In the flap over the Park51/Cordoba House building project, most Americans continue to assume that the Muslim world is a single entity, a monolith stretching from Israel to Indonesia with a single opinion given to them by Osama bin Laden. In his meticulous reconstruction of the history of al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright also manages to explore the deep fissures that divide Muslims, so that The Looming Tower ought to be the starting place for anyone who genuinely wants to understand why the Cordoba House project effectively has nothing to do with September 11.
According to Wright, the attacks on the World Trade Center (including the 1993 truck bomb that killed six people) had their origins in the travels of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar who critically observed U.S. culture and decided that it must be overcome by a militant Islamic revolution. But his initial target wasn’t the West—it was the secular and even corrupt governments of the Muslim world, which he thought must be brought down in order to achieve his ideal of a monolithic Islam.
From there, Wright follows a chain of events link by link as an Islamic movement splits into ever-diminishing elements and one becomes increasingly radical, even repugnant to other Muslims. Finally, fewer than 100 men are left in the movement they begin to call al Qaeda. Under the dual influence of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (and Wright makes a convincing case that bin Laden is a figurehead) members of al Qaeda were able to recruit and train other radicals to carry out suicide attacks on Western targets. One of those recruits was Mohammed Atta, the supposed ringleader of the September 11 attacks. (My only real criticism of the book is that Wright attributes Atta’s hatred to a repressed sexuality, even hinting that Atta was homosexual. It seems like a good example of what many Muslims perceive as a Western obsession with sex, and is almost a too superficial analysis.)
At the same time, Wright follows a parallel timeline as a handful of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agents pick up al Qaeda’s trail. The most prominent of these, FBI agent John O’Neill,was unable to convince his peers and superiors that a threat existed, and so got only minimal resources to investigate al Qaeda even as the group began achieving their signature multiple attacks against what they saw as Western targets.
Those chapters are perhaps the most frustrating—in hindsight it is easy for the reader to criticize Janet Reno, George Tenet, Louis Freeh, and the Bush administration for not paying attention to the gathering signs of an unprecedented terrorist attack. John O’Neill becomes the story’s tragic hero—the very man who knew the most about al Qaeda was a rogue, however likeable, with a penchant for making small but crucial mistakes that cost him his credibility with both the FBI and CIA. (For more about O’Neill, the excellent Frontline documentary “The Man Who Knew” is well worth watching.)
Wright’s rigorous history takes on an air of urgency as the story approaches the infamous day. It is left to the reader to supply the foreshadowing: Wright doesn’t have to. Instead, he capably follows the theological and political goals of those few Islamists who have carried their hatred of the West to its violent extreme. But he also shows that the religion and culture of Islam can be so fractured and sometimes fratricidal that sensible people need to be informed before making pronouncements against 1.5 billion people. With any luck, books like The Looming Tower will have more impact on both policy and public understanding.
Check the WRL catalog for The Looming Tower
Follow-up: added May 2, 2011
Osama bin Laden was killed May 1 by a team of Navy SEALs and CIA operatives after an 8-month investigation that turned him up in a compound close to the Pakistani military academy and a major Pakistani military base. His presumed successor is Ayman al-Zawahiri, and as Lawrence Wright points out in The Looming Tower, al-Zawahiri may be both the philosophical and strategic mastermind behind al-Qaeda. If bin Laden was only a figurehead, his death may not have the impact on the movement that we hope.
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