The looming tower : Al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11

by Lawrence Wright

Hardcover, 2006




New York : Knopf, 2006.


A sweeping narrative history of the events leading to 9/11, a groundbreaking look at the people and ideas, the terrorist plans and the Western intelligence failures that culminated in the assault on America. Lawrence Wright's remarkable book is based on five years of research and hundreds of interviews that he conducted in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, England, France, Germany, Spain, and the United States. The Looming Tower achieves an unprecedented level of intimacy and insight by telling the story through the interweaving lives of four men: the two leaders of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri; the FBI's counterterrorism chief, John O'Neill; and the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal. As these lives unfold, we see revealed: the crosscurrents of modern Islam that helped to radicalize Zawahiri and bin Laden . . . the birth of al-Qaeda and its unsteady development into an organization capable of the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole . . . O'Neill's heroic efforts to track al-Qaeda before 9/11, and his tragic death in the World Trade towers . . . Prince Turki's transformation from bin Laden's ally to his enemy . . . the failures of the FBI, CIA, and NSA to share intelligence that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. The Looming Tower broadens and deepens our knowledge of these signal events by taking us behind the scenes. Here is Sayyid Qutb, founder of the modern Islamist movement, lonely and despairing as he meets Western culture up close in 1940s America; the privileged childhoods of bin Laden and Zawahiri; family life in the al-Qaeda compounds of Sudan and Afghanistan; O'Neill's high-wire act in balancing his all-consuming career with his equally entangling personal life-he was living with three women, each of them unaware of the others' existence-and the nitty-gritty of turf battles among U.S. intelligence agencies. Brilliantly conceived and written, The Looming Tower draws all elements of the story into a galvanizing narrative that adds immeasurably to our understanding of how we arrived at September 11, 2001. The richness of its new information, and the depth of its perceptions, can help us deal more wisely and effectively with the continuing terrorist threat.… (more)

Media reviews

A narrator doesn’t just tell a story; he keeps the listener company. Alan Sklar is good company—with a voice so distinctive that a blind man could pick him out from across the room.
3 more
Wright, a New Yorker writer, brings exhaustive research and delightful prose to one of the best books yet on the history of terrorism.
In the nearly five years since the attacks, we’ve heard oceans of commentary on the whys and how-comes and what-it-means and what’s nexts. Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker — where portions of this book have appeared — has put his boots on the ground in the hard places, conducted the interviews and done the sleuthing. Others talked, he listened. And so he has unearthed an astonishing amount of detail about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Muhammad Omar and all the rest of them. They come alive.
New York Times
Mr. Wright’s book, based on more than 500 interviews — ranging from Mr. bin Laden’s best friend in college, Jamal Khalifa, to Yosri Fouda, a reporter for Al Jazeera, to Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief — gives the reader a searing view of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, a view that is at once wrenchingly intimate and boldly sweeping in its historical perspective.

User reviews

LibraryThing member getupkid10
The most detailed book I have seen that focuses on the developments and ideology that created Al - Qaeda. The book begins by describing the life of Sayyid Qutb, and how is ideology helped shape the beliefs of many involced in 9/11. The book then describes the criss-crossing lifes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin-laden and their groups, Al-Jihad and Al-Qaeda.

Although the book does cover the US mistakes during the lead up to 9/11 (especially focusing on the fact the CIA refused to share information with the FBI), the book mostly focuses on the two Islamic Militants. It goes in to great detail about their lives in there respective countries,and what drew both of them to radical Islam and to each other.

What I found so amazing about the book is its ability to make Bin Laden actually look human (albeit a horrible human). Wright portrays Bin Laden as a man that truly believes in his cause, without defending the actions.
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LibraryThing member p_linehan
This is an engrossing accounting of the people and events leading up to the 9/11 disaster. It seems well researched with extensive endnotes. At times I had to put the book down, as it was too intense to continue. This is all too recent. I am almost the same age as Bin-Laden. It was creepy to read what he was doing at various times in his life and compare it to my own life. This book is a must read for anyone who wants to know how this madness began and developed.

Also, rather than blame US intelligence for missing Al-Qaeda, it made me realize that what they were planning was so crazy, so far off what had been done before, that it was very difficult for people to conceive of it. However, it does show how bureaucratic competition and fighting blinded us from what was going on.
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LibraryThing member CBJames
The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright is a multi-award winning account of the people and events behind the September 11, 2001 hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The book lives up to its publicity and deserves the awards. It's one of the best pieces of recent history I've read.

