Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006)

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have left a giant scar on the American psyche, and ramifications from it will likely extend far into the future. In his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright tries to explain why the event happened, both in terms of the history of Islamic fundamentalism and Osama bin Laden's role in it, and the failures on the part of the American intelligence system to prevent the attack. Wright exhaustively compiles information from interviews across the globe, from top American counterterrorism officials to Saudi princes to people who've had close contact with bin Laden and his closest ally, al-Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a largely successful attempt to tell the story of the most important American historical event in our lifetimes.

Most of the early chapters deal with the thinkers that initiated the Islamic fundamentalism that exerts such a strong influence over the politics of the Middle East today. Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar who studied in the United States in the late 1940's, returned home to write diatribes against Western culture and the secular Egyptian government. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor, embraced Qutb's philosophy and turned it into violent political action, culminating originally with his role in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat but leading ultimately to a collaboration with Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is the son of Mohammed bin Laden, a legendary figure in Saudi Arabia who oversaw many great construction projects and made billions in the process. The combination of Osama bin Laden's increasingly radicalized religious beliefs and plentiful resources would lead him initially to start recruiting jihadists to help repel the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. His reputation in the Arab world exceed his actual accomplishments in Afghanistan, though, but now that he had a core of followers willing to impose their version of Islamic law on the Arab world by any means necessary, he saw Afghanistan as a first step.

Eventually bin Laden wore out his welcome in Saudia Arabia, and he set up a training camp in the Sudan, where he had been invited as a guest of the government. (These are the same people responsible for the mess in Darfur, a fact which for some reason never gets acknowledged when Darfur is discussed.) Bin Laden's organization had by this time adopted the name al-Qaeda,and had started to raise a few eyebrows due to a suspected involvement in a number of terror strikes. The Saudi government cut off his assets, and pressure was put on the Sudanese government to make him leave. In 1996, the U. S. government saw bin Laden as more of a nuisance than a major threat, and bin Laden's return to Afghanistan was duly noted but not prevented.

A handful of people in American intelligence started to take bin Laden very seriously at this time. The most noteworthy of these was John O'Neill, the chief of the FBI's counterterrorism section. His abrasive personality made him too many enemies in the bureau, and his spent his private life juggling his estranged wife and two girlfriends, but he saw the need to stop bin Laden at a time when few others did. His team and his supporters met up with a lot of resistance from inside, and Wright spends a lot of time cataloging the times when the CIA withheld information on bin Laden that O'Neill and others requested. Eventually O'Neill got fed up with the FBI and left for a new job in late August 2001 -- as head of security at the World Trade Center.

Wright tries to tell the story as dispassionately as possible, and mostly succeeds. Certainly the development of Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of bin Laden as a political figure needs to be told objectively; otherwise, understanding our enemy becomes impossible. Wright loses his level-headedness at times as the events approach 9/11 though, and not for the betterment of the book. For example, he gets into some wild and unfounded speculation concerning the sexual preference of Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers. While he stays clear of finger-pointing towards either Clinton or Bush, the anger he directs at the CIA is quite palpable. Then again, they do appear to deserve it. The one point where the writing appears muddled concerns Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his relationship with bin Laden. According to Wright, Omar went rather abruptly from being suspicious of bin Laden and willing to hand him over to Saudi intelligence, to being a defiantly loyal supporter of bin Laden in the face of international opposition, after one particular meeting. I can't help thinking there's more to Omar's fateful reversal that what Wright describes.

Otherwise, The Looming Tower is an essential recounting of some very important history, containing some information that every American should know. Unfortunately, Wright couldn't find a way to re-write the ending to the story. John O'Neill was last seen alive heading back into the south tower on 9/11 shortly before it collapsed. The FBI would receive a large amount of information regarding bin Laden and Al-Qaeda from the CIA on September 12.

Overall grade: A

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