Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: Mastermind

The many faces of the 9/11 architect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
by Richard Miniter

Some like to dismiss our Constitution by saying that it’s too old to deal with things like modern-day terrorism. The Founders had to handle unrest, political intrigue, and treason. Benedict Arnold almost turned over West Point to the enemy. The Newburgh Conspiracy tested Washington’s mettle as a military commander. Shay’s Rebellion is only the best known of the violent protests that spread throughout the newly formed states. James Wilson and about thirty armed friends held off a riot in Philadelphia that could have ended his life before he helped launch a constitutional republic. The Whiskey Rebellion threatened to upend the fledgling republic operating under the newly enacted Constitution. Barbary pirates kept our first three presidents awake at night. The Aaron Burr Conspiracy showed that political intrigue could undermine a budding republic.

These were only some of the more prominent violent protests and near insurrections. The Founders not only understood the frailties of man, they also had personal experience with a few that actually harbored evil intent. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would not have been foreign to their experience.

Mastermind by Richard Miniter is far more than the story of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSH). This book is a concise history of terrorism from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing through the September 11, 2001 attacks to the present day. Americans should read this book to understand how jihadists think and act.

Richard Miniter is an investigative journalist who has written for the European Wall Street Journal, the London Sunday Times, and many American publications. The writing has the crisp style of an experienced journalist. Despite its standard heft, this is a short book. Excluding the index, notes, bibliography, and appendixes, Mastermind is only two hundred and nine pages. It reads even faster. This straightforward narrative is easy to follow except for the daunting Arabic names. Miniter includes never-before reported events and details that make the book valuable and fascinating for informed readers.

This reader walked away with several impressions.
  • Terrorist do not succeed because they are skilled, smart, or well-financed. They succeed due to single-minded determination. Men like KSH are not put off by failure or even the death or capture of fellow jihadists. They just try again and again until something works.
  • If terrorists made fewer mistakes, we’d suffer many many more casualties.
  • As in any human endeavor, leadership is crucial.
  • Many jihadists are related. Miniter says that terrorism is frequently a family business.
  • Foiling a single attack saves lives, but continued attacks can only be stopped by capturing or killing the leaders.
  • 9-11 could have been averted because all the major characters became known after the first World Trade Center bombing.
  • Like bin Laden, KSM should have been caught several times.
  • FBI and CIA intermural fighting hampers the fight against terrorism
  • The FBI Standard Operating Procedures don’t deliver results in developing countries.
  • A law enforcement mentality will not defeat terrorism.
The most poignant part of the book for me was the section on the Bali bombing. On the day of this terrorist attack, I was in China working for a travel company. I was asked to fly to Bali the following day to assess traveler safety.  When I visited the bomb site, and talked to families at the hospitals, I learned that the media focuses on deaths, and barely mentions the maimed. When the injured and their extended families are considered, terrorist bombs affect far more people than are generally reported. Also, the American economy hiccupped badly after 9/11, but the Bali bombing ruined the livelihood of nearly everyone on that island paradise. It was sad, and I didn’t expect it all to be brought back to my consciousness by this book.

How would the Founders have handled Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? No one can say for sure, but they certainly would have decided how to punish him in less than eight years.

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