While thoroughly researched, The Looming Tower is written in straightforward prose that reads almost like a spy thriller--if only it were simply that. Mr. Wright has interviewed just about everyone with any connection to the terrorists and the government agents who hunted them and he has read all there is to read about them as well. The result of his research is a fascinating, page turning, in-depth account that will add to the understanding of all but the most expert readers. Take, for instance, this paragraph explaining why so many young Muslim men were willing to become martyrs:

The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation. From Iraq to Morrocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth at the very time when democracy and personal income were sharply climbing in virtually all other parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, the richest of the lot, was such a notoriously unproductive country that the extraordinary abundance of petroleum had failed to generate any other significant source of income; indeed, if one subtract the oil revenue of the Gulf countries, 260 million Arabs exported less than the 5 million Finns. Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectation and declining opportunities. This is especaily true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment--movies, theatre, music--is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.

This situation led many young people to actively seek the "glorious death" martyrdom promised. This desire only increased after the crack-downs which followed early attacks in Egypt, such as the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The men charged and imprisoned for this crime were severely tortured by the Egyptian government which only served to radicalise them and their followers even further and led to increased growth of fundamentalist terror movements in Egypt. One of these men was Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri the leader of al-Jihad movement in Egypt and later the ideological leader of al-Queda. At one point the Egyptian government forced two young boys, both sons of members of the al-Jihad movement, to turn against their fathers and attempt to plant a bomb in the home of Dr. Zawahiri. (That this was done by photographing the boys while raping them and then threatening to show the photographs to their fathers indicts both the government of Egypt and fundamentalist Islam which would subject the boys to the death penalty for their "crime.") The plot failed and the boys were executed but Zawahiri's movement was left in shambles.

Zawahiri had few resources remaining other than bin Laden's backing. He was determined to strike back quickly against the Egyptian authorities in order to redeem his reputation and keep the remnants of his organization intact. His views had undergone a powerful shift from those of the young man who spurned revolution because it was too bloody. He now believed that only violence changed history. In striking the enemy, he would create a new reality. His strategy was to force the Egyptian regime to become even more repressive, to make the people hate it. In this he succeeded. But the Egyptian people did not turn to him or to his movement. They only became more miserable, more disenchanted, frightened, and despairing. In the game Zawahiri had begun, however, revenge was essential, it was the game itself.

And the focus of the attacks shifted from the government to people in general. The goal soon became to kills as many as possible with no real regard to who the victems were. It is no coincidence that many of the 9/11 hijackers came from Egypt. Mr. Wright does an excellent job of clearly explaining the roots of al-Qaeda, beginning with revolutionary intellectual movements in Egypt in the 1950's.

Mr. Wright presents a comprehensive biography of the key players in al-Qaeda, namely Zawahiri and bin Laden. Whle Mr. Wright makes no effort to paint these men as monsters, as the book progresses they become them, at least as far as I'm concerned. The form of Islam that they embrace is so extreme one wonders how anyone could be attracted to it. Then they themselves begin to make it even more extreme by finding in it the justification for killing innocent people including families and children, even fellow Muslims. I was reminded of the justifications Christians came up with during the 4th crusade to make it acceptable for them to attack and kill other Christians. There is, unfortunately, nothing new under the sun.

While most of The Looming Tower is about the development of al-Qaeda and bin Laden, Mr. Wright does present the law enforcement side of the story. The F.B.I and the C.I.A. were both very late to the party. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorists didn't make it onto the radar screens of either group until rather late in the game and not enough people at either agency took al-Qaeda seriously enough until September 12, 2001. One man who did was John O'Neill at the F.B.I. Mr. O'Neill and a handful of other agents doggedly pursued anti-terror investigations only to be thwarted by the C.I.A. which withheld information they wanted kept secret as a means of gaining further intelligence. Mr. Wright lays out the details here and makes a good case for the argument that had these two agencies cooperated, namely had the C.I.A. given the F.B.I. the information they requested, the 9/11 attacks could very likely have been prevented. Mr. O'Neill retired in early September 2001 and began a new job with security at the World Trade Center. He was killed when the towers collapsed.

