The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright

Sub-title: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. This 2006 work is a magnificent summary of how one corner of the Moslem world developed its hatred of the West, how it reached expression in the founding of al-Qaeda, and how this culminated with the attack on the Twin Towers. One has to marvel at the revelations here, at the intimate details, including strategic discussions within the leadership of al-Qaeda. How on earth, the reader continually thinks, did Wright uncover such details, such conversations, that take us inside the tents, the caves, and the huts of these men out to destroy the United States?

                  What I regret not doing here is writing a summary of the events as I read this book. The events are indeed remarkable. The origins of the movement that produced the 9/11 attack were in the streets of Cairo. Then its creators moved to the south into the Sudan, before finding a haven in Afghanistan. Where the Arab bin Laden and the Egyptian Zawahiri joined forces, Zawahiri the strategist and bin Laden the executor of that strategy. Their initial successes were the bombing of two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and then the exploding of a huge hole in the side of the destroyer USS Cole.

                  We read the early histories of the movement that developed into al-Qaeda, how Zawahiri began as a 15-year-old in a Cairo underground cell, trained and practiced as a doctor, then joined a movement that led to the assassination of the Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Meanwhile, in Arabia, bin Laden’s father, a poor laborer, rose to become one of the richest men in that country. He founded a construction company, and its efficiency pleased the royal family, resulting in work on major buildings as well as on the highways and airports of Arabia. One son, Obama, was a loner, very religious, who worked for the company awhile, and then became alienated from his father, his family, and the direction of his country.

                  On the American side, Wright details how the CIA and the FBI had separate evidence regarding the suicidal 9/11 flight crews, but never put their information together, each trying to protect its own territory and neither trusting the other. Trust was a special problem with John O’Neill, the counter-terrorism chief of the FBI, who aggravated every one with his single-minded pursuit of the terrorists. He was a philanderer, with many mistresses; but, more important, he was a very effective agent. Wright uses many pages to tell O’Neill’s story, making him a kind of hero, despite his personal issues; or perhaps he is more a symbol of the failure of the American intelligence community. Not that he himself was a failure, but that the entire intelligence team was, especially those at the CIA who held back information that he could have fit together. His fate, for some, verges on tragedy—and certainly is ironic.

                  This book works because of its narrative drive, and because its various characters are real on the page. The biographies of the leaders on both sides do not interrupt the narration but bring us deeper into the conflict. We understand the views of these terrorists, even as we see the faults in their thinking—the main one being that they do not understand the people of America. They think their attack will disillusion the Americans and as a result their civilization will collapse. Little do they know. Little do they understand people like John O’Neill.

                  Perhaps rightly, Wright ends his book with only a brief summary of the attack itself and the collapse of the towers. In fact, he spends little effort on all those final weeks—from the training of the terrorist crews to the takeover of the planes to their eventual course. Some might miss this climax of the plot, but undoubtedly it is not here because those calamitous events have been told in other books. Wright’s purpose here is to tell what led up to that day, the people involved, why they did what they did, and the failure of the American intelligence community to detect and stop them.

                  One suspects that this book will be a major reference for future historians who wished to understand what led up to 9/11. It is all here. The founders of the terrorist movement. The internal struggle between the idealists and those more practical. The flight into Afghanistan when the movement was still weak. The contrasting and conflicting personalities of bin Laden and Zawahiri, before they eventually came together. The painstaking strategy behind the final attack. And, above all, the actual conversations of the main participants, especially bin Laden. Testifying to these details are the six pages of two-column listings of the people Wright interviewed, and the 41 pages of notes that cite the reference for each statement of fact.

                  This book details, as I said, how much the Moslem terrorists misunderstood how much the American people were committed to their democratic form of government. And how much the Moslems distorted their belief in justice, defending the arbitrary killing of innocent civilians by citing isolated passages in the Koran and ignoring the general tone of the Koran that denied resorting to such violence. These Moslems have created their own image of the world, and acknowledge no one else’s. And unfortunately, one sees on the horizon no possibility of their changing.

                  As Filkins wrote in the Times, the book ends inconclusively, with Zawahiri vanishing in the hills on his flight into Pakistan, suggesting there is also no end in sight for the West’s pursuit of terrorism. As there is also no end to the dispute between East and West, Islam and Christianity, the rich and the poor, and advanced and the backward civilizations. Or even between the idealistic young Moslems and the more practical older generation, not to mention the growing dispute about the role of women in Arab societies. (The Moor can marry and take a woman for one night, and then divorce her in the morning.)

                  In sum, this is a brilliant book. It has a strong narrative, believable characters, a significant contrast in world cultures, and heart-rending tension as those two cultures collide. It conveys both the big picture, the clash of cultures, and the intimate details of what the men on each side said and did. It will survive as a true portrait of this moment of world history. (May, 2013)

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