayman's Sunni eschatology includes the Dajjal returning to earth as a false messiah (same as the Christian antichrist), and Isa (Jesus) returning to destroy first the Dajjal, then the Jews. (Shi'ia apparently believe it is the Mahdi who will do this.) In Sunni strains, the Mahdi appears to be similar to the Isa figure, he is a mortal man who will establish a right and peaceful Muslim rule some time before the Judgement Day in which Isa returns. Juhayman's brother-in-law, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, apparently fit the bill. His first name is Mohammed, as it is believed the Mahdi will be, and his family hails from the North. Members of their band of several dozen radicals apparently have dreams and visions that compel them to believe that al-Qahtani is the Mahdi, and the fervor seems capture al-Qahtani's mind as well. Many were formerly in the military, and the group apparently had enough connections and funding to be heavily armed, disciplined, and well-trained. The assault on the Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca is set for November 20th, the first day of the Islamic lunar calendar, which also is the date the Mahdi will supposedly reveal himself.

There is widespread confusion after the seizure of the Grand Mosque. Senior Saudi leadership is out of the country at the time. Some of the guards believe that Abdullah Mohammed al-Qahtani is indeed the Mahdi and that they are in an eschatologically important moment. The US Embassy begins shredding documents, fearing the worse and suspecting the Iranians have captured the mosque complex, enraging the Saudis by leaking such ideas to the media. The Ayatollah Khomenei broadcasts that the US and Israel have taken over the complex, un unquelled report that causes uprisings all over the world. The Saudis were reluctant to quash the rumors because they did not want to acknowledge the Mosque had been seized from under their watchful eye and they were mad at the Americans for leaking the disturbance. President Carter dispatches a carrier group to the Persian Gulf. Consulates and other sites were attacked from Turkey to Pakistan. Trofimov writes that the future would-be assassin of the Pope, Mehmet Ali Oğca, was motivated by attack on the Grand Mosque to escape from prison during this, and the belief of Western involvement may have contributed to his desire to murder the Pope on his visit to Turkey in 1981.

In Pakistan, the US Embassy was overrun by armed rioters. Embassy staff were rounded up into vaults while President Carter and the Ambassador to Pakistan tried uselessly to contact the Pakistani President. American airlines offices and other consulates around the country were attacked and burned, two American soldiers died. The Pakistani leadership played a political game and refused to refute the rumors. Pres. Carter later claimed that he had apologized and offered to pay reparations, but others dispute this and Trofimov writes that the US Marines cursed Carter for this incident for the rest of his short-lived presidency. Secretary of State Vance moves to evacuate the embassies all over the Muslim world.

Trofimov writes that there was American veteran in civil defense who worked in the complex, he had simply uttered the Shahada to work in the place. Two Americans disguised as pilgrims were able to sneak into the complex and take video crucial to intelligence for the counter-strike. An African-American was part of the rebel group that was attacking armored personnel carriers, and another was also involved. One of the two was later executed and their identities were never revealed. 

During fighting with Saudi defense forces, the would-be Mahdi is killed. Juhayman convinces the group to continue the fight, claiming there is no proof that al-Qahtani is actually dead. To make matters worse for the Saudis, a Shi'ia uprising takes place in Katif. The Saudi government censors all the news and tries to appease the Ayatollah in Tehran while bloodily suppressing the uprising.

The re-taking of the mosque was quite tricky due to the buildings being holy sites and the Saudis not having forces equipped or trained for such a task. But suddenly every Saudi prince wanted a piece of the glory for retaking Mecca and this made it even messier. While the Saudis finally publicly admitted there was a problem, calling in Americans or other infidels on the ground was out of the question, leaving the House of Saud with few options. Only the Jordanians and Pakistanis had special forces among the Muslim countries which might be up to the task, the Pakistanis sent a group of 50. The government needed fatwas to be issued giving the military cover for operations within the complex. The Saudis blasted away at minarets and other buildings, keeping the damage invisible to the outside world through media blackout. For the heavier fighting inside the basement of the Grand Mosque, the Saudis quietly reached out to the French who dispatched a group of their elite forces fresh off staging a coup in Central Africa. (The French hated President Carter's policies as well.) 11 men arrive with no identification and the task of training the Saudis properly. The task is complicated by not even being able to draw a schematic of the buildings without it being sacrilege. Three commandos have to show conversion to Islam in order to enter the complex and engage in operations. The fighting lasted until Juhayman and over 60 others were captured on December 4th.

