Monday, August 28, 2006


Before the towers came down.

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (Alfred A. Knopf 2006).

For those of not employed by intelligence agencies, Lawrence Wright has written the definitive account of the road to 9/11. Wright focuses on four individuals involved in the attacks – Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, John O’Neill and Prince Turki al-Faisal – and uses them to tell the story of the creation and evolution of Al Qaeda and of the United States’ response. Wright has done a wealth of research and he tells his story well. The Looming Tower sits next to The Age Of Sacred Terror and Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies in the small library of necessary books on Islamist terror.

There is quite a bit here that I didn’t know, or that corrects what I thought I knew. Osama bin Laden’s PR has been more impressive than his military successes. For example, it has been reported that Al Qaeda operatives were in Mogadishu in early 1993 during the fighting recounted in Black Hawk Down, and Al Qaeda has claimed credit for teaching Somalis to down helicopters with RPGs, but Wright says that there were only two Al Qaeda men present and that they fled when the helicopters were shot down. Another example: When Osama bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan, he was broke, thanks to Sudan’s government, which used his duress to strip him of his assets. And while Wright does not contradict the reports that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were funded by private donations from Saudi Arabia, it does not appear that he was nearly as rich or well funded after his arrival in Afghanistan as had been reported, though Wright suggests that he was supported by the Pakistani government to foment trouble for India in Kashmir. Also, I had always understood bin Laden’s anti-Americanism as a means to a political and religious end, a strategy to bring Islamists to power in the Middle East. But Wright shows that bin Laden’s world view is as Manichean as, say, George W. Bush’s.

Wright’s approach is not without its shortcomings. Wright provides a more complete picture of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri than he does of O’Neill or Prince Turki, both because his access to sources concerning the institutional activities of the FBI and Saudi intelligence necessarily has been limited, but also because those institutions are far less dependent on charismatic individuals than Al Qaeda is. Wright is able to weave into his account a useful history of Al Qaeda and its antecedents, but he is far less effective at conveying U.S. counterterrorism efforts outside the context of scattered episodes. He paints a full picture of O’Neill as a person, but he is less successful at portraying how he approached his job, or how his colleagues at the FBI and in the government interacted with him, high praise from Richard Clarke notwithstanding. In this regard, a book like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars provides needed context by focusing on U.S. policy rather than colorful individuals. When it comes to Al Qaeda, Wright has done an impressive job of gathering information about what is, after all, a secret organization. At times, he tries to do too much with too little, as with his discussion of Mohammed Atta’s will:
. . . Atta constantly demonstrated an aversion to women, who in his mind were like Jews in their powerfulness and corruption. [His] will states: “No pregnant women or disbelievers should walk in my funeral or ever visit my grave. No woman should ask forgiveness of me. Those who will wash my body should wear gloves so that they do not touch my genitals.” The anger that this statement directs at women and its horror of sexual contact invites the thought that Atta’s turn to terror had as much to do with his own conflicted sexuality as it did with the clash of civilizations.
Atta’s will is an odd document, but it is a slender reed for the weight Wright places on it. At yet this is hardly the only place where The Looming Tower hints at sexual repression behind Al Qaeda. Wright’s biographical focus on Al Qaeda’s leaders leaves the book wanting for more sustained analysis, and more context – more on Saudi society, say, or on immigrants in Hamburg, where Atta was a graduate student (in urban planning) in the fall of 1992.

But it seems ungrateful to wish that Wright had written a different book. The book he did write is worth reading.

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