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Thoughts from Linda:


The Looming Tower—

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11


By Lawrence Wright, 2006, 2011


This 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by author, Lawrence Wright, tells the story of just what happened on September 11th, 2001, including the intellectual, physical, and emotional journey to that fateful day. It provides context from all vantage points in many areas of the world, providing a deep understanding of Arabs, non-Arab Muslims, and American US Government officials as they all took steps (or failed to take steps) that led to this horrific event. As we approach the 20th anniversary of this event, it is an important book for everyone to read. 


I read this book before, in about 2008, and found the re-reading to be much more informative to me today, with the benefit of hindsight than it was initially. I suspect a good second reading by those who have previously explored it would net similar results.


He takes the reader through the development of the radical Islamic philosophy developed by the prophetic Egyptian Sayyid Qutb after his trip to America in 1948. His interpretation of American culture just after WWII is one that few Americans would recognize. For example, Qutb wrote that Americans were little different from beasts— “a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money… Every time a husband or wife notices a new sparkling personality, they lunge for it as if it were a new fashion in the world of desires…”


His theories centered on the evils of modernity itself, and he saw America as the manifestation of those sins, which in his mind represented the potential downfall of Islam itself. He returned to Egypt (a shocking example of indulgence in the ’40s and ’50s). For instance, King Farouk had over 200 red automobiles and drove them around Cairo, being the only person who could legally even own a red vehicle! Qutb saw the presence of these evil ways in his own home country then, blaming them on the influence of Western colonialism, and began what was to become the revolution with his manifesto. The roots of 9/11 had begun.


Just understanding how this one man could influence so many others is a lesson in itself.  


The book is incredibly well-researched, with all references represented in a lengthy Notes section at the end of the book. The story is told in 20 Chapters, ranging from the first, which tells the Qutb story and is called “The Martyr,” to others such as “The Founder,” which covers bin Laden’s life as a child through his early development. He was the only child of Mohammed bin Laden and his fourth wife, Alia, born in Riyadh in January of 1958, with his name meaning “the Lion.” His father went on to build a financial empire in Saudi Arabia in the construction business, including the renovation of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Bin Laden spent most of his childhood in Jeddah. 


Wright tells the story of the development of bin Laden along with the parallel development of Zawahiri in Egypt, showing how they were at various times, competitors, colleagues, doctor to the patient, and ultimately, partners in the design and execution of the complex events of September 11th, 2001. 


Mystical stories abounded and were further developed to enhance the mystique and invincibility of Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan figures prominently in the story as it was a development center for Al Qaeda and a place where many of the ‘Osama bin Laden myths’ were created. Afghanistan became the training and development ground for Arab fighters who added to the ranks of Europeans and others who came to the call to help drive the Soviets out of Muslim lands and then, ultimately, to form the early ranks of Al Qaeda. 


Wright takes you through bin Laden’s development as a businessman, his successes and numerous failures, as well as his life in Sudan, where Al Qaeda for a while was an agricultural organization producing sorghum, honey, peanuts, chickens, and livestock for export. The book explains how there was an audacious but ultimately failed attempt to build a country there for a new caliphate thanks to the support of Hasan al-Turabi, one of Africa’s most educated and charismatic leaders.


The chapter entitled “Paradise” is important as it explains the theoretical and strategic development of the version of Al Qaeda that resulted in 9.11. Through the aftermath of Soviet Afghanistan, it takes the story to understand the essence of the 25,000 Saudi youths who emerged indoctrinated with the culture of martyrdom and takfir. These were people without a country as they were not welcome in their countries of birth and became “a stateless, vagrant mob of religious mercenaries.” As Wright eloquently explains, “the cinders of the Afghan conflagration were drifting across the globe, and soon much of the Muslim world would be aflame.” 


There are so many important facts and scenarios from the book that it is challenging to select the critical few, but you will learn: 

  • Why did so many people turn against America after the US was an ally in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan?

  • Who was Abu Hajer, the head of Al Qaeda’s fatwa committee, and what fatwas drove the ensuing behavior so detrimental to the planet?

  • What was meant by “The Big Wedding”?

  • Who was John O’Neill, and why was he in the World Trade Center on 9/11?

  • How did the CIA and FBI and their lack of collaboration make 9/11 possible? 

  • What meeting in Malaysia kept a critical secret?


The 2011 version of the book includes an Afterward to the original book, including the personal reflections of Lawrence Wright. He tells of his own development as a student and ultimately a professor in Cairo and his observed changes over the years there. 


In his reflections and assessment of Al Qaeda as of 2011, he notes:

“Al Qaeda…had been unable to repeat its startling triumph (the 9.11 events.) America was sinking ever more deeply into uncompromising, fantastically expensive wars in the Muslim world—following the script written by bin Laden. Repeatedly, he had outlined his goal of drawing America into such conflicts with the goal of bleeding the US economically and turning the War on Terror into a genuine clash of civilizations. His attacks, from the twin US Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998 to the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and ultimately to 9/11, were designed to goad the US into Afghanistan. He expected America would experience the same catastrophe that befell the Soviet Union in 1989. Bin Laden planned that the sole remaining superpower would dissolve, the United States would become disunited states, and the way would be open for Islam to regain its natural place as the dominant force in the world.”


Wright notes that while Al Qaeda is not defeated, it will disappear like all terrorist enterprises in history. As he says, “but the template they created—that of asymmetrical warfare and mass murder that they created will inspire future terrorists flying other banners. The legacy of bin Laden is a future of suspicion, grief, and the loss of certain liberties that are already disappearing from memory.”


He does go on to end with a note of optimism as he observes, “…rapid change brings chaos as well as progress. Indeed, al Qaeda and its kin will seek to exploit the turbulence that is bound to ensue. Perhaps the generation that will genuinely transform the Arab world has not yet arrived.  Radical Islam has encountered a force far larger than itself and much more deeply rooted in the longings of Arabs to be a part of the future rather than the past.” 


Let us hope that this will be so.


As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I believe we owe it to ourselves to understand and remember the lessons of 9/11 from a larger frame and with proper, factual historical context. This book, more than any other, will help us all achieve this goal.

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