Friday, June 2, 2017
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 Paperback by Lawrence Wright (Vintage)
“The Looming Tower,” the title of Lawrence Wright’s remarkable new book about Al Qaeda and 9/11, refers not only to the doomed towers of the World Trade Center, but also to a passage in the Koran, which Osama bin Laden quoted several times in a speech exhorting the 19 hijackers to become martyrs to their cause: “Wherever you are, death will find you/even in the looming tower.”
Mr. Wright’s book, based on more than 500 interviews — ranging from Mr. bin Laden’s best friend in college, Jamal Khalifa, to Yosri Fouda, a reporter for Al Jazeera, to Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief — gives the reader a searing view of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, a view that is at once wrenchingly intimate and boldly sweeping in its historical perspective.
Though the broad outlines of his story have been recounted many, many times before, Mr. Wright fleshes out the narrative with myriad new details and a keen ability to situate the events he describes in a larger cultural and political context. And by focusing on the lives and careers of several key players on the “road to 9/11” — namely, Mr. bin Laden; his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri; the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal; and the F.B.I.’s former counterterrorism chief, John O’Neill — he has succeeded in writing a narrative history that possesses all the immediacy and emotional power of a novel, an account that indelibly illustrates how the political and the personal, the public and the private were often inextricably intertwined.
Mr. Wright’s book suggests that “the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature” of the contest between Islam and the West. While “the tectonic plates of history were certainly shifting,” promoting a period of conflict between those two cultures, he contends, the emergence of Al Qaeda “depended on a unique conjunction of personalities” — most notably, Mr. Zawahri, who promoted the apocalyptic notion that only violence could change history, and Mr. bin Laden, whose global vision and leadership “held together an organization that had been bankrupted and thrown into exile.
The book also suggests that the events of Sept. 11 were not inevitable. Rather, bad luck, the confluence of particular decisions and chance encounters, dithering on the part of United States officials and a series of absurd turf wars between the C.I.A. and F.B.I. all contributed to Al Qaeda’s success in pulling off its nefarious plans that sunny September day.
Compared with the authors Peter L. Bergen (“Holy War: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden”) and Jonathan Randal (“Osama: the Making of a Terrorist”), Mr. Wright spends less time on the crucial role that the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan played in shaping the jihadist cause. Instead, he has drawn upon many documents in Arabic and a host of interviews with jihadis to provide an arresting chronicle of the many formative events that shaped Al Qaeda over the years and Mr. bin Laden’s long, winding road to war against America. His book provides an amazingly detailed look at daily life inside Al Qaeda, and the motivations, misgivings and political goals of individual members.
Mr. Wright begins his story with an account of the life of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of the Islamist movement: he recounts how a sojourn in America in the late 1940’s radicalized the Egyptian educator, how he was later thrown in prison by the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and how his writings and eventual execution in 1966 made him a martyr and hero to a fledgling revolutionary movement. Mr. Wright then goes on to describe the radicalization of Mr. bin Laden, the heir to one of Saudi Arabia’s great fortunes, who grows from a shy boy who loved the American television series “Bonanza” into a solemn, religious adolescent influenced, some say, by a charismatic Syrian gym teacher who was a member of the Muslim Brothers organization.
Mr. Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor whom Mr. bin Laden got to know in Peshawar in the 1980’s, would have an even more formative impact. Indeed Mr. Zawahri emerges from this volume as an evil mentor, drawing ever “tighter the noose of influence he was casting around” the young Saudi by surrounding him with handpicked bodyguards and presiding over his medical treatment (possibly for Addison’s disease). Mr. Wright argues that before meeting Mr. Zawahri, Mr. bin Laden was “not much of a political thinker,” and he quotes the Saudi’s first biographer, Essam Deraz, saying he thought Mr. bin Laden had the potential to become “another Eisenhower,” turning the celebrity status he had achieved fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan into a peaceful political life. But that wasn’t Mr. Zawahri’s plan.Photo
It was Mr. Zawahri, whose adamantine resolve was hardened by the torture he endured in Egyptian prisons as a young man, Mr. Wright notes, who introduced the use of suicide bombers. And it was Mr. Zawahri who was keen from the start on using biological and chemical weapons. As for Mr. bin Laden, it apparently took a long time, after his stint in Afghanistan, for him to settle on a subsequent plan of action.
