The Looming Tower

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

by Lawrence Wright

Knopf, 469 pp., $27.95

When the ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11 was aired recently, so hysterical was the reaction to suggestions in the miniseries that President Bill Clinton might have done a little more than he did to take down al Qaeda during his years in office, you might have thought the story as told was a figment of the imagination of some Orange County Republican.

No doubt they took liberties with the documentary record. Overall, however, the tale was utterly arresting. What's so interesting about The Looming Tower is that it makes clear that ABC got so much of the story right. Lawrence Wright--no Orange County Republican--is a staff writer from the New Yorker, and quite obviously a very talented reporter. What he accomplishes in The Looming Tower is to assemble the main characters and events that culminated in 19 young Arabs immolating themselves and thousands of innocent Americans and foreigners (the victims came from more than 80 different nations) in the attack on the World Trade Center. It's a compelling, and at the same time very frightening, tale.

The title is taken from a verse in the Koran, "Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower" (Sura 4:78). Death, to be sure, is the idea that looms through this book more conspicuously than anything else. From the execution of Sayyid Qutb, whose writings did more to launch Islamofascism among Sunni Arabs than those of any other Islamic theorist, to the deliberately chosen deaths of those 19 hijackers in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, death haunts the aspirations and imaginations of all the Muslim characters.

The story of Qutb, who ought to be as much a household name to students of radical Islam as Lenin used to be to Kremlinologists, is both comic and tragic. A middle-aged Egyptian bureaucrat from the Ministry of Education, Qutb was radicalized during a visit to America in 1949. A lifelong bachelor, he had a formative experience here attending a church dance in Greeley, Colorado. For Qutb, the spectacle that he beheld--"dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips, and the atmosphere was full of love"--was final confirmation that modernity in the American sense was the mortal enemy of Islam.

Implicated in a plot to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser on his return to Egypt, Qutb was tortured in prison, then executed in 1966. Before he died, he had smuggled out a manifesto called Milestones which became, over the years, the Islamist version of Lenin's party-building treatise, What is to be done? (1902), and is now devoured by young Islamists in the same reverential manner that Lenin's work was feverishly absorbed a century ago.

From Qutb, the story moves to Ayman al-Zawahiri, increasingly today the face of al Qaeda in its frequent video productions, and to his embrace of the most apocalyptic of Islamist programs. Zawahiri was arrested in the roundup after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and though he had not been personally involved in the plot, he dominated the gaggle of caged defendants in the Cairo courtroom where their trial was held.

But Zawahiri exemplifies the emergent leadership of al Qaeda and its loosely connected franchises in one important respect: A physician, he is from a relatively privileged background, and is a modern professional. So, as it happens, is Osama bin Laden. Though Osama dropped out of college early, once the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan got underway, he had gained enormous experience as a manager in his father's construction company. Mohammed bin Laden had endeared himself to the Saudi royal family by taking on difficult road construction projects: Osama's skill in turning Afghan caves into redoubts capable of resisting Soviets--and later Americans--had been learned on the job managing projects for his father's business.

We learn of the "Arab Afghans" and their first tentative, later heroic, jihadists in the anti-Soviet struggle of the Afghan mujahedeen, of the often squalid ideological squabbles in the alleys of Peshawar, Pakistan, of bin Laden's secret formation of al Qaeda in the late 1980s, of his move to Khartoum in 1992 with his four wives and 17 children after an Islamist regime came to power there in 1989. Though Osama was able to buy his way into the approval of the Sudanese, as he was later to do in Afghanistan under the Taliban, he could not always lay his hands on lavish funds, and his family, at times, was close to hunger.

What seems to have explained Osama's success at cultivating the support of consecutive radical Islamic regimes, and gathering to himself a devoted corps of followers, was his single-mindedness in opposing America, and his determination to bring about a radical reordering of world affairs. Wright reveals many of these sometimes-tense relationships, introducing some quite remarkable figures. One example of the improbable misfits who flitted in and out of the al Qaeda orbit was Ali Abdelsoud Mohammed, an Egyptian and a multilingual physical fitness buff who managed to insinuate himself into the U.S. Army's Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. He was quite open about his Islamist sympathies, and briefed U.S. intelligence about al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and other vital information. His interlocutors totally ignored his revelations. The Defense Department even managed to lose records of conversations with Mohammed reported by an FBI agent.

It is the Keystone Kops aspect of America's repeated bungling of attempts to unravel the looming Islamist plot against itself that provides both the comic and tragic elements to the story. Again and again, the CIA refuses to tell the FBI that suspected al Qaeda agents are on American soil. The National Security Agency won't release to the CIA or the FBI telephone transcripts that will fill in the blanks of al Qaeda plotting. When the FBI office in Minneapolis stumbles onto Moussaoui's bizarre flight-training requirements (he wasn't interested in learning how to land airliners) and informs Washington, it's cautioned not to get people "spun up." In frustration, a supervisor tells Washington that all he was doing was "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center."

Wright's telling of the story is detailed, colorful, and insightful. One unrecognized hero is FBI counterterrorism chief John O'Neill, who was himself to die in the World Trade Center after leaving the FBI and becoming head of security there. O'Neill had a tangled romantic life--he was running three simultaneous girlfriends while still married. Brilliant, dynamic, and bureaucratically ruthless, O'Neill was terrifyingly aware that something terrible would happen in America in the fall of 2001. But he was, in the end, unable to untangle the intelligence bureaucracy sufficiently to uncover what it was.

So Osama bin Laden launched the plot that humbled America, but in so doing, pasted a permanent "Wanted" notice on his own life.

David Aikman, senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, is writer-in-residence at Patrick Henry College.

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