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on 9 March 2017
Great on the background to how it all happened but not the inside story of the hijacking itself. But you have to understand the background to understand what happened and where its going. Really well written and shows the roots of the evil that these men conducted. The so called religious fervour in name, Islam, is behind the hate that caused the deaths. It will not go away until we do something to stop the root of this doctrine or more 911s will come. This book gives you that understanding.
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on 28 March 2017
I wish it was twice as long. Very detailed, incredibly well researched, reads like a thriller.

Best book in a very long time for me.
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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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I first read this book in early 2016 ten years after its publication, having read many books on 9/11 and its aftermath. The passing of time and Islamic extremism's subsequent global growth make its contribution to one's understanding even more impressive and important.

As other reviewers have noted this book is not about 9/11 though that is the culminating event. Instead it is primarily about the growth of radical Islamic thinking from the late 1940s. The Muslim Brotherhood led by Sayyid Qutb until he was executed in 1966, existed mainly in Egypt a country the author knew as an English teacher during the 1960s. Reignited by the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the vacuum created, it's diverse supporters transformed into al-Qaeda under the control of a wayward son of the Saudi based wealthy Yemen family of bin Laden.

The detailed level of research and the concise explanations of what is so often not easily understood by non-Muslims is what initially marks this book out especially in the first two hundred pages up to the first truck bomb attack on the World Towers in 1993. From then on the book runs in parallel the roller coaster history of al-Qaeda under Osama bin-Laden and the story of the US and Saudi government's growing awareness and response (or lack of it).

Lawrence Wright's prodigious research and extensive interviews with representatives from all sides fill out these stories with facets that have largely been lost post 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. By telling events though a few key driven individuals, who nearly all ultimately were losers or victims in later events, Wright keeps the drama moving to its sad finale.

Bin Laden's activities during his time in Afghanistan and Sudan underline his lack of any coherent strategy and political, financial or global awareness. Al-Qaeda is revealed as an organization unsophisticated in approach and using a questionable religious basis. Yet driven by a small core group dedicated to violent jihad against the US, as it became bolder it attracted more likeminded Muslims seeking martyrdom.

The key elements of the US story are the inter government agency battles, notably the FBI with a global terror mandate and an attitude of bringing people to trial in US Courts and the CIA with a historic desire to eliminate those it saw as enemies of the USA. The precision of the detail is what marks out this re-telling plus Wright is very good at conveying the mindsets different operatives faced.

The end outcome did not achieve bin Laden’s immediate hope of an Islamic global crusade through Muslims flocking to his cause, his subsequent life being one of hiding till his execution in May 2011. Nearly all the US players who had been his adversaries as his organization developed were gone or with no ongoing role to play post 9/11 as the USA embarked on the revenge attacks bin-Laden had dreamt of in uniting Muslims against the infidel.

My edition of the book contains a 2011 Afterword from the author. This was written after the Arab Spring commenced with the hope many of the problems al-Qaeda and other Arab rulers notably the Saudis had ignored would now be addressed and defeat radical Islam. Yet sadly by 2016 with ISIS establishing al-Qaeda’s planned Islamic caliphate and the ineffectual US response with drones and air power shows the original conflict has grown, not diminished.
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on 25 February 2016
I was totally enthralled from page 1. I found the level of detail combined with a coprehensive explanation of the relevant context drew me into the journey page after page. It is a very carefully written text that manages to convery the social and political complexity and immensely engaging personal stories. My emotions ranged from anger to disbelief to despair. I read this text over a number of weeks and found that picking it up and putting it down was very easy. A challenging and facinating read.
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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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on 28 September 2015
Excellent book. It's scope is vast as it goes all the way back to the book that inspired fundamentalists and the time it's author spent in the USA through to just after 9/11. For a story with so many moving parts, CIA, FBI, Al-jihad, Al-qaeda, the Taliban and Saudi Royal family, and the multiple decades, countries and continents they're spread throughout it clear and easy to follow. All the writing has a sense of purpose and necessity to complete and further the story. There's no rambling viewpoints on who went wrong where just the facts which are unbelievably compelling. Fantastic book.

I;d recommend the paperback to the kindle version as it would have been advantageous to be able to quickly move back and forth between the extra information given on the many characters in order to differentiate them.
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on 17 March 2014
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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on 2 July 2008
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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on 19 February 2017
What can I say about this wonderful book that has not been said many times? Knowing nothing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nassar, Sadat, Mubarek, Sayyid Qutb.. one could go on - this book gives you a real basic education, one that I sadly lacked. When I talk about the current problems today in the ME it is hard not to sound too educated to friends. A Wonderful, wonderful book.
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