The Looming Tower ends with the September 11 attacks which makes for an oddly unsatisfactory finish. I wanted to know more. Mr. Wright explains how al-Qaeda and bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan under the Taliban but he does not develop this material enough to explain why the United States felt justified invading that country. These events happened afterwards, true, and are therefore material for another day, but it remained a nagging question in a book that provided so many answers. I do not know if Mr. Wright is planning a second volume. If he is, it will certainly find a place on my TBR shelf.
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LibraryThing member bobcity
The is the consummate story of, and explanation of, the meaning of the attack on the United States by Al-Qaeda. I've read many excellent books on this subject by authors like Ron Suskind, Bob Woodward, Mike Gordon and Richard Clark to name just a few. This may be the last book that I will ever read on this topic. It explains how a young, wealthy, pampered, Islamic seeker could be transformed into someone who headed an organization that could carry out mass murder. The story is made real by the personal interviews and the research into the biography's of the principals. It helps one see clearly the cultures and environmental factors that produce the suicide warriors that violate the most basic tenants of their own religion on the simple word of zealots. This is not a book about whose fault it was, it's a book about the root causes of this sad tragedy. I recommend it to anyone interested in this topic.… (more)
LibraryThing member ethanr
Without a wasted word, Wright tells the history of bin Laden, Zawahiri and al-Queda. Immediately, I have a deeper understanding of current news stories about Pakistan, Afghanistan and global terrorism.
LibraryThing member mrminjares
A well-researched journey of Al Qaeda, from the industrial beginnings of the Bin Laden clan to the fanatical religiosity that found an audience in Afghanistan.
LibraryThing member ThorHeyerdahl
A thorough, scholarly, and complete explanation of the rise of militant Islam, and a clear exposition of the West's dismal failure to appropriately respond- with ultimately devastating results. Refreshingly apolitical. Wright demonstrates that radical Islam is a product of regional repression, and is anathema to the residents of the Middle East, as much , if not more than America or western culture. A clear sad commentary on the failure of each culture to understand the other. Should be required reading for every talking head , Presidential candidate, or anyone currently in the White House.… (more)
LibraryThing member dougwood57
Lawrence Wright, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, provides an immensely instructive history of the development of al-Qaeda. The book begins with a fascinating chapter on Sayyid Qutb, I daresay not a name on the tip of most American tongues, but a man whose writing provided the basis for the future Islamist movement.

Wright focuses mainly on providing the factual context and he has some stunning material. The book has about 40 pages of endnotes, a lengthy bibliography, and a list of hundreds of interview subjects. He got an amazing array of people to talk openly about pretty sensitive stuff.

According to Wright, Bin Laden was never as wealthy as he is often portrayed (it measured in the millions not hundreds of millions) and was essentially destitute by the time he was booted out of the Sudan. Bin Laden created a myth that blew out of all proportion his role and the role of the so-called Arab Afghans in the Afghan war against the Soviets.

Regarding the 'why', while this question is not Wright's focus, a picture emerges that while they don't quite 'hate us because of our freedom' the radical Islamists do indeed despise Western materialism and cultural modernity. They have declared jihad (and I don't mean in the self-improving sense of jihad) on non-Muslims. Their arrogance even extends to declaring 'takfir' on other Muslims as 'kafir' - basically drumming these other Muslims out of the religion and declaring them apostates. More specifically, Bin Laden was also driven nearly mad by the presence of US forces in the sacred lands of Islam.

Roughly the last third of the book concentrates on US intelligence efforts particularly John O'Neill, the flawed one-time leader of the FBI's counter-terrorism unit. (O'Neill retired in August 2001 and became security director at the World Trade Center - he died on 9/11).

Could 9/11 have been prevented by providing more resources to counter-terrosim, by better cooperation and less personal and institutional antagonism between the CIA and FBI? Wright suggests that this may indeed have been the case. However, he also makes it clear that bin Laden was intent on provoking a violent response that would drag the US into an extended war in the Middle East (he had Afghanistan in mind). Bin Laden was disappointed when the attacks on the US Embassies in Africa and then the attack on the USS Cole did not bring the anticipated war. As long as his organization functioned he was going to attempt greater and greater attacks on the US.

