Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books:
When Osama bin Laden decided to launch a jihad against the US and the West from his new base in Afghanistan in 1996, few took him seriously. Several developments at that time got little attention from Western governments as Afghanistan became the incubator of a new, Arab-led “global jihad” against the West. The fifteen-year-long insurrection against the Indian government of Kashmir introduced the skills of suicide bombing to South Asia. The endless civil war in Somalia eliminated any clear center of power there and freewheeling jihadist groups emerged in the chaos. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict was seen as becoming increasingly insoluble. President Clinton’s failed attempt to foster peace at the end of his administration came just as many Palestinians were beginning to embrace more extremist Islamic ideas.
Two of the books under review are so illuminating about this twilight period in the 1990s that I even wonder if September 11 could have been averted if they had been published a decade earlier. One is Omar Nasiri’s Inside the Jihad, a first-person account by a Moroccan-born spy who infiltrated Islamist groups on behalf of European intelligence organizations in the 1990s; the other is Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad, a Norwegian scholar’s account of a top al-Qaeda strategist named Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2005 and handed over to the US. He is now one of the “rendered” or disappeared prisoners. Both books are about men who were trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan in the early 1990s—when bin Laden was not even there—and who then traveled across Europe to mobilize Muslims for the emerging global jihad. The Afghan camps were providing military and technical training, ideological education, and new global networks well before al-Qaeda arrived on the scene.
Yet the young men who trained in these camps were not educated in the Islamic schools called madrasas and they were inspired less by extremist Islamic ideology than by their desires to see the world, handle weapons, and have a youthful adventure. It was a boy’s world of reality games. “I realized that I had dreamed of this moment for years,” writes Nasiri—a nom de plume.