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The Cell    by John Miller, Michael Stone & Chris Mitchell order for
by John Miller
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I must admit that when I first heard of the flurry of books to be published surrounding the events of 9/11, my reaction was that there was much more than enough on the topic in the news every day. However The Cell fascinated me and I read it non-stop, cover to cover. Having just reviewed a book on Roadblocks to Learning for kids, what struck me most strongly was how much we, in the Western world, have been 'passive learners' about terrorism. The signs were all there, and at the grass roots an awful lot of people were waiting for something to happen, but we were still surprised by the extent when it did.

The book briefly introduces the event that it leads up to, the awakening of the 'sleeping giant' of America on September 11, 2001. The authors give poignant accounts of individuals, some who survived and some who did not. They then move back in time to the 1970s and events leading to the formation of the first Joint Terrorism Task Force, staffed by both FBI agents and NYPD detectives, and their initial successes against domestic terrorists. Then in 1990, an Egyptian-born militant shot Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane, but evidence of a larger conspiracy was downplayed and files which many officials since claimed 'provided a virtual road map to future terrorist acts' remained untranslated for years.

Of course, hindsight is very good at picking out all the needles in haystacks which are not very visible at the time. But the authors' detailed unfolding of events do seem to indicate that organizational barriers (between FBI and CIA in particular), legal concerns, and even downright poor managerial decision making all obstructed a view of what was developing, abroad and close to home. Though many plans, such as the Landmarks plot, were foiled or, for various reasons, simply did not come to fruition, a retrospective view of events shows a steady escalation in a disdain for the life of innocents by the terrorist organizations.

Bin Laden's emergence is portrayed, from a start as a 'Gucci terrorist' to his development of connections and power. One source told the FBI that his intent (in the 1990s anyway) was 'to drive U.S. forces off the Arabian Peninsula' and also to bring down the Saudi monarchy. Then, soon after a bin Laden interview by one of the authors, John Miller, came the Embassy bombings in 1998 (again made personal for the reader by individual accounts). Al Qaeda, which had been attacking 'foreign targets on foreign soil throughout the 1990s' was finally considered a serious threat.

The story continues with the development of the Hamburg cell on Marienstrasse in that same year, with specifics like exhortations from the 'jihad "manual" that some trainees carried'. Details are given of the cell's actions and movements in the United States (including an FBI alert on civil aviation training of terrorists), and of the (at the time) 'reactionary' FBI culture that downplayed intelligence if it was unlikely to lead to a criminal case.

I had one minor quibble with the book, in that it was often unclear which author was speaking. Also the use of the terrorists' own language, i.e. the term martyrs for those who die in attacks on others, grated on me to the extent that I looked up martyr in the Webster dictionary ... 'one who sacrifices his life ... for the sake of principle'. Perhaps the term's meaning is shifting, but a martyr has always meant to me someone willing to die for their beliefs, never to kill for them. Nevertheless The Cell is a disturbing, compelling read, highlighting a dangerous (and hopefully past) reactive rather than proactive government approach to crisis.

I wish the authors had gone a little more into the issue of the types of actions that can slide a government down the slippery slope away from moral high ground - how to safeguard the core values of a democracy and still provide adequate security, an uneasy balance. On the other hand, The Cell is an especially timely read when, the first reaction over, there appears to be a lessening of the allied will to be proactive.

As the authors of The Cell conclude, 'The next wave of attacks, if they are not prevented, could make September 11 a pale and distant memory.' Given the very high cost of lessons, I hope that our governments are now engaging in 'active learning' about terrorism.

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