Absolutely the highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member Banbury
Reading The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright made me realize how little I know about the individuals, the groups, the countries, and the interaction of the foregoing involved in both terrorism and counter-terrorism. Some names are familiar in a talismanic way. For example, I have heard the name al-Zawahari many times on the news, but I really did not understand his role in 9/11, or his connection to Osama bin Laden. The fault is in large part my own, but also that of the press. The press, despite hours available on cable, does not bother to explain who many of the key players are—in fact the press does not even bother to show maps of the Middle East to show where the terror originated. The Looming Tower gives the background of many of the key players, along with some insight into their motives.
The turf-protection and fumbling of the CIA and FBI make me suitably angry, as well as the apparent cluelessness of Barbara Bodine, the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, who was more concerned with proper Arab pronunciation of names than with the death of U.S. military personnel and the dangerous precedent of the bombing of the Cole. Barbara Bodine, in an article in the Los Angeles Times dated September 6, 2003, reacted to her portrayal in the ABC drama, "The Path to 9/11," which followed that set forth in The Looming Tower, stating, “According to the mythmakers, a battle ensued between a cop obsessed with tracking down Osama bin Laden and a bureaucrat more concerned with the feelings of the host government than the fate of Americans and the realities of terrorism. I know this is false. I was there. I was the ambassador.” She never directly addresses the question of why she would deny John O’Neill re-entry to Yemen; she just evades the entire issue: “I am not here to either defend or attack O'Neill. He was a complex man. But what happened after Al Qaeda's attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole was a complex story.” In other words, she knows better than we do, and the story is too complex for the general public to understand. She refers to the 9/11 Commission Report as setting forth the truth of the matter in a fair and objective way. It would make one think that there is a full explanation of what happened set forth in the Commission Report, and that it answers her critics. However, there is surprisingly little in the report about Barbara Bodine at all, and most of that information apparently comes from the Commission’s interview of her—hardly an objective source. Of course, John O’Neill was not interviewed because he was killed in the 9/11 attacks. The Commission Report states baldly that Bodine and O’Neill “clashed repeatedly—to the point that after O’Neill had been rotated out of Yemen but wanted to return, Bodine refused the request.” There is no explanation in the Commission Report other than her personal dislike of O’Neill for refusing him re-entry.
I would wish the information in this book were more broadly disseminated to U.S. citizens, so that we are aware of what we are up against, and also to be able to better assess whether our government’s response has been appropriate (Iraq?). There would seem to be enough airtime available on the many 24/7 cable channels. On the flipside, it might also be helpful for the general public of Islamic countries to know the facts about the individuals behind the attacks, as well as the death and maiming toll of innocent people, including innocent Muslims.
The Looming Tower painstakingly traces connections between various events and people, and shows a somewhat serendipitous path from the execution of an Egyptian Islamist writer in 1966 to the events of 9/11. My grasp of the history is not strong enough to know whether this was a true path, or a mere connecting of unrelated dots after the fact; in either event, I know more now than I did.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
This is a pretty intense book that serves partly as a history of Al-Qaeda Part, partly as a step-by-step lead up to 9/11. The first part gives a summary of how Al-Qaeda came to be, including an exploration of Bin Laden’s strange history, and the wild philosophical path that led Al-Qaeda to justify killing about everyone. It’s fascinating and disturbing how deeply, fervently, intelligent people can hold to these beliefs. The second half reads almost like a thriller (except it’s real, and horrible). The book becomes hard to put down. I read the 2nd part in a rush, but the first part is more thought provoking. It’s the first part that screwed up by dreams for a few days.

Edited to add that this won the 2007 Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction
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LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Very interesting and informative explanation of where bin Laden and the major al queda players came from. Best discussion of Qutb I've read. Very well written.
LibraryThing member piefuchs
An account of the development of Al Qaeda that reads like a novel. Wonderfully detailed, well researched, and written in a highly factual tone, The Looming Tower is equally enlightening and frightening. It is the best account I have read yet of Al Qaeda's roots. Wright provides some reasonable insight into the lure of Al Qaeda and provides excellent portraits of its main players. When I finished this book I was far more worried about Islamic extremsists than when started... If there is a weakness in the book, it is in the handling of the CIA/FBI covering of counterterrorism of pre 9/11 - this is handled much better in Ghost Wars, and in what was done seemed like an aside from the main story.… (more)
LibraryThing member idiotgirl
Very good for providing coherent mini-narratives about the main players. Perhaps because the book organizes more around personalities and stories, I got a better sense of some of the issues than I have from books with more complicated and subtle explication of the issues.
LibraryThing member nkrastx
An amazing explanation of the culture and events that led to 9/11. The book humanizes Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, the founders of Al Quaeda, but it does not apologize for their despicable acts and misdirected anger. If you only read one book on 9/11, this should be the one.
LibraryThing member maunder
An emminently readable account of Osama bin LAden and Ayman al Zawakiri and the rise of the Al Qaeda terrorist organzation from its early roots in Saudia Arabia, Sudan, Egypt and Afganistan to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001. The book describes terrorist leaders and the men who tried to stop them. The book explains many things about the organization of Al Qaeda and its strengths and weaknesses. The book seems to end rather abuptly in 2001 and one wonders how it was that an impoverished bin Laden managed to acquire the resources to regroup after the forced exit from the Sudan however this book is a must read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Schoneweis
This history of Al Qeada is very well done and easy to read. Its easy to put too mush detail in and leave out pertinent facts. It dispels dozens of right wing foolishness about terrorism and Islam.
LibraryThing member mensheviklibrarian
Excellent, heart breaking look at the history of Al-Qaeda and the half-hearted attempts by the US government to stop them. Wright places the intellectual and political development of Al-Qaeda firmly within the context of oppressive Middle Eastern regimes and the geopolitics of the Cold War.

