Jerome's Reviews > The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
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Feb 09, 2012

it was amazing
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This was a very interesting and well-written book. His writing style was flawless and even humorous at times. Flawless accounts of Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Bin Laden clan. Superb account of al-Qaeda's history and structure. He also describes in detail the largely unknown Sayyid Qutb and the development of Islamic radicalism. He makes a cartoonish hero out of John O'Neill.
his book intimately traces the movements of Osama Bin Laden, the FBI, and CIA in the events leading up to 9/11. It is very convincingly written in a voice that is unobtrusive and observant, leaving the reader to form his or her own opinion of what Osama bin Laden's involvement really was in the 9/11 attacks (including if he was really behind it) and what motivated him to take the militant-political position he has taken in our world today.
Wright covers the development of radical Islam from its most recent roots, primarily in Egypt beginning between the wars. Coverage of the seminal radical thinker Qutb will be new to most Western readers. Much of the story after about 1998,when Al-Qaeda starting its major terror operations with the African embassy bombings, will be mostly familiar from many other accounts. Most impressive is the extensive treatment of the early development of radical Islamic movements that nurtured bin Laden et. al., especially the ideology/theology behind them.

On the one hand, the movements appear rather pathetic in that they have had no real political program that makes any sense - other than a vague notion of imposition of pure Islamic law. The Taliban is one model for a modern Islamic polity. But the book is strangely silent on what bin Laden and his colleagues thought about Taliban rule. Perhaps the clerical regime in Iran is the best (or only) serious model for what the newer Islamic radicals hope to achieve in a capable national state. Except that most of them are Sunni -- who would not credit the Shiite Persian state as a precedent to be emulated. In general, the radicals were also contentious, fragmented, and unable to gain any mass backing on the Arab "street." Yes, there was a kind of sympathy for the radical bravado that carried off some of the spectacular terror attacks to the extent that the victim was the USA. But there has been hardly any allegiance that could be turned into political capital. That has been garnered by the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah which have delivered real services to a defined constituency.

But this critique somewhat misses the point since bin Laden and his cohorts increasingly eschewed any traditional revolutionary political aims, such as actually assuming power in specific countries. In fact, al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's second in command, explicitly gave up his long held dream of an Islamic coup in Egypt to collaborate with bin Laden's vision of jihad against America, intended to eventually spawn an international Islamic revolution of a messianic kind.

The account portrays even bin Laden as wavering at times in his march toward an Armageddon-like struggle against modernity as embodied in secular Western societies. Along the way, true believers came and went, ever to be replaced by newly alienated Muslim youths for whom radical Islam provided some kind of identity and fulfillment which was apparently unattainable in the displacement they experienced in their lives before recruitment. The sense one gets from the account is that the movement as represented in its al-Qaeda form will remain appealing only if it continues to be fueled by plausible grievances such as Israeli excesses or intransigence in its dealing with the Palestinians, U.S. military intrusion in Arab lands (however well-intentioned), and U.S. economic dominance which condones corrupt, authoritarian regimes - all of which are understandably viewed as indignities in the sensitive Arab world.

Wright believably reports that bin Laden is trying to goad the US into overreacting as part of a strategy to incite the rest of the Islamic world to jihad. Other Muslims simply fail to see how the US is the bastion of the infidel crushing Islamic hopes. While in his fantasies, bin Laden may hope to somehow directly undermine America through terrorist blows, his more practical strategy is to lure us deeper into engagements that will bleed us and discredit us. The prime precedent on which he relies is the destruction of the Soviet Union after its catastrophe in Afghanistan. It looks very much like the war in Iraq has played into bin Laden's hands in that strategy. It is a killing field and testing ground for al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic elements; it is draining the US of resources that leave it vulnerable to further domestic attack while diminishing the pressure that is brought to bear on the al-Qaeda base in the Afghan-Pakistani border region; it feeds the perception in the Islamic world that the US is focused on protecting its sources of oil and is ready to exercise military hegemony to accomplish its aims.

The book is a great and compelling read. Perhaps too much so. It reads like a novel with only rare distinction made between facts well attested and those from single and highly questionable sources. The caveats on sources appear only in a "Notes on Sources" section on the last pages of the book. This keeps the narrative rolling but also keeps the reader wondering how much of the "insider" account has any genuine reliability. Flipping back to the appended notes provides some perspective but hardly substitutes for a more nuanced evaluation by the author himself within the narrative. Nor is there much longer term historical context given to the modern radicals' conception of jihad or a new caliphate as a development within historical Islam, or as continuing response to Western power influence, if not hegemony, in many Arab states. Thus while the book provides a compelling (and chilling) portrait of the leading radical figures, the reader is left with little enlightenment concerning the larger currents of Islamic radicalism. Or the means by which these currents might be diverted into safer channels through more astute Western policy. To what extent is there a critical mass of Muslim opinion that truly supports theocracy in modern states predicated on the traditional unity of civil and religious authority in Islam? To what extent does current Islamic belief still tend toward a view of extension of Islamic faith through methods of compulsion, either in predominantly Islamic societies or where Muslims are minorities (which often feel the pressure of discrimination)? The radicals take a highly aggressive view on these questions, which has resonance among those Muslims who have experienced the degradation of Western colonialism and the combined ineptitude/venality of the autocratic elites left in place as the legacy of colonialism.

In fairness to the author, these are not themes that his book set out to address in a substantial way. But his narrative leaves one wishing that the reporting had gone further into the relationship between the radical ideas, action and the deeper Islamic currents out of which they arose.

What I found most interesting was the compassionate portrayal of Osama bin Laden himself and how that was made even more sharply clear by the words that came out of his very mouth (Wright handles "the telling detail" well). I also appreciated the author's thorough account of bin Laden's predecessors (his colleagues and mentors) and the rise of militant islamism in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, particularly the role Afghanistan played as a breeding ground for this extremist faction.

This book is an extremely engaging and absorbing read that grabbed me from beginning to end, even while combing the finer details of Bin Laden's character. While it does not offer a penetrating analysis of militant islamism as a whole, nor clearly point a finger at who exactly was behind 9/11 (not physically, but mentally), it does not claim to, but instead lays out many pieces of evidence, allowing the reader to draw conclusions for himself or herself.

Also, this book debunks any whacko conspiracy theories about 9/11, such as that Bush was responsible for it, or that Iraq was, for that matter. This book is neutral and lets you come to obvious conclusions by yourself without having to listen to some left-wing or neocon nut rant and rant about conspiracies.

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