What sets this apart from some other books I've read on the roots, history and methods of Al-Qaeda is Lawrence Wright's impressive research and his sparkling prose. He is a journalist with the reach of a historian and the narrative skills of a best-selling novelist.
There are really two stories here: one, the history of Al-Qaeda, and two, that of the American intelligence agencies that failed to prevent 9/11.
Wright begins with Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist writer who inspired the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian terrorist organization which may be seen as a precursor to Al-Qaeda. When Qutb was hanged by Nasser in 1966 it marked perhaps the essential martyrdom for the Islamic terrorists mainly because Qutb was considered the intellectual godfather of the modern jihadist movement. Another good book that examines the roots of Al-Qaeda and emphasizes the importance of Qutb is Dilip Hiro's lengthy War without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response (2002). (See my review at Amazon.)
This history is important because it provides the rationale for modern jihadists who ignore the teachings of the Qu'ran (and human decency) by using suicide bombers to murder people in the name of God. Qutb is quoted in Hiro's book as saying that "once the Brothers had declared someone to be jahil (infidel), they had the right to attack this person or property, a right granted in Islam." (p. 67, op. cit.) Intensifying this rationale are the words of 13th-century Wahhabi philosopher Ibn Tamiyyah who justified killing bystanders with this logic: "If he is a good Muslim, he will go to Paradise; if he is bad, he will go to hell, and good riddance. Thus the dead tourist and the hotel worker would find their proper reward." (p. 175) This is the kind of logic that led Osama bin Laden to justify the murders that he organized, planned, and paid for.
The meat of the book is about bin Laden, his birth in Saudi Arabia amid wealth and station, his disillusionment with what he saw as the corrupt rule of the House of Saud, his hatred toward Americans and anything alien to a radical Wahabbi-style mentality, and his love of austerity and his self-image as a great jihad warrior. The mythology surrounding his presumed heroics--Wright makes it clear that bin Laden's power stemmed from his organizational ability and his knack for using the media like a public relationship firm--is exposed as mostly "good fortune" if you could call it that. He was lucky; indeed he and his followers mistook that luck for the blessings of Allah, and still do today. Such delusions we humans entertain, such madness we see as God's will! Bin Laden, in my reading of this book and elsewhere, is in reality not a heavy thinker or a great strategist. Indeed he is a megalomaniac with charisma who, due to the failure of our intelligence organizations, was able to act out some horrific visions born of his demonic hatred.
A significant portion of the book deals with the CIA, the National Security Administration and the FBI who stumble-bummed around hiding information from one another while Al-Qaeda planned its attacks. Wright chose to focus on John O'Neill, a special agent of the FBI who became chief of counter-terrorism, a complex and frightfully contradictory person who ironically eventually became the chief of security of the World Trade Center and died in the 9/11 attacks. Wright minces no words in describing O'Neill and goes out of his way to compare and contrast O'Neill's character with that of bin Laden. Wright saw O'Neill as torn "between turpitude and extreme piousness," a characterization that would apply to bin Laden as well. Wright goes on to describe O'Neill as "an adulterer, a philanderer, a liar, an egotist, and a materialist. He loved celebrity and brand names, and he lived well beyond his means." (p. 346)
There is throughout the book a definite undertone that compares and contrasts Islamic and American cultures. This is natural because it is the differences that are at the heart of the tragedy of 9/11, while the many similarities are ignored or downplayed. The "after the rapture" mentality in fundamentalist Christianity is not so very different from the "the paradise to come" mentality of fundamentalist Islam. And this is not surprising since they are both the product of the tribal religions that grew out of the Middle East, and both put more credence in faith than they do in reason. I thought it was ironic that Wright was able to write, "Al-Qaeda was conceived in the marriage of these assumptions: Faith is stronger than weapons or nations, and the ticket to enter the sacred zone where such miracles occur is the willingness to die." (p. 120)
There is an index of course and a 10-page bibliography. There is a dense seven-page "Aknowledgments [sic] and Notes on Sources" which gives the reader some idea about how Wright was able to meet and interview the 560 people listed on pages 439-445. There are 41 pages of notes and an appendix identifying 86 "Principal Characters" and giving their dispositions at the time of writing.
This is without doubt the best book on Al-Qaeda and the events leading up to 9/11 that I have read. Some other books worth mentioning are:
Bergen, Peter L. Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (2001)
Graham, Bob with Jeff Nussbaum. Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America's War on Terror (2004)
Williams, Paul L. The Al Qaeda Connection: International Terrorism, Organized Crime, and the Coming Apocalypse (2005) (See my reviews at Amazon.)