It sometimes reads like a horror novel, as Wright carefully highlights all of the self-defeating bureaucratic infighting and lack of focus at the top levels of government that contributed to 9/11. Washington does not come out well.

Read this book!
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LibraryThing member hotchk155
A faultlessly excellent book; fascinating, disturbing, sometimes bizarrely comical. Pacey and unputdownable like few non-fictions are.
LibraryThing member melancholycat
I just finished this book for class and I must say it is an excellent read. I have never been terribly interested in studying the Middle East or learning more about those responsible for 9/11, but Lawrence made the subject interested and I couldn't put the book down. Even though I remember the exact moment I watched the Twin Towers fall, it never truly effected me consciously. The last few chapters of Wright's book made me want to cry with frustration and anger. This book definitely makes you question and despise the CIA for blocking all efforts to try and prevent 9/11. That is one thing I could critique about the book - it is very bent against the CIA, ad while it can be said that they really were responsible for a lot of important information not going where it needed to be, it's sure to infuriate those who potentially see more subjectivity than objectivity.
In any event, I recommend that everyone should read this book - it's eye-opening.
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LibraryThing member gmicksmith
In the early 1980s, a Palestinian ideologue named Abdullah Azzam was coordinating the jihad from Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border.

Azzam’s Peshawar center was known as the Afghan Bureau. His deputy and financier was a Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

Was the idealistic 19- or 20-year-old Barack Obama inquiring about the Afghanistan jihad?… (more)
LibraryThing member pwoodford
I guess this is stuff I should know, but I'm reluctant to know it. Certainly it helps me understand Muslim extremism. It does not help me to love my extremeist Muslim brothers, though . . . far from it. Exhaustively researched, well written, can't-put-it-down reading . . . but you want to join the Crusades afterward.
LibraryThing member 4bonasa
The best chronology of historical events leading up to the attack on the United States on 911. The author covers all the bases without an agenda and allows the reader to make their own conclusions. A must read for everyone. If you've read a better history of 911 send me a note.
LibraryThing member flh4ever
This book is astounding. A must-read for anyone interested in the background of Osama Bin Ladin and/or the rise of of Al-Qaeda. It also shows in intimate details the role of the U.S. government's intelligence agencies before and after 9/11. The book is written almost like a novel in the sense that you feel you are reading a story with lots of rich details and perspectives of the various people that make an appearance. I don't read a lot of nonfiction and I had to read this for a history class, but I was fascinated by the information and details that gave such amazing insight into the complicated problems that are caused by ideas, ideology, outside interference, and the people that get caught up in those things. The book is kind of written in two parts-the first half being the rise of Al-Qaeda, and then the second following the U.S. intelligence community. You don't have to read the whole part of either to get a good sense of how complicated the lives and events surrounding both sides are. Another good thing is that you don't even really feel the presence of the author in his writing-he does a fantastic job of allowing the events and facts tell the story rather than inserting himself into the arguments or perspectives. I was so immersed I kept forgetting to even think that Mr. Wright did an amazing job finding out all this stuff and wondering how he did it. It's a long book-but even if you just pick it up and read a few choice chapters, you'll see what I mean.… (more)
LibraryThing member dinu
Nice complementary reading to Steve Coll's Ghost Wars. It is amazing though that Pulizer prize was awarded to two books with the same subject.
LibraryThing member mrtall
I cannot find enough good things to say about Lawrence Wright's utterly gripping The Looming Tower. Wright succeeds in tracing out and making real the unreal: that is, he recounts, in a clear and compelling way, the roots, development and implementation of the 9/11 atrocity by telling the stories of the men who did it. Wright's ability to select the right amount of detail is extraordinary; this book could easily have been shallow and glib, or a laborious slog, but it is decisively neither. He also succeeds admirably in conveying how alien and pitiless the ideology that drove Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators really is. This book should be read by every American, and indeed by everyone who wants to start to learn the truth about global terror.… (more)


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