The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Hardcover) by Lawrence Wright (link)
The events of 9/11 are well known, as is some of the history and the genesis of the evil people behind it. Unless you buy in to the simple rhetoric of “They hate us for our freedoms” you will always have questions about why a bunch of people hate us so much.
As a reasonably informed person, I thought I knew about Al Qaeda and some of the other organizations that preceded it (Muslim Brotherhood). A few months back while I was at home, I was listening to “Fresh Air” on public radio. The host had Lawrence Wright on and was interviewing him about his recent book “The Looming Tower”. As I listened to the interview I was completely fascinated by what I was hearing. The name Lawrence Wright was also vaguely familiar. It later hit me….he writes for the New Yorker magazine. I had to read this book and I finally managed to get to it after a 2 week wait from our local public library. When I started reading this book, I could not put it down and every spare minute I had was used to finish reading it.
Books based on history are not always a gripping read. However Wright manages to make this like an edge of the seat thriller. It has a compelling narrative and it takes us from the initial impressions of a religious Egyptian scholar who visited a post war booming America, to the days after the tragic events of 9/11 brought upon us by Al Qaeda. Like a lot of Americans, I had not heard of the name Sayyid Qutb. I had not heard of the name either till I read the author’s earlier articles in the New Yorker and then this book.
It’s a fascinating story about how a middle aged single writer and educator in post war America underwent a transformation. He saw a spiritual wasteland that was America, devoid of a soul. His trip to America in the late 40s radicalized him, a radicalization that was further evident as he became a part of the Muslim Brothers railing against Nasser of Egypt after his return. The chapter culminates in his hanging by the powers that be in Egypt, but not before he pens a couple of books that would inspire his vanguard.
Part of that vanguard are Al – Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden (OBL). The author presents fairly details portraits about both these men and their families. We get to read about the rise of Bin Laden’s father from a poor man in Yemen to Saudi Arabia’s biggest construction companies. We learn about transformative experiences in the lives of both of Al Qaeda’s top men, including people like OBL’s gym teacher who influenced him and Zawahiri’s imprisonment following Anwar Sadat’s assassination in Egypt and his torture.
We also learn about the regimes of the countries that these two evil men inhabit at different points in their lives, whether they are the corrupt, decadent Saudi dynasty and the Egyptian rulers Nasser, Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. We see their attempts to use the leaders of Al Qaeda (or their precursors) for their own selfish purposes when it suits them and help create a monster that would soon be beyond their control. We read about how the leaders of Sudan almost leave OBL penniless after he leaves Sudan for Afghanistan. The book then moves on to the explore the genesis of Al Qaeda, and the coming together of OBL and Zawahiri for various reasons, and their relationship with the Taliban. We also read about some of the mythical stories about the exploits about these mujahids during and after the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and their eventual targeting of the West especially America.
I read with a chill how the successful attack against the USS Cole brought plenty of recruits and cash to Al Qaeda and the formulation of the terror cells that would eventually carryout the attacks of 9/11.
As often happens events, missed opportunities all have unforeseen consequences. This happened with the pursuers of the Islamic extremists in both the FBI and the CIA. I read with sadness how both the institutions missed the rise of Islamic radicalism and the lack of communication between the two agencies which caused a number of clues that would have helped prevent or disrupt 9/11 to be never shared. The professional rivalries, the jealousies and the personalities of dedicated agents all of whom loved what they did but just could not overcome some of these problems, either institutional or personal. While some of the names like Michael Scheuer, Richard Clarke might be familiar to some of us. The person that fascinated me the most was John O’Neill a veteran FBI agent, who see the radical Islamist threat (especially OBL and Al Qaeda) in way almost no one ever does. It’s his life’s mission to get OBL, which consumes him even after he leaves the FBI. We learn about the man his professional and flawed personal life. Tragically, he happens to be in the towers that fateful day in his capacity as head of security for the company that manages the WTC properties.
I found that the book informed, educated and also outraged me. Outraged.. because of the numerous clues about 911 that were missed due to bureaucratic wrangles. I still think a lot of people just don’t understand that there is more to why they hate us. They do hate what they see as our decadent, selfish ways and yes they do hate our policies and our support for Israel and now the occupation of Iraq. But the theme of humiliation is also big for them as is the desire for revenge, all of it justified using a reasoning that comes from a twisted reading of the Quran. This is aided and abetted by their own sick logic or that of obscure clerics who justify attacks against non- Muslims as well as those on women and children both Muslim and non-Muslim.
The other part of the book that will stay with me for a long time are the ones that deal with some of the fiendish things that the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have done and continue to do so, which made me wonder how much better are they than the terrorists? They are our allies purely because their interests are best served by aligning with us and for us with them. They will make you think about the call to spread democracy in the middle east and why they ring hollow to a lot of people.
All in all this book is must read if any of you feel so inclined.