In the end, Juhayman and his gang were executed. Juhayman was sort of a martyr for his cause of Islamic purity, some of his writings make it to Egypt where they are embraced by other radicals; one of whom assassinates Anwar Sadat in 1981. The US begins negotiations with Oman about building a naval base and the USSR counters US moves toward the Gulf by increasing its troop buildup on the border of Afghanistan-- the USSR would invade just a few weeks later. Jimmy Carter changed his policy to one of more aggressive stance, backing the CIA's operations with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. The House of Saud, quite shaken by the brazen assault on their rule, makes further deals with clerics like Ibn Baz to keep their rule safe and further fund Wahhabist schools and mosques and causes globally. One of those causes was taking on the USSR in Afghanistan. The Sauds must have realized that such a group could not engage in such a brazen attack without wider funding and resources. Most of the Saudis are in the same positions when the book was written in 2007 as they were in 1979.  The events of 1979 would further inspire Osama bin Laden to be active in Afghanistan, and later pick up where Juhayman left off-- cleansing the holy sites of foreign influence and decadence.

I give this book 5 stars out of 5. A must-read for anyone interested in foreign policy, history, Saudi Arabia, or how the West is now at war with an increasingly violent jihad. It is also an interesting book on the spread of subversive ideas among small, committed groups. Apologists like John Esposito seem to argue that 1979 was the violent end to an isolated fringe group, rather than the beginning of the growth of increasingly large armed groups of Wahhabis and Salafis bent on large-scale attacks like 9/11. Trofimov does a good job laying out the facts and their importance.

Books I read prior to or subsequent to the above:
A History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

Islamic reform-style:
Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

Human and women's rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Reading Lolita in Tehran -  (read earlier)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)

Foreign policy/Americans traveling in Middle East and Central Asia:
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars)
The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker (4 stars)
A Rope and a Prayer - David Rohde and Kristen Mulvhill (4 stars)
Left of Boom - How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (3.5 stars)

Al Qaeda and ISIS books:
The Siege of Mecca - Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars)
The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll  (4 stars)
Growing Up Bin Laden - Najwa and Omar Bin Laden (4.5 stars)
Guantanamo Diary - Mohamedou Ould Slahi (4.5 stars)
The Black Banners - Ali Soufan (5 stars)
The Rise of Isis  - Jay Sekulow (1 star)
Black Flags - The Rise of ISIS - Joby Warrick (4.5 stars)
ISIS - Jessica Stern (4 stars)
ISIS Exposed  - Eric Stakelbeck (2.5 stars)

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner (Book Review #50 of 2016)

The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition by Kouzes and Posner
Goodreads' algorithm had this on my "recommended" list for a long time, so I knocked it out. All leadership books overlap or draw from each other; occasionally one, like this one, cites a particular survey. The survey in this book identifies "characteristics of admired leaders" and was done internationally, but the majority of responses were from the US. It was updated in each edition from 1987-2007, without much significant change between the initial survey and the latest. This book reminded me the most of Jim Collins' Good to Great or Built to Last; much of what they advise leaders and managers to do jives with the stories in those. I'd recommend this book to any leader from middle-manager with any goal-setting authority to pastors, parents, etc.

The authors identified a culture of trust as the key to having motivated employees "authentic leadership is founded on trust." Credibility is the foundation- the First Law. 89% of survey respondents identified "honesty" as a characteristic of admired leaders. (No wonder in 2016 we have the two must unpopular presidential candidates of all time, both score low on surveys measuring their perceived trustworthiness.) The leader must be trustworthy and know where the group is going, he or she must have a direction they're taking the team. Around the time of writing this, I heard someone else say that "trust is the intersection of integrity and competency," and that hit the nail on the head. Reading The Leadership Challenge solidified my decision to leave my previous job because the organization lacked trust, a clearly stated values, consistent competency, and a clearly stated vision. The job I moved to has the vision and values hung up on posters in highly-visible areas.

