The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11 Paperback – 6 Sep 2007
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Wright's brilliantly constructed narrative is head and shoulders above the rest. He knows important parts of the Muslim world (including Saudi Arabia) at first hand, he understands the motors of Islamist militancy ... Moreover, he is a fine writer with an eye for the telling detail. Even those who think they know the story intimately will feel they are reading it anew (New Statesman)
One of the best and most important books of recent years. A masterful combination of reporting and writing (Dan Rather)
Lawrence Wright's integrity and diligence as a reporter shine through every page of this riveting narrative (Robert Caro)
From the Publisher
THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER
Chosen as book of the year by The Times, Evening Standard, Economist, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Sunday Telegraph, The Herald, Observer, Guardian and New Statesman.
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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.
The detail of particular conversations has to be at least improvised in places, but I am convinced the author was both thorough and sincere, and didn't take much "artistic license". There is a ream of references and indeed many of the individuals are still alive today and he has spoken to as he explains in the afterword.
As others have mentioned it does not talk very much about the particulars of the 9/11 attacks. It's more about the philosophy and personalities that led up to the event. This does not diminish the book; there are plenty of others out there that go into a blow-by-blow analysis of 9/11 itself if that is what you are looking for.
I had scant understanding of the terrorist associations that try to associate themselves with Islam beyond the information we get from news reports; so I found it very instructive. You might find yourself turning to Wikipedia or Google at a few points to refresh your mind as there is a lot of names from the Arab world that I wasn't all that familiar with.
It is also thought provoking: you are given a window into the personal history of these individuals who went from being generally of sound mind to hardened radicals.
I would recommend it to anyone.
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