Corbin, a British journalist, has compiled a solid account of al-Qaeda's exploits since the group's inception in the late 1980s. While not groundbreaking, her work is accurate, sober, and well researched, using both written sources and personal interviews.
Al-Qaeda has three parts. First, the author reviews the early years of Osama bin Laden's terror network and its attacks between 1992 (a hotel bombing in Yemen) and 2000 (the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen). The second part shows Corbin's journalistic skills to good advantage as she describes in detail what is known of the September 11, 2001 operation, including biographies of the nineteen hijackers and how their cells operated before the attack. Third, Corbin ends with a cursory account of the "War on Terror"; the lack of depth here is understandable, given how difficult it has been for journalists to uncover much on classified U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Corbin is rightly critical of the U.S. government's pre-9/11 blunders. Bill Clinton's inaction after the 1993 attacks that killed eighteen servicemen in Somalia "branded his administration as weak" in the eyes of al-Qaeda. She finds that his administration "lacked the will to counter [al-Qaeda] even after the African bombings in 1998." Despite a steady stream of al-Qaeda attacks, Clinton declined the usual daily intelligence briefing, accepting "only a written submission."
U.S. intelligence is also in Corbin's cross hairs. She recounts that when Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents noted that "small aviation schools had been giving a group of Arab men [flight] lessons," the FBI issued a memo noting, "Osama bin Laden could be using U.S. flight schools to infiltrate the country's civil aviation system." High-level officials in the bureau buried the memo because it suggested measures that "smacked of racial profiling." Corbin recalls that six months after September 11, the aviation school where hijacker Muhammad Atta and a cohort had trained received "student visas approved for flying lessons" from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, clearing the pair for takeoff.
As Corbin shows, America learned many tough lessons. Since then, she states, this country has become "a sadder and a wiser place."