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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `Wherever you are death will find you, even in the looming tower' - quote from the Qu'ran
Before reading Lawrence Wright's excellent `The Looming Tower' I held the mistaken idea that its primary focus might be the 19 hijackers in the September 2001 `planes operation'. But the book is not about that; it has a more ambitious reach with a narrative deeper, broader and more enlightening.

At the heart of the book is the story of Islamist-jihadism since...
Published 21 months ago by The Guardian

versus
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling reading - but possibly fatally flawed
This exhaustively-researched book is essential reading for anyone interested in the build-up to the 9/11 outrage, especially if you are looking for a sometimes dramatised version of the - I strongly suspect - official side of the story.
But beware - there are very different views on what happened, if you take the trouble to investigate the alternative evidence...
Published on 2 July 2008 by Sid J. Whitworth


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `Wherever you are death will find you, even in the looming tower' - quote from the Qu'ran, 28 Feb 2013
By 
The Guardian (UK) - See all my reviews
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Before reading Lawrence Wright's excellent `The Looming Tower' I held the mistaken idea that its primary focus might be the 19 hijackers in the September 2001 `planes operation'. But the book is not about that; it has a more ambitious reach with a narrative deeper, broader and more enlightening.

At the heart of the book is the story of Islamist-jihadism since the 1940s: the revolutionary `Moslem Brotherhood' whose primary goal was the violent overthrow of Arab secular-nationalist governments starting with Egypt; the 18th-century Wahhabi tradition predominant in Saudi Arabia, and the Taliban movement jointly financed and supported by the Pakistani ISI & Saudi Intelligence. These detailed stories replete with revealing personal testimony (the author interviewed more than 1,000 people all over the Middle East & Af-Pak region whilst researching his material) are progressively interwoven with those of the key players in the US Government, in particular the clever but mildly eccentric Richard Clarke; the CIA and the FBI's John O'Neill, a larger-than-life cigar-smoking polygamist highly respected and popular with his staff who prophetically foresaw the Salafi-Islamist attack on the USA in 2001 and worked tirelessly to forestall it before tragically meeting his death in the World Trade Centre on 11th September.

The book starts with a chapter devoted to the austere Egyptian anti-Semitic academic Sayyid Qutb, the pious and sexually-repressed father of modern theocratic Islamism whose time spent in the USA in the late 1940s convinced him the West was irredeemably decadent and deserved to be destroyed. Qutb eventually welcomed execution by the Egyptian government in 1966 as a `martyr for Allah.' The personal stories of al Zawahiri and the bin Laden family are brought to life with a level of detail I've never read before: Osama was the only son of Mohammed bin Laden's fourth wife and something of an odd-ball; MbL built his huge construction empire in Saudi Arabia whilst illiterate but could remember dozens of engineering measurements/calculations in his head; Osama had a lifelong love of horses, and one of his wives left him to return to her family in Syria with her daughters because she could no longer endure the privations imposed by their fugitive life in Afghanistan.

With coherent interlocking narratives, Wright brings these characters to life as real 3-dimensional people and shows exactly how the obsessively theocratic-reactionary strain of Islam became so dangerous. Emboldened in the war against the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s (though of negligible military value compared to the native Afghan `mujahideen'), its ranks filled with now-underemployed angry young radicals whose birth-countries didn't want them back yet supported by substantial funds both official & unofficial from those very countries, the Afghanistan-based jihadists became the principle perpetrator of extreme terrorist violence throughout the Middle East.

Thrown out of Khartoum in 1996 with his passport seized by the Saudis, ObL had no choice but to return to Afghanistan. "'Let him', the Americans responded, `just don't let him go to Somalia'" (p221). A depressing saga of non-co-operation between on the one hand the intelligence sources of the NSA and more particularly the CIA, with on the other hand the FBI charged with investigating, prosecuting & forestalling terrorism through the late 1990s is revealed step by logical step and with alarming details. The 1993 WTC truck-bomb, the appalling 1998 East African Embassy bombings, the successful attack on the USS Cole in Aden Harbour saw a relentless escalation of operations against US targets. As is now well known, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who otherwise shared no common ground with ObL) travelled to Afghanistan to propose the `planes operation' to ObL; a high-risk plan to strike the USA at its core. All this time, the impenetrable `wall' between the CIA - who had actionable intelligence that several men with known Al Qaida connections had entered the USA - and the FBI whose task it was to stop them but were frustratingly denied the information, was ironically satirised at the FBI's I-49 HQ thus:

"The agents at I-49 were so used to being denied access to intelligence that they bought a CD of a Pink Floyd song `Another Brick in the Wall'. Whenever they received the same formulation [from the CIA] about `sensitive sources and methods,' they would hold up the phone to the CD player and push `play'" (p344).

