Owen Bennett-Jones

Owen Bennett-Jones’s history of the Bhutto dynasty has just been published by Yale.

Pissing on Pedestrians: A Great Unravelling

Owen Bennett-Jones, 1 April 2021

Given​ how many of those who worked closely with Robert Maxwell wrote a book about him, it’s interesting that so many facts about him remain unclear. Did he face a death sentence at the age of sixteen? Was he in the French Foreign Legion? In the months before his death, in 1991, was he really being investigated for a war crime? Did MI6 finance his first business in order to recruit...

One Screw Short: Pakistan’s Bomb

Owen Bennett-Jones, 18 July 2019

How​ did Pakistan become the world’s leading nuclear proliferator? North Korea, Libya, Iran: none of them would have worked on building a bomb if it hadn’t been for A.Q. Khan, Pakistan’s leading nuclear scientist, and if it hadn’t been for the Pakistani military, which gave the programme its full support. Drawing on the recollections of former decision-makers,...

Can’t Afford to Tell the Truth: Trouble at the BBC

Owen Bennett-Jones, 20 December 2018

BBC managers have become a national joke. The problem is structural. Many start out as capable and engaged producers but they can only win promotion by showing ever greater degrees of editorial caution. By the time they reach senior positions, many view the journalists beneath them as lazy, editorially unreliable malcontents. The lack of respect is reciprocated by the journalists.

I only want to keep my hand in: Gerry Adams

Owen Bennett-Jones, 16 November 2017

Historians​ of Northern Ireland have plenty of material to work with. A book called Lost Lives (2001) records the lives and deaths of each of the 3720 people who were killed during the Troubles. Fighters, activists, officials and politicians on all sides have spoken to the media and written books themselves. Public inquiries have published hundreds of pages of hitherto secret evidence....

Jeremy Greenstock​ was the UK ambassador to the United Nations during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and then the special envoy for Iraq, based in Baghdad during the occupation. Obviously he wrote his memoirs with a view to having them published. Mistakes had been made in Iraq and there was public interest in what knowledgeable insiders had to say about them. But he also accepted his...

Islamic State v. al-Qaida

Owen Bennett-Jones, 3 November 2016

Al-Qaida’s leadership has in large part been drawn from the elite and professional classes. Islamic State is more of a working-class movement whose leaders have roots in Iraq’s Sunni communities, and it has been able to play on the sectarian feelings of underprivileged Sunnis who believe the Shia elite has excluded them from power. These underlying tensions are likely to be exposed when the Iraq army and Shia militias take back the city of Mosul from Islamic State, which they hope to do by the end of the year. Some of the city’s Sunni population, however much they resent Islamic State, will come to miss the caliphate when the city is liberated.

The Overlooked: The Deobandis

Owen Bennett-Jones, 8 September 2016

Largely​ because 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism is often cited as the fountainhead of violent jihadism, but that is to make too much of its significance compared to other Islamic movements, some of them little known in the West. The distinction between Shias and Sunnis is widely understood, and more recently the mainstream press has...

The Military and the Mullahs

Owen Bennett-Jones, 3 March 2016

On 4 October​ 1954 Pakistan’s army chief General Ayub Khan passed the hours of a sleepless night at the Dorchester Hotel in London writing ‘A Short Appreciation of Present and Future Problems of Pakistan’. It ran to 2500 words and outlined the general’s views on how best to manage a country that had existed for seven years but had been unable to agree a constitution....

‘We’ and ‘You’: Suburban Jihadis

Owen Bennett-Jones, 27 August 2015

I had my first brush with British militant Islam in Kabul in 1999. Much of the traffic consisted of Toyota pickup trucks crammed with ferocious looking, armed Taliban fighters, their faces framed by long beards and black turbans. On one occasion I was stuck behind one of these vehicles when my driver attempted a somewhat reckless overtaking manoeuvre. As he edged past, a fast-moving oncoming vehicle forced us to swerve abruptly in front of the Toyota. I looked back to see one of the Talibs giving my driver the finger and yelling ‘Wank-eeeer!’

