March 8, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Winner Steve Coll Recalls Experiences in International Journalism

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Students looking for a lively master of modern journalism were given a treat yesterday, as Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, lectured about Osama Bin Laden’s influence and his rise to power as part of the Einaudi Center’s Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

“Ghost Wars is an absolutely indispensable book,” Fredrik Logevall, director of the Einaudi Center, said. “It shows how valuable it can be to write contemporary history, and it is standing the test of time well.”

Coll also spent 20 years at the Washington Post, where he worked as a foreign correspondent and managing editor. His specialty is South Asia, where he was originally sent, and he still writes extensively about the region.

“I love South Asia because it’s a great place to work,” Coll said. “It’s so open since they have a free press so people aren’t afraid to talk. It’s a huge advantage to work in a society with other journalists because it means that you can get translators who understand what you do.”

Coll is particularly interested in the radicalization narrative of the region.

“I’ve been writing about bin Laden since 1993, when I wrote my first newspaper article about Islamist radical groups in North Africa. Bin Laden was in Sudan at the time,” Coll said.

According to Coll, the image of bin Laden as a bearded, backwards man in a cave is misleading and his biography is not especially well-known.

“My purpose is to take him out of his cave and place him in the modern, globalized setting he belongs in,” Coll said.

Most of the lecture focused on bin Laden’s background, particularly his family, and the context of his upbringing.

“His father was a successful businessman with extraordinary intuition for civil engineering,” Coll said. “The company built roads, bridges, barracks and infrastructure. The royal family even turned to him for sensitive projects.”

As bin Laden’s construction company grew in world renown and esteem, it soon became the only authorized renovator of Mecca and Medina, two of the Islamic world’s most hallowed grounds. Bin Laden grew up in an environment where there was a sense of mobility and possibility. Workers in the company came from all over the Islamic world, introducing the young bin Laden to the diversity of his own religion.

According to Coll, bin Laden was radicalized as a teenager, at a prep school where he was taught by ex-members of the Muslim brotherhood movement, an often controversial idealist group that aims to positively influence the lives of modern Muslims.

In 1967, his father died in a plane crash on the way to a construction site. Bin Laden’s oldest brother Solomon took control of the family. An eclectic character, Solomon was known for playing in a rock band, collecting jet planes, and forcing prominent figures to engage in sing-a-longs during business negotiations. In fact, the only American citizens bin Laden ever met were part of Solomon’s entourage of pilots and musicians.

While attending a wedding in San Antonio, Solomon was flying a jet plane until he hit some power lines and crashed. Shortly after, Osama gave up his fortune and inheritance and formed Al Qaeda.

“I don’t think that it would have succeeded without Osama,” Coll said. He cited the notion of a worldwide movement, composed of all kinds of Muslims, as something that was only made possible by bin Laden, due to his experience with the construction company. Bin Laden was also comfortable with technological global integration, enabling him to successfully network through the media.

“Seeing airplanes as cruise missiles is something that springs from his experience,” Coll said.

“Osama sees himself as the narrator of a movement. It is an unfinished narrative as long as he’s around.” The narrative will end with bin Laden’s capture or death, according to Coll. Without bin Laden, the movement will splinter and it will be the end of an era, he said.

In Coll’s opinion, “bin Laden does not have the talent or vision to develop a political movement larger than himself, although he talks about it.”

The lecture concluded with some remarks about the U.S. problem of finding a sustainable response to terrorism. “Every choice is a learning experience, not for individual leaders, but for democratic governments in general,” Coll said.

After the lecture, there was a question and answer session and copies of Coll’s books were for sale. The lecture seemed to be well-received.

“It was fun and interesting,” Allie Mouche, ’11 said. “I like how he framed the character. It was nice to get more background.”

Prof. Nicolas van de Walle, government, agreed. “I learned stuff I didn’t know. The link between the business world and bin Laden’s tactics was interesting,” van de Walle said.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting, but he told great stories,” Liz Johnson ’12 said.

Coll was also eager to share stories from his experiences working abroad and in the changing field of journalism. He talked about riding his bike around Kashmir in the early ’90’s, visiting kidnap victims, and interviewing people in the hospital after Benazir Bhutto’s procession was bombed a few years ago. He also answered many questions about a range of issues pertaining to South Asia, including the relationship between India and Pakistan.

Since 2006, the Distinguished Speaker Series has brought a colorful string of scholars, political analysts, and journalists to the University, a tradition the Einaudi Center hopes to maintain.

“We’re trying to bring outside speakers to campus to talk about important issues and maximize the intellectual impact of Cornell’s existing resources,” Prof. Fredrik Logevall, history, said.

Original Author: Laura Shepard