Wright illustrates exactly how the 9/11 attacks could have been intercepted and prevented at an early stage were it not for these internecine turf wars between different agencies, particularly between the CIA and FBI. The CIA refused to reveal the presence of jihadists with Al Qaida connections in the USA to the FBI, because to do so might `compromise intelligence sources' and the individuals concerned were not at the time technically indicted for crimes: a defensible legalistic position, but one eventually to prove fatal. Systemic non-co-operation was made worse by sclerotic bureaucratic procedures, rigid outdated rules and a failure at the executive level to pay attention to siren voices like Daniel Coleman seconded to the CIA's Alec Station who saw the mortal danger of a major cataclysmic attack against US cities from Al Qaida, probably involving suicide bombers and possibly hijacked airliners. The CIA leadership in particular does not emerge from Wright's book covered in glory, but the author does reveal the efforts of a few individuals like the heroically persistent Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan whose skilled interrogation of Al Qaida prisoners detained by the Yemeni authorities further confirmed that ObL was behind the 9/11 operation, and others like O'Neill who patiently battled to get the lethal threat from bin Laden & Al Qaida given higher priority by a White House administration by turns vacillating and indifferent.

Lawrence Wright's flowing novelistic style sets TLT apart from the shelf-load of other works on Islamist terrorism these past 30 years, like Steve Coll's scholarly but tough-to-read `Ghost Wars' for instance. The origins of the jihadist hatred and contempt for Western values (not to mention Jews, Hindus, Shi-ite Moslems & just about everybody else on the planet with a world-view different from theirs) and how they have been able to cause mayhem throughout the Middle East & occasionally in the West has rarely been explained with such clarity. In parallel Wright's book is the story of precisely how and why the lavishly financed security agencies of the US government failed to stop them attacking America in September 2001; how in the real world small mistakes and seemingly trivial oversights can accumulate to catastrophic consequence. As a bonus TLT is a cracking read, well worth the time and effort.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clearly the essential read on Al-Qaeda and the events leading to 9/11, 24 May 2007
By 
Dennis Littrell (SoCal) - See all my reviews
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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.)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars engrossing and sad, 28 Jan 2013
By 
david - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
An amazing amount of research, well written, hard to put down. If you need any more confirmation that U.S. "intelligence" was truly, shockingly arrogant and boneheaded, this book makes it clear as day. Bush and others could state this and that about wanting to get Bin Laden, but their appointed friends or directors were incompentant; the lack of insider knowledge in Pakistan is perhaps most irritating, and the almost complete lack of info exchange between the FBI and CIA meant 1000's died needlessly.

This book is not really about THE day, 9/11, but the people and events that created the desire to do such an evil deed. Yes, sometimes the names can be confusing, or hard to place in the timeline of events, but the narrative is clear and well written.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The best book on Al-Qaeda, 14 Nov 2014
By 
Obelix (Ancient Gaul) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
It's not often deserving books win the Pulitzer. This is one of them.

Here, Wright tells the story of Al-Qaeda's birth and its long, knotted road to the 9/11 attacks. It's as readable as any thriller, but backed up by painstaking research, some taken from files on a recovered Al-Qaeda computer.

Wright reminds you just how improbable human beings are, and their history. The teenage Bin Laden was addicted to the TV show Bonanza, and, when holed up in Afghan caves, enjoyed watching his younger children play Nintendo. The obsessive FBI agent who spent the last years of his career trying and failing to convince the U.S. government of the threat Bin Laden posed was later found in the rubble of the Twin Towers, where he'd gone to work after being 'retired' from the bureau. Al-Qaeda operatives whooped for joy after purchasing what they thought was enriched uranium, only to learn it was merely Red Mercury - the nuclear world's equivalent of Fool's Gold.

I also recommend Wright's recent book, a blistering expose of Scientology.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very readable and generally reliable account, 12 Feb 2013
By 
M.B. (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
This is a very readable and generally very reliable account of the long build-up to 9/11. Its most original aspect is the way it describes the gradual development over several decades of Bin Laden's jihad on the USA, an anger which shifts focus from the rulers of his native Saudi Arabia to what he sees as the broader Western sources of their decadence. The early chapters in particular are very interesting in emphasising the importance of the writings of Sayyid Qutb (hanged by Nasser in 1966) and other events in Egypt as formative influences on Bin Laden and his followers.

It reads like a dramatised version of the 9/11 Commission report, covering in some detail the major Islamic terrorist events that preceeded 9/11. As such, a word of caution: despite its title (a well-chosen quotation from the Koran), only the last two chapters out of the twenty in the book are directly about 9/11. There is very little about the planning and execution of the attack itself. Rather, this is a history of its motivation.

As at least one other reviewer notes, Wright accepts the term "Al Qaeda" without question and uses it rather liberally. Jason Burke is a much more reliable author in terms of stressing the looseness and diversity of this supposedly official grouping which was never in any absolute sense directed or organised solely by Bin Laden.

Obviously, the absurd conspiracy theorists should be dismissed out of hand - it is inconceivable that the U.S. authorities would not have prevented 9/11 if they could, and this book is quite open about the reasons why they failed, mainly the tragically ineffective communications between the CIA and FBI. There are occasional moments, however, when The Looming Tower does lapse into blind patriotism. It seems desperate to make John O'Neill, a key FBI figure, into hero of the piece, portraying him as Bin Laden's arch enemy on the good guys' side, implausibly comparing O'Neill's Catholicism and womanising to Bin Laden's religious sense and multiple marriages. We are also told that Abu Jandal, Bin Laden's chief bodyguard, when taken into custody "quickly consumed the history [...] and was shocked to learn of the American Revolution and the passionate struggle against tyranny that was woven into the American heritage." Perhaps...

