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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Edited to add that this won the 2007 Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction
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?
In any event, I recommend that everyone should read this book - it's eye-opening.