What Fred Did: Go-Betweens in Northern Ireland

Owen Bennett-Jones, 22 January 2015

There is a sentence in Jonathan Powell’s Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts that raises intriguing questions about how the Northern Ireland peace process got underway. ‘Martin McGuinness,’ Powell writes, ‘still denies sending the message stating that “our war is over” which started the correspondence with John Major, and it is pretty clear in retrospect that one of the intermediaries in the chain between the government and the IRA did in fact embellish the message.’ The peace process, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff is suggesting, began with an exaggeration.

When Jihadis Win Power

Owen Bennett-Jones, 4 December 2014

After​ the Islamic State astonished its enemies by sweeping through Iraq’s second city, Mosul, the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appeared in a mosque to give a victory speech. When he raised his right arm to emphasise a point, the sleeve of his black robe fell back to reveal what some on social media identified as a Rolex watch. Online satirists taunted...

Across the Durand Line: The Durand Line

Owen Bennett-Jones, 25 September 2014

The conflict in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands has similarities with other contemporary struggles. From Timbuktu to Kandahar, jihadis, national governments, ethnic groups and, in some cases, tribes are fighting for supremacy. In each place there are complicating local factors: badly drawn international borders; the relative strength or weakness of non-violent Islamist movements; the presence or absence of foreign forces, whether Western or jihadi; and different historical experiences of colonialism.

In many respects Isis is a very modern organisation. The brochure detailing its 2012-13 activities is like a state of the art corporate report. The most striking page, with slick graphic design, has 15 silhouetted icons – time bombs, handcuffs, a car, a man running – with each representing a field of activity: roadside bombs, prisoner escapes, car bombs and the clearance of apostates’ homes. Next to a picture of a pistol is the word ‘assassinations’ and the number 1083: the number of targeted killings Isis claims to have pulled off in the year under review.

Bunches of Guys: Just the Right Amount of Violence

Owen Bennett-Jones, 19 December 2013

As they fled Afghanistan after 9/11 some of bin Laden’s followers wondered whether the attacks on the US had been a mistake. Among them was one of al-Qaida’s most acerbic writers, Abu Musab al-Suri. In public he backed bin Laden: privately he described him as an obstinate egotist. And he was scathing about the consequences of 9/11. Al-Suri believed that the Afghan Taliban regime had been destroyed for the sake of a provocative attack on a country al-Qaida could not defeat.

In her posthumously published book, Reconciliation, Benazir Bhutto named a man who she believed had tried to procure bombs for an unsuccessful attempt on her life in Karachi in October 2007: ‘I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned … a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail.’

Terrorists? Us?

Owen Bennett-Jones, 7 June 2012

The story of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, also known as the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK), is all about the way image management can enable a diehard enemy to become a cherished ally. The MEK is currently campaigning to be officially delisted in the US as a terrorist organisation. Once off the list it will be free to make use of its support on Capitol Hill in order to become America’s most favoured, and no doubt best funded, Iranian opposition group. The last outfit to achieve something similar was the Iraqi National Congress, the lobby group led by Ahmed Chalabi.

Diary: in the North-West Frontier Province

Owen Bennett-Jones, 25 September 2008

The College of Art and Design in Lahore is one of the most cultured institutions in Pakistan’s most cultured city. When I visited a couple of months ago, it was surrounded by sandbags: a department for traditional music had been opened and al-Qaida, which considers music un-Islamic, had threatened to blow it up. Despite this, both teachers and students told me that the real problem they...

Further to Fall

Owen Bennett-Jones, 21 August 1997

For forty years after the Second World War, the Swiss had every reason to believe that theirs was the optimal form of government. There was political and social stability, full employment, virtually no crime and, for a time, the highest per capita income in the world. Switzerland’s system of government with its many celebrated peculiarities was not only unique but uniquely successful. Which helps explain why the country’s fall from grace has been so hard to bear. Not only is Switzerland now widely reviled as having been the fence for stolen Nazi loot: it is facing its first serious economic depression in living memory, with unemployment at 6 per cent and rising. Industries which once led the world face ever tougher foreign competition. Many Swiss are beginning to wonder what they have to do to stay on top: do their traditional institutions need reforming?