Despite these flaws, the books is well researched with a vast list of author interviews; the reader does come out of it with a clear insight into the minds of the hardened terrorists at its centre.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 9/11 Background, 7 Feb 2012
By 
This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
This is a useful book that tells the story of Al Quaeda from its ideological beginnings in Egypt some 70 years ago. It also tells the Saudi background. This is very good but it becomes more difficult and detailed with more recent events.

The book is well written and has some 80 pages of notes which give the book its authority. The terrorists seem totally deluded but the book is good at demonstrating how they arrived at their peculiar viewpoint and how , by luck and poor work by the various intelligence services their view gave birth to a spectacular terror incident. It also shows that the US reaction whilst understandable was blunt and ham fisted.

I hope that Wright gives us a sequel about the events following 9/11
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, and terrifying, 6 Jan 2008
By 
Peter Lee (Manchester ,United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
As others have already said, this is a book of two halves. The early part explains how Al Qaeda came to be, outlining the opinions and beliefs Osama Bin Laden and others adopted. About half-way through the book changes and focuses more on the path to 9/11, detailing how the plot came to be and how everything came together on that fateful day.

Meticulously researched and brilliantly written this reads like a thriller, such is its gripping nature, and yet unlike any thriller it is truly terrifying as you know it is entirely true, and the manner in which the intelligence services in the US refused to cooperate is simply staggering - with a little more willingness to share information the whole plan could have been thwarted.

A truly excellent book. Only one problem though: the pictures weren't in my copy. At the back of the book there is an index of photographs used in the book, and yet there were none in my copy. Maybe I just bought a dud.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling reading - but possibly fatally flawed, 2 July 2008
By 
Sid J. Whitworth "DJ Radagast" (Dylan Thomas country) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
This exhaustively-researched book is essential reading for anyone interested in the build-up to the 9/11 outrage, especially if you are looking for a sometimes dramatised version of the - I strongly suspect - official side of the story.
But beware - there are very different views on what happened, if you take the trouble to investigate the alternative evidence available.
The prime example is the name of the dark global shadow permeating the whole book - al Quaeda.
According to Wright, al-Qaeda (meaning the base) was named on August 11, 1988, at a meeting in Peshawar attended by Osama Bin Laden and called by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam to discuss the future of jihad and the danger of an Afghan civil war.
According to the BBC's Adam Curtis documentary The Power of Nightmares (DVDs of this are available but difficult to find), the name is largely an invention of the Americans.
In the third of the BBC's brilliant three-part series by Adam Curtis, we learn that the name al-Quaeda emerged in 2001 during the FBI's trial in Manhatten of four men accused of the East African embassy bombings.
A key witness Jamal al-Fadl, who had stolen money from Bin Laden and was given US taxpayers' cash to stay in the country, said Bin Laden headed a well-organised international organisation he called al Quaeda.
Actually, the documentary claimed, Bin Laden did not use the term until after 9/11 when he realised the Americans was referring to his organisation by that name.
There are many contradictions too in the work - Bin Laden is said to live his life very closely in line with the Koran, opposing the harming of innocents, as did the Prophet. He is portrayed as generous, weakly, almost gentle. Yet he is credited with numerous horrors in which thousands of innocent people were slaughtered.
Something doesn't add up.
Then there are the conversations between various secretive and much sought after terrorists - and several other major players on both sides - reported in direct speech. Good for dramatic effect. Bad for authenticity surely?
But I thoroughly enjoyed the this truly unputdownable mine of information.
Make up your own mind.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Like a thriller, 17 Mar 2014
By 
High Seas Drifter (On the road in Mexico) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
The story of how Muslim Fundamentalism grew, and how it led to 9/11. Both could have been avoided, but events spiralled out of control. The US intelligence services come out of it very badly...the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA, and both agencies refusing to share info with each other conspiring to lead to the most brutally tragic event in modrn American history. An excellent conpanion to Ghost Wars.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Impartial, sensitive and persuasive, 11 Aug 2013
This review is from: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 (Paperback)
This Pulitzer Prize winning book draws together the strands of several stories: the idealist who inspired Islamic terror groups; the evolution of the Egyptian Al-Jihad movement; Bin Laden's journey from supporting Afghans in their resistance to the Soviet Union to becoming the sponsor and leader of Al Qaeda; and the bungling and squabbling within the US government agencies that fatally undermined any attempt to thwart the 9/11 attack. It is not the story of the events on the day itself.

The book is most engrossing firstly in its portrait of Bin Laden, and secondly in its account of the chronic divisiveness between the CIA and the FBI. Had they worked together, the author suggests, 9/11 could well have been prevented. Relying principally on FBI sources, the author lays most of the blame at the door of the CIA.

Although sometimes speculative, the overall thesis of the book is persuasive, and the author's treatment of its various controversial subjects certainly seems impartial and fair.
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The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (Paperback - 6 Sep 2007)
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