Saturday, 22 November 2014

Path of Blood

As anyone who knows me will attest, I'm a current affairs, international affairs, and political geek. As well as crime fiction, I consume a healthy dose of accounts of the world's trouble spots and issues. Path of Blood is a non fiction account of the Saudi state's battle against al Qaeda and quite simply it's brilliant.

There are many reasons this stands out amongst other books dealing with conflicts around the world, but one of the biggest is it's eschewing of what might be described as the Western-centric outlook. Most books of this ilk - be they dealing with the conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other - view the world through the prism of America and it's allies. While many try to at least consider the views and feelings of the local populace, this consideration is secondary to that of "our boys fighting on the ground", our political class, public opinion back home.

Path of Blood is I think unique in approaching a conflict almost completely from the perspective of the nation concerned. While American, and to a lesser extent British, political reaction is touched upon, the perspective is almost entirely Saudi. The Saudi royals in charge of their nation's counter terrorism instead of our politicians, Saudi Ministry of Interior officers instead of MI6/CIA, Saudi public opinion, and yes, Saudi jihadists.

The second reason this book is so good is that it deals with a conflict that was overshadowed in the West. While Western public opinion was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Saudi's were fighting an indigenous terror campaign of their own. While the major bombings and massacres broke onto CNN, BBC, etc, on the whole this conflict wasn't covered by the Western media. Not only do the authors comprehensively detail this conflict - that while never seriously threatening to overthrow the Saudi state, certainly posed a serious threat to it - as mentioned above, they do so almost entirely from an intimate Saudi perspective.

A further reason this book is set apart from others of its ilk is due to its access. Quite simply the Saudi state seems to have flung the doors open for the authors. They're granted access to MOI officers to interview, the Saudi royals give interviews, and they're granted access to seized video tapes and transcripts of interrogation of jihadists. The video tapes seized from jihadists in particular are instructive, providing an unparalleled glimpse into the jihadist mindset. Some of it is quite bizarre and reminiscent of the film Four Lions, with the jihadists a combination of sinister and bungling dad's army.

 Finally, this book gives a more nuanced view of Saudi Arabia than the one-dimensional perspective we're used to in the West. Say Saudi Arabia to the average person and after "oil" and "sand", they're likely to think of oppression of women, public beheadings and amputations, and a fanatical nation of Wahabbi's supporting al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalist terror more broadly. This book shows this to be a simplistic picture. Instead, we're shown a nation struggling with modernisation, who's people on the whole don't support terrorism, who are dismayed by the killing of foreigners on their soil. We're shown the real strides the Saudi state has made to both combat terrorism at home and abroad and to stop the financing of terror.

The Saudi security forces clearly don't have the skill set of British/American militaries - for example when raiding compounds they announce their presence though loudhailers demanding the terrorists surrender, thus eschewing any factor of surprise. The raids thus inevitably result in large numbers of casualties and jihadists shooting their way through cordons and making their escape.  But the officers concerned are undoubtedly brave and I was struck by the casualties they took. Some of the firefights described are like something out of the wild west, with jihadists battling away with the security forces for hours.

All in all this is a brilliant read. It gives an understanding of the campaign of terror the Saudi state faced down, the mindset of the jihadis themselves, the readiness and flaws of the Saudi security forces, and perhaps most importantly a more nuanced and sympathetic view of Saudi society than we are used to.

I give this book 5 stars.

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