In the book, those rated as good leaders are those who make the vision clear-- everyone should know the mission statement and what's expected. Expressing the vision is the "most difficult" of all the leadership skills, but leaders have to also state their values clearly and then live by them. Team members should be expected to maintain the values or be shown the door. Shared values make a difference in work ethic, quality, pride, teamwork, etc. Companies with shared values perform "measurably better," (again reminiscent of Good to Great and probably every John Maxwell book).

There are five practices:
1. Model the Way
2. Inspire a Shared Vision
3. Challenge the Process
4. Enable Others to Act
5. Encourage the Heart

Besides the top quality of honesty, the next characteristics were being "forward-looking, inspiring, and competent." Competence was cited by 68% of respondents, whereas the next highest quality--intelligence-- showed up in less than half (48%) of the responses. You don't have to be the smartest, but you do have to be competent.

Leaders try, fail, learn, then repeat. They grow. They use "we" instead of "I." They know what they want and why. "They do what they say they will do." The most admired qualities in the surveys were honesty, competency, and inspiration. The authors suggest leaders communicate with stories to better illustrate their vision. The vision/mission statement should be a slogan for easy transmission and memorization. Goals should be stated clearly and be measurable. True leaders have to tap into a system of intrinsic rewards by creating an environment where people take pride in their work and are passionate about the work itself. One way to foster pride is to give ownership to employees for their work. Leaders have to show trust by delegation, "those who cannot trust cannot lead because they cannot delegate." You need goals and standards to release employees' creative energy and focus the values into real application.

Another way to release followers' creativity is for the leader to listen to them. "Devote 25 percent of your staff meeting to listening to new, outside ideas." This requires dreaming-- dream big but start small. Leaders should start small and then celebrate the wins along the way. Employees should be knowledgeable about the entire organization, how everyone fits into the mission. The authors don't mention but ISO standards essentially require this. Their example was one I was knowledgeable about, and was once featured on PBS Newshour-- Springfield, Missouri's SRC Holdings owned by Jack Stack. At SRC, all employees have a stake, are trained an included in meetings on the basic financials of the business, know everyone's task and where they fit in-- they have ownership from the janitor to the managers.

How a leader spends his or her time signals importance. To borrow from Colin Powell (not the authors), that doesn't mean being a "busy bastard" trying to work weekends or longer hours than your employees, but your values should rather be shown in how you spend your time on task. Your employees see what you do and chalk that up as an expectation for their own behavior. If family and social life are important to the organization, it should be demonstrated by what the boss does. Leaders use the word "love" frequently, they have a passion for the values they espouse, for their work, the organization, and employees.

Leaders need to avoid favoritism, and I don't think the authors stressed this point. They write that leaders should celebrate employees who fulfilled values the best, this can sometimes be subjective. The authors encourage developing friendships and trust in the workplace, but in my experience and listening to other managers, it's best the environment allow employees to foster those friendships with each other rather than their boss (though they should always be comfortable with and trust the boss).

Leadership is learnable. Leaders should always remember their humble beginnings to avoid the "curse of hubris." (There is much psychology that the authors neglect.) One remarkable trait the authors point out is that teams which have been together longest communicate the least, and look for outside ideas the least, becoming less innovative. (I was reminded of how Steve Ballmer forbid Microsoft salespeople from using an iPhone, even though they found it helped them do their jobs better). In the organization I left, the team I was a part of was pretty isolated both from the larger office and other outside ideas. This failure to seek the "outside view" leads to stagnation and other dangerous problems for the organization. We have to learn from each other but also other divisions and organizations.

Accountability, adherence to vision and values, is crucial. The authors mention the FAA which has a self-reporting system for mistakes that gets published. People may be shocked to see the sheer number of mistakes that get reported, but few of the mistakes are actually consequential, it's the system that's important. Leaders should strive to create an environment where stakeholders admit mistakes so that they become part of the learning process; systemic and habitual problems can be identified and fixed.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Book Review #49 of 2016)

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

A year ago I read the book Crucial Conversations (CC) (my review), which is quite similar to this book and perhaps more well-known. But I found Difficult Conversations (DC) to have fresh insights and actually be an easier read-- it doesn't contain all the fluff and testimonials that CC does. The authors of this book are Harvard academics. Bruce Patton's book Getting to Yes, on negotiation, is on my to-read list, and I wonder how it squares with this one-- where the point is not to see the DC as a negotiation. I think the main difference between CC and DC are that CC approaches the conversation with a strategy of asking "What do I want?" whereas this book has a goal of expressing "How do I feel?" (So, in CC you say "I want..." whereas in DC you say "I feel...") Both books are worth reading, keeping notes as reference, and revisiting frequently. My favorite review on the cover comes from management guru Tom Peters: “I’m on my third reading. Half the pages are dog-eared. This is a mind-bogglingly powerful book. For life.” Another book I'd recommend with the above pair is Toxic Workplace by Kusy and Holloway (my review), where the reader is given strategies on how to deal with difficult people.

