Foreign Affairs

What to Read on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda

The terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden more than 20 years ago has orchestrated terrorist attacks such as 9/11, supported fighters in civil wars throughout the Muslim world, and fostered an extreme, anti-U.S. discourse that has indoctrinated a generation of radicals. With bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. special operations forces on Monday, the organization is at a turning point. Bin Laden led al Qaeda to both triumphs and disasters, and his successors will face many difficulties as they seek to keep the organization relevant and, if possible, build on its founder’s many accomplishments.

The literature on al Qaeda, and terrorism in general, exploded after the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden’s life has received exhaustive scrutiny, as has al Qaeda’s history. Al Qaeda allies and affiliate groups, whose stories often proved integral to that of al Qaeda and have now emerged as threats on their own, are also receiving the attention they deserve. The best works, including those below, explain the complexity of al Qaeda and the broader jihadist movement it purports to lead. As these volumes make clear, bin Laden was a remarkable leader -- but the cause he champions suffers internal divisions and contradictions that have often led to bitter infighting and many mistakes.

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