Diary: Night Shifts at Bush House

Owen Bennett-Jones, 8 July 1993

People who work at night are obsessed by their inability to sleep in the day. Night-shifts are incomplete without a desultory conversation about the best way to order one’s hours. ‘Desultory’ because the conversation has taken place countless times before. Should you stay up for a couple of hours alter the night shift so as to achieve near-terminal exhaustion before sleeping? Or maybe it’s best to sleep immediately for two hours, go for a swim and then sleep again for the rest of the day. Then again, you could go to the Bush House dormitory for an hour or two in the night and try to sleep amid the snores and coughs of, among others, Bulgar, Burmese and Bangladeshi colleagues. The permutations are endless but as we all know, the net results are the same: people who regularly work nights are pale, bad-tempered and die of coronaries in their fifties.

After the Revolution

Owen Bennett-Jones, 20 December 1990

The thrice-weekly flights of Romania’s national airline Tarom from Bucharest to London have an atmosphere all their own. In the bleak waiting-room, most of the passengers stand and settle in for the inevitable delay. The room contains a few Romanians excited to be on their way to Western Europe and many more West Europeans delighted to be on their way back to civilisation as they know it. Most of the West Europeans came to Romania filled with good intentions. Aid workers, nurses, theatre groups, sports teams arrived keen to discover more about a country that has been effectively off limits for the past two decades. But by the time they leave much of the good will has been worn out and many feel angry, depressed and insulted.

Down with Ceausescu! Long live Iliescu!

Owen Bennett-Jones, 12 July 1990

Romania’s attempt to establish democracy lasted almost exactly six months. After the December revolution, Romanians did begin to use their new passports to travel abroad, they were able to buy and sell goods for the most part without fear of reprisals from the state, and for the first time in over forty years, they could freely speak their mind.

After Ceausescu

Owen Bennett-Jones, 25 January 1990

‘Same brothel, different whores’: the words chosen by Valentin Gabrielescu of the re-created National Peasants’ Party to express his opinion of Romania’s provisional government, the National Salvation Front. And he’s by no means alone in distrusting Romania’s new rulers. From the lunch tables of the elegantly-appointed restaurant in the Writers’ Union to the raucous student meetings all over Bucharest, the Front, as it calls itself, attracts puzzled enquiry, suspicion and, as often as not, angry derision. The Front’s detractors believe that the revolution has been stolen by Ceausescu’s apparatchiks from its rightful owners: the students who fought for it and the country’s handful of uncompromised dissidents. The Front’s problem is that it has attracted too much support. Police chiefs and factory managers all over the country simply declared themselves to be in favour of the new government and have stayed in place demanding that the same old forms be filled and the same hours worked. So the Front is increasingly perceived as a body that will reform the Communist system rather than overthrow it. In fact, it’s too early to say what ideology it has.

Owen Bennett-Jones writes: To suggest that my citing publicly available and widely discussed information about the BBC’s relationship with the state puts staff at physical risk is ridiculous – a flailing attempt to sidestep scrutiny. It would have been better for the BBC, in using its right to reply, to engage with the issues I have raised. How will it deal with competition from the big...
Raymond Tanter’s defence of his pro-MEK stance holds no surprises (Letters, 19 July). He states that the MEK is the most prominent group in rejecting clerical rule in Tehran. In a sense he is right: it is the most prominent group – but only in Washington, Paris and London. Exiles often dream of returning to power in their homeland and a few, such as Lenin and al-Malaki, have achieved it....

Pakistan has been described as ‘the most dangerous place on earth’, yet Owen Bennett Jones’s title is appropriate, for though storms rage all around Pakistan, the country itself...

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