The goal is to make the difficult conversation a "learning conversation." It requires talking about feelings in order to resolve the conflict, don't avoid the underlying emotions but seek to have them heard and understand the other person's emotions as well. It is not about comparing objective facts; perceptions matter more than facts when it comes to human beings. You can boil a difficult conversation down to three pillars:
1. Learn their story.
2. Express your goals and feelings.
3. Problem-solve together.

Before having a difficult conversation, have an inward one with yourself. Be humble and assume you lack important information. Perhaps the other party has done something out of ignorance rather than malice, or has something going on you know nothing about. What is the other person's worldview that makes him accept his positions? Don't accept or reject their point of view, just work to understand it. Empathy is crucial-- imagine yourself in the other person's story or imagine how the situation might appear to an outside observer with even less facts. Recognize and cope with any personal identity issues in your conversation with yourself. Are you bringing other unrelated problems into this one?

Find out: "What did I contribute to the conflict?" Was it avoidance of an issue that caused feelings to fester? Was I being testy? What did I perceive, what triggers did I feel? Work out a "what can we do differently next time?" conversation with the other person (crucial if it's a longer-term relationship). You should make sure your words in the conflict resolution truly express what you're feeling. "I feel..." should be spoken and heard, rather than "I want..." "I feel" avoids accusation and gets right to the reason for the conversation. DCs are not about objective facts but about what is important--feelings. Definitely avoid exaggeration, and don't deny what the other person either perceived or felt.

Everyone wants to change others, millions in America marry on the belief that he/she can change the other person-- that's not happening if you set out to do it in conversation. We have to learn to accept the person well enough to live and work with him or her. If you set out to change the other in conversation, you will not achieve what you and will harm the relationship. But a mutual learning conversation where you hear the other person's feelings and seek to understand his or her worldview could go a long way to the change you hope to see.
Here's the tough part for me: Understand that even if you shared your deep feelings about how the person's actions made you feel, he or she may engage in the same behavior even if they understand how it makes you feel. He or she might even just forget! That's what people do; at some point you make the choice to love then where they're at. (This is supposed to be easier for me as a Christian, because I know that I should forgive others because God forgave me while I was yet a sinner, an enemy, who did not love Him. Romans 5:8. But it's difficult and requires reminder and practice.) He or she may not have the power to change. You've got to let it go and instead find your own identity in the conflict.

The conflict is not who you are, and it's not all about you and your needs. Begin the conversation with the third-person point of view. "I saw, help me understand where you're coming from. Why did you say 'X'?" Maintain eye contact with the person, listen and make sure they feel heard (the authors do not go through the "create a safe place" directive like Crucial Conversations' did). Put the problem on the table and work through it.

The authors strongly recommend again the strategy of dressing an assertion up as a question, and admonish the reader to be careful asking any questions in the difficult conversation. I have been intentionally trying to frame my points as questions, I think whole books have been written on the best way to do this in negotiation. Instead, the authors write you should just say "I feel..." or "I understand what you're saying, and I feel this way..." If you're going to ask a question, make it an invitation -- "Can you help me understand this? Can you tell me how you felt about X...?" Then, paraphrase your understanding of their feelings. Say "My view is..." and share life experiences about how you came to that view; then LISTEN as the other person explains his or her own view. State what is still missing in the story, or what doesn't make sense to you.

The ultimate challenge is perhaps to "find the 'and' and not the 'or.'" Things may not easily be black or white, you perceive them as black and she perceives them as white and in the process we find out why each person feels that way. Again, this is different from Crucial Conversations where you ask "What do I want this conversation to accomplish?" and instead have a learning conversation where you understand "What are my feelings, and what are the other person's feelings?" There are no easy acronyms to remember.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I need to constantly revisit the thoughts in this book and practice. This book is excellent for any parent, pastor, teacher, manager, or spouse.