During his exile from Saudi Arabia in the Sudan, Mr. Wright says, Mr. bin Laden “was wavering — the lure of peace being as strong as the battle cry of jihad.” Agriculture “captivated his imagination,” and he reportedly told various friends that he was thinking of quitting Al Qaeda and becoming a farmer.
Yet as Mr. Wright tells it, the continuing presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia (after the first gulf war) continued to gnaw at Mr. bin Laden, and the movement of American troops into Somalia in 1992 (on a humanitarian relief mission) made Al Qaeda feel increasingly encircled. In meetings held at the end of 1992, the group “turned from being the anti-communist Islamic army that bin Laden originally envisioned into a terrorist organization bent on attacking the United States.”
Mr. Wright not only traces how Al Qaeda evolved — from an opponent of two of America’s enemies (the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein) to America’s sworn foe — but he also gives the reader a visceral sense of day-to-day life at its training camps. His descriptions echo the observation made by other experts like the former C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer that Mr. bin Laden is not opposed to the United States because of its culture or ideas but because of its political and military actions in the Islamic world. Mr. Wright observes that Mr. bin Laden allowed his younger sons to play Nintendo and that Al Qaeda’s trainees often watched Hollywood thrillers at night (Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were particular favorites) in an effort to gather tips. One of Mr. bin Laden’s wives favored “brand-name cosmetics and lingerie, preferring American products”; another held a doctorate in child psychology.
Intercut with the portraits of Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri are equally compelling ones of the flamboyant F.B.I. counterterrorism chief John O’Neill (who died on 9/11, having left the bureau to become chief of security for the World Trade Center) and a small band of C.I.A. and F.B.I. operatives, who for years had worried about Al Qaeda and who, in the months before Sept. 11, worked furiously, in the face of bureaucratic complacency and in-fighting, to head off a probable attack.
The failures of the C.I.A., F.B.I. and N.S.A. to share information — and their failure to stop the 9/11 hijackers — have been voluminously documented before, but Mr. Wright’s narrative is so lucid and unnerving that it drives home the stupidity, hubris and dereliction of duty that occurred within the United States government with unusual power and resonance.
Mr. Wright is equally scathing about the Bush and Clinton administrations. He notes that terrorism was a low priority for the Bush White House when it took over in January 2001. And like Mr. Bergen and Mr. Randal, he argues that the Clinton administration’s reaction to the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa — launching cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in a failed effort to kill Mr. bin Laden — helped turn the terrorist into a global celebrity and enabled him to mythologize himself further.
Mr. bin Laden’s goal in striking the American embassies and bombing the American destroyer Cole in 2000, says Mr. Wright, was to “lure America into the same trap the Soviets had fallen into: Afghanistan”: “His strategy was to continually attack until the U.S. forces invaded; then the mujahideen would swarm upon them and bleed them until the entire American empire fell from its wounds. It had happened to Great Britain and to the Soviet Union. He was certain it would happen to America.” When neither the embassy bombings nor the Cole bombing was enough to “provoke a massive retaliation,” Mr. Wright suggests, Mr. bin Laden decided “he would have to create an irresistible outrage.”
That outrage, of course, was 9/11. Though American forces would not become bogged down in Afghanistan — at least not immediately in the fall of 2001 — another, longer war was on the horizon. On March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the start of the war against Iraq; more than three years and more than 2,500 American deaths later, the United States is still there, fighting just the sort of asymmetrical war Mr. bin Laden so fervently desired