Al Qaeda in Its Own Words provides the translated writings of four jihadis—Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, and Abu Musab Zarqawi. Edited by five people with Kepel, a French sociologist of Islam, as lead editor, it contains a wealth of data that, unfortunately, is presented in a rather confused manner.
The actual words of Al-Qaeda are rarely analyzed or placed in context. Obvious contradictions—such as Al-Qaeda's constant protestations to Americans that its war on them is a response to and derives from U.S. foreign policy while telling Muslims that the jihad must persevere until the globe is governed according to Islamic law—are ignored.
Where objective analysis is wanting, apologetics and hackneyed psychoanalyses predominate: Thus, the "neocons" are akin to Al-Qaeda since "the dual undertakings of 9/11 and the American attack on Iraq … mirrored each other"; bin Laden—that "nervous, flaccid, eternal adolescent"—opted for a life of jihad due to his "devouring" need for "recognition"; whereas Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahiri chose jihad due to the "trauma" and "humiliation" they underwent in Egyptian prisons.
The editors also fail to explain the logic of their selections. Aside from the natural inclusion of bin Laden and Zawahiri—the two men at the heart of Al-Qaeda before and after 9/11—how, exactly, do the two dead fellows (Azzam, Zarqawi) fit in?
Though his writings are an important contribution to the vast corpus of jihadi literature, Azzam, dead since 1989, "can be held responsible only indirectly for the transformation of some Afghan Arab factions into terrorist organizations [i.e., Al-Qaeda]." As for Zarqawi—who had his own agenda and whose claim to fame lay in sheer barbarism and the practice of decapitation—one is at a loss to understand what value his anti-Shi'i diatribes have for understanding Al-Qaeda as an organization and not merely an amorphous body of Salafi jihadism.
To justify the decapitator's inclusion, the editors magnify his legacy, telling us that Zarqawi "ignited and fuelled a civil war with religious overtones between Shi'ites and Sunnis." In fact, the 1,400-year-old Sunni/Shi'i conflict required the elimination of an iron-fisted Saddam Hussein rather than the appearance of a Zarqawi to flare up again.
Much of this confusion could have been excused if the material contained in the book offered readers, as the jacket-cover promises, an "unprecedented glimpse" into the worldview of Al-Qaeda. The fact is that nearly every document contained in Al Qaeda was published earlier in other volumes or on the Internet.
In order to make an original contribution, the editors could have tried offering new insights or analyses on their unoriginal material. Instead, they seem to have taken the easy road by putting together a hodgepodge of previously published material, while offering only banal "analyses" and no synthesis.