Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower

A fascinating, Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Lawrence Wright on Al-Queda and "the road to 9/11"-- from its historical roots. Wright covers all of the different branches of the Islamic effort and the American "response". The title of the book comes from a reference to a "looming tower" from the fourth sura of the Koran. 

I read this book about a year ago-- out of sheer interest after hearing Wright interviewed on Hugh Hewitt's show, and to help me prepare for the Congressional election last year. Along with Robert Pape's The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, I'd say you need to read both if you want to take a serious look at al-Queda and our on-going efforts in Iraq and the Middle East. I'll give a fairly substantial overview here, but I heartily recommend Wright's readable and riveting work.

In Chapter 1, Wright covers the seminal role of Sayyid Qutb, starting in 1948. Qutb battled with General Abdul Nasser who eventually imprisoned him and gave him a death sentence in 1966, turning Qutb into an even-more-influential martyr. Interestingly, one of the judges at Qutb's trial was Anwar Sadat.

In Chapter 2, Wright introduces us to Ayman Al Zawahiri, probably second to bin Laden in terms of importance, rivalry, and longevity. Zawahiri always focused more on internal enemies within (political aspects of) Islam-- from the "corrupt" ruling class. He grew to admire Qutb through his uncle and teacher. He worked with Sheikh Omar and his organization, Al-Jihad, was heavily involved in the successful assassination plot against Sadat in 1981. 

 In Chapter 3, we meet Osama's father Mohammed. He was a road king and a construction guru for the Saudis-- and thus became a very wealthy man. He was a Yemeni-- and so, not completely accepted in Saudi society-- but widely and deeply revered. Osama was his 17th of 54 sons-- by a 16-year-old wife (her only child). In Chapters 4&5, we learn about Osama's key financial and military involvement with the Afghans in their 1980s battle against the Soviets. 

In Chapter 6, Wright tells us about the back-and-forth between Zawahiri's Al-Jihad and bin Laden's group, before bin Laden's group and its goals of global jihad win out. As a result, al-Queda officially begins on September 10, 1988. At this point, it seems like America is not in play for al-Queda. Although they wouldn't have minded taking pokes at us, it was not nearly as high on the list as other objectives. Evidence for this is that America was not on "their list" in 1988. Moreover, the U.S. had been quite helpful to the Afghan resistance against the Soviets! That said, bin Laden claims that America's efforts to help Israel in Lebanon in 1982 was the catalyst for his "hatred". 

Bin Laden and many others liked Saddam Hussein's rhetoric but were worried about what he might do-- and what the response might be. Their fears were borne out in his invasion of Kuwait-- but worse yet, the response of the Americans and the Middle East's deep and overt dependence. Making things far worse, the Americans stayed-- despite American and Saudi leadership promises that we would go afterwards (p. 192, 280). This connects Wright's work to Pape's thesis, that our continued presence gave the strong impression that we were an "occupying force". This has consistently been the spoken motivation for Al-Queda's efforts against us. 

Chapter 9 covers the first attack on the World Trade Centers in 1993. Later chapters cover the preparation for 9/11-- from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's plan to the pilots, their lives, and the training they received. In his Prologue and then sprinkled throughout the book, Wright also covers the American response, such as it was-- marked by bureaucratic red-tape and in-fighting. Prominent characters include John O'Neill, Dan Coleman, and of course, Richard Clarke. Wright also notes the then-contemporary lack of concern about terrorism-- shocking at some level, but not all that surprising if we put ourselves in their shoes. 

 Excerpts on this are worth reproducing: [The FBI] regarded terrorism as a nuisance, not a real threat. It was difficult to believe, in those cloudless days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that America had any real enemies standing. Then, in 1996, bin Laden declared war on America from a cave in Afghanistan. The stated cause was the continued presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia five years after the first Gulf War (p. 4)... Bin Laden's fatwa...was droll, it was weird, but was it a crime? On the basis of such meager precedent...a rarely invoked seditious conspiracy statute from the Civil War...Coleman opened a criminal file. He was still working entirely alone (p. 5)... 

 A few months later, they had an informant and then wiretaps which provided them with an organizational chart and much valuable information, but... ...almost no one took it seriously. It was too bizarre, too primitive and exotic....the defiant gestures of bin Laden and his followers seemed absurd and pathetic. (p. 7) 

Wright covers the bureaucratic snafus at some length (p. 304-305, 351-356, 386-389). It might suffice to note that bin Laden only made it onto the FBI's "Most Wanted List" in June 1999. But this quote is good too: The June 11 meeting was the culmination of a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it. (p. 386) 

To wrap this up, let me close with a prophetic paragraph provided by Wright from E.B. White (!) in 1948. White had the nuclear age in mind, but this still ranks as bizarre/creepy. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. If not nuclear war, then the combination of American interventionist foreign policy and rabid nationalists.


At September 11, 2012 at 12:02 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Very interesting to see some of the history of the al-Qaeda organization and, especially, their stated motives. I'll have to check out the book!


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