Television and newspapers keep us posted on the latest developments, but only books offer us the deeper and broader perspective we need to understand the crisis facing our nation. There's much of value to be learned about Osama bin Laden and the historical, political and cultural factors contributing to Islamist militancy in the Middle East and Central Asia. Salon's staff offers this list of recommended books for readers who want to know more. Just after the Sept. 11 attacks, most bookstores and online booksellers went quickly out of stock on these and other related titles; since then, a few of them have returned to the shelves. When possible we provide links to their pages at Powells.com for your convenience. (For an explanation of why the recent information shortage is an excellent argument on behalf of e-books, click here.)
Osama bin Laden and the Taliban
Usama Bin Laden's Al-Qaida: Profile of a Terrorist Network by Yonah Alexander and Michael S. Swetnam (Transnational, 2001)
More of a dossier than a full-fledged book, this 170-page volume provides a valuable list of facts about the known members and activities of bin Laden's loose-knit web of terrorist cells. Appendixes include texts of bin Laden's statements and legal documents.
Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America by Yossef Bodansky (Prima Publishing, 1999)
An account of the network of militant Islamist groups bin Laden has belonged to or worked with, this is a somewhat problematic work given the author's murky agenda and extravagant use of unnamed sources. Nevertheless, it's one of the most detailed books on its subject and genuinely informative if approached with some skepticism.
Read Salon's review | Buy it
The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism by Simon Reeve (Northeastern University Press, 1999)
This book by a former Sunday Times of London writer views the bin Laden organization's techniques through the lens of Yousef, the engineer of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid (Yale, 2000)
By a well-regarded Pakistani journalist who has covered the Taliban and interviewed several of its leaders, this book describes how the fundamentalist group rose to power in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, and why their repressive government was welcomed by many war-weary Afghans. Particular attention is given to the role of the opium and oil trades in the region.
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Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan by Michael Griffin (Pluto Press, 2001)
This history by the news editor for Index on Censorship, is mostly compiled from press reports and focuses on the geopolitical manuevering (and blundering) behind the Taliban's rise to power.
Afghanistan and Central Asia
The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan by Artyom Borovik (Grove Press, 2001)
Borovik visited Afghanistan before and during the withdrawal of Soviet troops and pairs novel-like writing and momentum with lucid firsthand accounts of the dramatic and dreary business of fighting a ground war in the country's daunting terrain.
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An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot (Picador, 2001)
A British journalist who has visited Afghanistan several times and fought alongside the mujahedin recalls the land he came to love in the years before Taliban rule.
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The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk (Kodansha, 1992)
A history of the struggle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia in the 19th century, this tale of espionage and intrigue shows how the fate of the peoples of Central Asia has long been toyed with in the strategic battles of world powers.
Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism by John K. Cooley (Pluto Press, 1999)
A foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and ABC News relates the history of the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan during the Cold War and after. A particularly helpful book for those who want to know more about America's unwitting role in creating the Frankenstein monster of the the Taliban.
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The Ultimate Terrorists by Jessica Stern (Harvard, 1999)
A balanced and blessedly concise examination of the potential for terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. Written by a former fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, this book was an early warning of the new threat.
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Terrorism & The Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security by James X. Dempsey and David Cole (First Amendment Foundation, 1999)
While the authors are primarily concerned with the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, they provide a cautionary counterpoint to the current rush to gain security at the price of the liberties that are a signal part of American life.
Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
A trio of New York Times reporters lay out the recent history of biological warfare and the lack of preparation on the part of the U.S. government for just such an attack -- against American troops overseas as well as within our borders.
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Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind by Walter Reich, editor (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998)
This collection of essays about how terrorists think (opposing theories are presented) includes case studies in the factors leading to political violence.
Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda by Khidr Abd Al-Abbas Hamzah with Jeff Stein (Scribner, 2000)
A briskly paced, first-person account of an atomic scientist's experience designing a nuclear weapon for Saddam Hussein, this is a chilling portrait of the dictator of Iraq and his military aims.
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson (Holt, 2000)
"Blowback" is a term coined by CIA-types to describe the unintended consequences of U.S. intervention in the affairs of other nations. While Johnson doesn't deal directly with Afghanistan, the current crisis there is a classic example of the syndrome.
The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 2000)
An erudite, lively discussion, by the noted British scholar of religion, of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Armstrong sees fundamentalism in all three religions as a struggle against modernity itself, which threatens the way religion has primordially helped people make sense of the world.
Read an interview with Karen Armstrong | Buy it
Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World by Benjamin R. Barber (Ballantine, 1995)
In this snappily titled, far-ranging treatise, Barber envisions the clash between the spread of global consumerism and the fundamentalism that rises up to beat it back as the central conflict of contemporary life. His definition of "jihad," very loosely used, refers to a wide range of reactionary responses, not just to Islamism.
God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East by Judith Miller (Simon & Schuster, 1996)
Former New York Times bureau chief in Cairo (and co-author of "Germs"), Miller writes compellingly of working in a region whose stability is threatened by its growing Islamist movements.
