News & Politics

Bin Laden Probably Didn’t Read to the End of the Washingtonian Article on His Reading List

Says the subject of the article.

Bin Laden might have been a TL;DR kind of guy.

Georgetown University professsor John Esposito says he was surprised Wednesday morning to find that the contents of Osama bin Laden’s English-language “bookshelf” included a profile of him that ran in the January 2005 issue of Washingtonian. But despite the, um, flattery, Esposito thinks it’s very likely bin Laden never actually read the whole thing.

“He may not have,” Esposito says.

Esposito, a religious studies professor who has written numerous books about Islamic extremism, figures Washingtonian landed on bin Laden’s reading list when some al-Qaida flunky was searching for any reading material that mentioned the 9/11 orchestrator’s name. But, Esposito goes on to suggest, bin Laden might have tossed the article aside when he realized it wasn’t actually about him.

“What I’d be really interested in is knowing the folks who put this together,” says Esposito, referring to the reading list that was first reported by BuzzFeed. “I don’t see bin Laden as giving very specific directions. When this person was throwing this together, he saw there was an article with bin Laden’s name and had an assumption the article was about bin Laden.”

Although bin Laden’s name appears in the sub-headline of Alvin P. Sanoff‘s story, the Qaida founder is mentioned only twice in the actual body, because the article was actually about Esposito’s rise to scholarly prominence in an era of war against Islamic militants. Esposito, for his part, did read it.

“I was very happy with it,” he says. “In 2005 it was a fair read of who I was at that point and what I was saying.”

Sanoff died in 2007, but then Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert was pleased with the article, too. “Interesting that bin Laden was that interested in knowing what people in Washington thought of him,” Limpert says. “And it was good explanatory journalism. But weird to picture him turning the pages of the magazine.”

Bin Laden’s “bookshelf” was actually a collection of PDFs. Still, as the article about Esposito was not published online until today, it does make one wonder how a version of Sanoff’s story made its way to bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Esposito chalks it up to bin Laden’s vanity, going by his work’s previous appearances in Muslim countries. During a speech he gave at an American consulate in Pakistan several decades ago, Esposito was interrupted by someone who said, “The president wants to see you!” He was whisked away to Islamabad for a sitdown with then Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, of whom Esposito had written a critical article.

“I went into a sweat,” Esposito says. “My presumption was that he read it, but what he was excited about was that his name was in the title. Neither he nor the people around him actually read the piece.”

None of Esposito’s own work appeared on bin Laden’s reading list, but he guesses that if it had, bin Laden might not have liked it if he read it. “The Egyptian government distributed a book of mine to major think thanks and thinkers,” Esposito says. “Then someone decided to read it, and they recalled all the copies.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.