Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on Sept. 11, 2006. It is being published again to coincide with Lawrence Wright’s visit to Huntington, West Virginia on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011.
To employ the often useful – and truthful cliché – if you read only one book on Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism, that book should be “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 480 pages, $27.95, illustrations, sources, cast of characters, bibliography, index).
About that back-of-the-book feature “Principal Characters”: It’s absolutely essential — with all the Arab names in this book – to get them straight. More books should include them, as well as the voluminous notes, sources, persons interviewed, etc. in this exceptionally well documented book that immediately joins my short list of contenders for top prize books of 2006.
By telling the story of the spiritual father of bin Laden’s form of Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, who studied in Greeley, CO in 1948, Wright places fundamentalist Islam in context. Qutb was a middle-class Egyptian who was both entranced and appalled by the diversity of America, where people of various nationalities and religions seemed to get along, albeit with much literal and physical jostling. Qutb traveled widely in the U.S. and was particularly entranced – and appalled – by the vitality of New York City, in sharp contrast to the decadence of Cairo in the last days of King Farouk’s regime.
After discussing Qutb’s variety of fundamentalist Islam and its influence on young Muslims of all nationalities – Qutb was hanged by Nasser in 1966 – Wright concentrates his narrative four individuals: Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, the leaders of al-Qaeda (Arabic for “The Base”) founded in Afghanistan in 1988 in the last days of the Soviet occupation; colorful FBI Agent John O’Neill, who died in the attack on the World Trade Center five years ago and Saudi Arabia’s former head of intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who started out as ally of bin Laden and ended up as his bitter enemy after the Saudi millionaire declared jihad on the Saudi leaders. Most of the emphasis is on bin Laden and O’Neill.
If there’s one thing that comes through clearly from “The Looming Tower,” it’s that the widely held belief that intelligence agencies hoard their scraps of intelligence like animals crowding around a downed prey animal, unwilling to share with anyone, is absolutely true. The rivalry between the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI is particularly well-drawn by Wright, an indefatigable reporter and elegant writer.
O’Neill, was a working class guy from Atlantic City, NJ, who loved the New York metropolitan area. He dressed like a dapper Mafia don in Burberry pin-striped suits and expensive Italian shoes – in contrast to his cheap-suit-wearing colleagues – and tried to break down this great intelligence divide, often to the annoyance of his boss, FBI Director Louis Freeh. O’Neill, who was 50 when he died in the 9/11 attacks soon after his resignation and just into his new job as security director of the WTC, is wonderfully profiled by the New Yorker writer, which makes sense since the “profile” as we know it today was invented at the magazine decades ago under the editorship of Harold Ross.
At the time of the Khobar Towers bombing in August 1996, there were only seven Arabic speaking FBI agents in the entire nation, Wright notes, pointing out that the FBI was largely staffed by men of urban Irish and Italian background. One of the seven, Lebanese-American Ali Soufan, was assigned to work with O’Neill on the investigation of the USS Cole bombing; the interrogation by this loyal American of Lebanese birth of Abu Jandal in Yemen after 9/11 was instrumental in identifying the 9/11 hijackers. He now works for Rudy Giuliani’s security firm.
O’Neill comes through in Wright’s narrative as one of the few intelligence officers in the nation to understand the dangers of Islamic terrorism, which really is amazing considering the events of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. O’Neill, in charge of a New York-based task force dedicated to capturing Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 WTC attack, had to deal with general tone-deafness toward Islamic terrorism that characterized both the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Yousef was captured in 1995 and now is in prison for life.
With more interagency cooperation and more leaders listening to O’Neill, his colleague and Islamism expert Dan Coleman and the CIA’s Michael Scheuer, head of that agency’s Alec Station counterterrorism agency in New York from 1996 to 1999, 9/11 could have been prevented, Wright argues. Scheuer and O’Neill, true to form, were bitter rivals, echoing the rivalry of the CIA and the FBI.
The lack of information sharing even resulted in some agencies threatening to install antennas on Diego Garcia and other listening posts to gather intelligence denied them by other agencies, Wright reports in a book that reads like an espionage thriller by John Le Carre or Len Deighton.
The bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are described in detail, showing that Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri were deadly serious about their anti-U.S. jihad – even if it meant killing dozens of innocent Muslims in the process. Wright, a Tulane University graduate who taught at the American University in Cairo for two years, attempts to explain how suicide bombers and terrorists can exist in a religion that bans suicide. He interviewed hundreds of people for his exhaustive book.
We get a glimpse of life in Hamburg, Germany, one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, where 200,000 Muslims live, most of them law abiding residents of a prosperous Western nation, but a significant number who took part in the planning and execution of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings and the failed attempt to hit the Capitol in Washington. Wright points out that the German authorities tolerate terrorists – as long as they didn’t attack German targets.
Could there have been a 9/11 without Osama bin Laden? Wright says: “The answer is certainly not. Indeed, the tectonic plates of history were shifting, promoting a period of conflict between the West and the Arab Muslim world; however, the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature of this contest….without bin Laden, the Egyptians [Zawahiri, Abu Ubaydah, Saif al-Adl, and Abu Hafs] were only al-Jihad. Their goals were parochial…it was bin Laden’s vision to create an international jihad corps. It was his leadership that held together an organization that had been bankrupted and thrown into exile.”
Just before finishing this review, I saw Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” I recommend the film and Wright’s masterful “The Looming Tower” to anyone seeking answers to questions of why the West became a target of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
Publisher’s web site: www.aaknopf.com