Islam by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000)
Part of the Modern Library Chronicles series of short histories, this is a concise, readable, helpful and ultimately sympathetic account of the complex history of the world's second-largest religion.
Islam and the West by Bernard Lewis (Oxford, 1993)
Perhaps the foremost Western historian of the Arab world, Lewis has taken some knocks from critics like Edward Said (in this collection of essays about Islam's clashes with the West, he whacks back), but his work is still considered essential by scholars and knowledgeable readers.
The Holy Quran: An English Translation by Allamah Nooruddin, Abdul Mannan and Amatul Rahman Omar (Noor Foundation International, 1997)
The legendarily beautiful literary Arabic of Islam's sacred book, the Quran, is notoriously hard to translate, and there's no real consensus on who's done it best. This is a recent edition, much admired by many.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People by V.S. Naipaul (Random House, 1982 & 1999)
The Nobel Prize-winner's controversial observations about the Muslims he met during his travels in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have angered some, but others have praised his boundless curiosity and sincere efforts to understand and accurately represent the people he met. Undoubtedly the two best-written books on this list.
Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World by Jan Goodwin (Penguin, 1995)
Based on interviews with Muslim women in 10 different Islamic nations in the Middle East, Goodwin's book documents the harsh constraints they are subjected to under fundamentalist rule.
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks (Anchor, 1995)
Brooks, a Wall Street Journal correspondant, traveled around the Middle East, interviewing a wide range of women, with often surprising results.
Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World by Fatima Mernissi (Perseus, 1992)
Muslim feminists do exist, and Mernissi, a sociology professor in Morocco, is one of the most eloquent. In this book, she explores the uneasiness her culture feels in the face of Western political ideals.
The Middle East
The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years by Bernard Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)
The dean of Near Eastern studies provides an overview of the past two millennia in the region's history. See also his "The Making of the Modern Middle East."
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, Jon Rothschild (Shocken, 1989)
Rich with the accounts of Arabs who were actual witnesses to the West's invasion of the Muslim empire, this volume reminds us that Europeans, too, have played the role of rampaging barbarians.
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin (Owl, 1989)
A celebrated account of the political dealings and disastrous post-colonial policies that became the seeds of much of the current tension in the region.
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin (Simon & Schuster, 1991)
There's no better book for anyone trying to understand how America has become so dependent on oil, and thus the Persian Gulf, than this Pulitzer Prize-winning epic.
Power, Culture and Politics: Interviews with Edward Said (Knopf, 2001)
The noted Palestinian critic and intellectual explains his thoughts on the dilemmas facing the Middle East and his attempt to find practical ways of implementing them.
The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran by Robin Wright (Vintage, 2000)
A reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has spent many years covering Iran explores the progressive roots of the Iranian Revolution and how it fell prey to Islamic fundamentalists whose own influence seems currently on the wane.
Israel and the Arabs
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989)
An informed, evenhanded, highly readable account of the political, cultural and day-to-day realities in Lebanon and Israel in the 1980s, by the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Winner of the National Book Award, it's an excellent introduction to the ordinary people, the leaders, the issues and the passions of this tangled region.
One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate by Tom Segev (Metropolitan, 2000)
Much of the strife that continues in modern Israel has its roots in the British occupation of Palestine, detailed in this book by an Israeli historian.
Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege by Amira Hass (Metropolitan, 1999)
An Israeli journalist who went to live in the Palestinian region of Gaza describes firsthand the conditions that have fostered much Middle Eastern militancy.
Arab & Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land by David K. Shipler (Penguin, 1986)
In a book acclaimed for its balance, the New York Times' Jerusalem correspondent records the experiences and voices of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
Palestine by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics, 2001)
A graphic novel on the same level of seriousness as "Maus," this compilation is dated (Sacco interviewed over 100 people in the region in the early 1990s), but it remains a compassionate, insightful primer on the lives of Israeli soldiers, Palestinian refugees and children in the Middle East.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
A classic of military strategy and philosophy, Sun Tzu's aphoristic treatise (available in dozens of editions and adaptations) is the first book many people turn to when contemplating contests ranging from business to sports to, yes, armed combat. Tony Soprano's a fan.
War in a Time of Peace by David Halberstam (Scribner, 2001)
The author of "The Best and the Brightest," a classic work on the Vietnam War, turns his attention to American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, examining how the U.S. has become involved with conflicts in Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans as well as the Persian Gulf War.
Read an interview with David Halberstam | Buy it
Delta Force by Col. Charlie Beckwith and Donald Knox (Avon, 2000)
A description of the founding of one of the military's legendary elite Special Ops units, one that specifically targets terrorism, as told by the man who helped create it.
Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly, 1999)
A bestselling account of the U.S. military's disastrous 1993 raid on Mogadishu, Somalia (bin Laden-affiliated groups were implicated in the mission's ambush), this nail-biter shows how easily a Special Ops mission can go terribly wrong; 18 soldiers died.
Read an interview with Mark Bowden | Buy it