The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11

Anatomy of a Horror Story

This book review first appeared in the 23 September 2006 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 By Lawrence Wright Allen Lane, 469 pp. £25

Current Affairs: In a riveting and easy read, Wright treats the build-up to 9/11 as a thriller with its own heroes and villains.

The author, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, is particularly suited to the task, given his background in psychology and Arabic culture.

The thriller-turned-horror-story starts in 1948 when Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer and educator, arrives in the US to visit the Colorado State College of Education in Greeley. Qutb’s shock at, and obvious attraction to, the emerging female sexual freedom he saw there was transformational.

His visit left him with extremely negative views on American sexual liberty, consumerism, race relations and modernity: “Modern values . . . had infected Islam through the agency of Western colonialism. America now stood for all that . . . He intended to show that Islam and modernity were completely incompatible. His extraordinary project . . . was to . . . return Islam to its unpolluted origins . . . In Islam, he believed, divinity could not be diminished without being destroyed. Islam was total and uncompromising. It was God’s final word. Muslims had forgotten this in their enchantment with the West. Only by restoring Islam to the centre of their lives, their laws, and their government could Muslims hope to recapture their rightful place as the dominant culture in the world.”

Involved in the struggle against the government in Egypt, Qutb was executed after a failed assassination attempt on Nasser. He refused to appeal, willingly accepting death. His legacy was his “martyrdom”, a belief that all governments in the world were illegitimate, that Muslims who disagreed with his views should be excommunicated (Takfir), and that a tiny vanguard should lead the Muslim community back to his vision of a purified Islam.

The year he died, a fellow Egyptian, the 15-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri, intoxicated by Qutb’s views, set up an underground cell to overthrow the Egyptian government by a bloodless coup. Eventually captured, imprisoned, tortured and released early for informing, his views slowly changed to the need for mass casualty terrorism. This led to the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. His defence, The Cure for Believers’ Hearts (1996), is “justification” for all such attacks: ” . . . there were no innocents inside the embassy . . . No true Muslim could work for such a regime.” In this, Zawahiri was repeating the Takfir view: “Yes, there might have been innocent victims – children, true believers – who also died, but Muslims are weak and their enemy is so powerful; in such an emergency, the rules against the slaughter of innocents must be relaxed. With such sophistry, Zawahiri reversed the language of the Prophet and opened the door to universal murder.”

In this effort, he joins Osama bin Laden. Osama’s father officially fathered 54 children from 22 wives. He also acquired a number of concubines, one of which was a 14-year-old Syrian who bore him Osama when she was 16. Osama met his father on three or four occasions during his lifetime. Eventually his father divorced his mother and “awarded her to one of his executives”. This heritage, the influence of Qutb, and the alienation generated in Saudi Arabia by its extraordinary transformation in a short period from a simple tribal community to one of the wealthiest countries in the world, explains much.

Bridging the space between villains and heroes is Prince Turki al-Faisal, a Georgetown University classmate of Bill Clinton’s, later head of Saudi intelligence. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Shia revolution in Iran, Sunni militancy grew dangerously. The prince, together with General Hamid Gul, the chief of Pakistani intelligence, deliberately directed that militancy at the Soviets in Afghanistan. When he subsequently saw that al-Qaeda was turning against Saudi Arabia and the US, he tried to defuse the growing threat by imploring the Taliban regime which had taken power in Afghanistan to either rein in, expel or hand Osama over to him. It refused.

The hero is Irish-American John O’Neill, supervisor of the FBI’s New York office. He slowly built up an understanding of the significance of the al-Qaeda threat. His own style, the nature of the FBI, and bureaucratic infighting and incompetence enabled the hijackers to win the close-run race against detection. For example, the CIA agent principally responsible for tracking down Osama internationally, Michael Scheuer, could not abide O’Neill: “They were the two men most responsible for putting a stop to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and yet they disliked each other intensely – reflecting the ingrained antagonism of the organisations they represented. From the start, the response of American intelligence to the challenge presented by al- Qaeda was hampered by the dismal personal relationships and institutional warfare that these men exemplified.”

Wright records the countdown to disaster as 9/11 approached:

8/22: O’Neill resigned – to become chief of security at the World Trade Center and die there;

8/30: Prince Turki resigned;

9/10: “Bin Laden and Zawahiri and a small group of the inner corps of al-Qaeda fled into the mountains above Khost” to avoid the expected retaliation;

9/11: Bin Laden counted on his fingers for the inner corps the number of attacking aeroplanes, in advance of news of the attacks.

Bin Laden looked at the US not as a nation or even a superpower. He saw it as the vanguard of a global crusade on the part of Christians and Jews to crush the Islamic resurgence. Although he may not have read Samuel P Huntington’s 1993 treatise on the “clash of civilisations”, he seized the idea and would refer to it later, saying it was his duty to promote such a clash. History moved in long, slow waves, he believed, and this contest had been going on continuously since the founding of Islam.

“This battle is not between Al-Qaeda and the US”, bin Laden would later explain. “This is a battle of Muslims against the global Crusaders.” It was a theological war, in other words, and the redemption of humanity was at stake.

Wright’s approach is successful but has some drawbacks. He does not examine the underlying reasons for the failure of Islam, while implying that it lies at the core of the problem. Muslim scholars attribute this failure, which started in the 12th and 13th centuries, to changes within Islam. Of more immediate concern he raises the possibility that Osama’s mother was from a branch of the Shia community viewed as heretics. As al-Qaeda is virulently anti-Shia, an understanding of the development of Osama’s views in that regard would have been helpful.

Overall, however, Wright’s book is one of the best sources available to easily understand 9/11 and the key players that led to it.

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