On August 8, 2006, Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of the multinational Penguin Random House publishing company) published The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, a non-fiction book by New Yorker staff writer and screenwriter Lawrence Wright. Released a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania (where United 93, a hijacked jetliner reportedly tasked with destroying the U.S. Capitol in Washington, was deliberately crashed by its Al-Qaeda pilots during an attempt by passengers and surviving crew members to storm the cockpit, fell to earth), Wright’s book examines the birth of Islamic radicalism and the emergence of Osama bin Laden and the terror group he founded in Afghanistan: Al-Qaeda (“The Base” in Arabic).
Based on painstaking research about the history of radical Islam, its evolution from 18th Century Wahhabism in what is now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the various modern groups that espouse fundamentalist views in the Sunni sect of Islam and the violent spread of those views in the Middle East and elsewhere, all the way to the 9/11 attacks, The Looming Tower covers a 50-year-long span, from the career of Egyptian scholar/Islamic activist Sayyid Qutb, the “Father of Radical Islam” in the post-World War II Middle East to the unlikely alliance between Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon-turned-leader of Islamic Jihad and Osama bin Laden, the scion of a powerful Saudi construction and business empire (Saudi Binladin Group), whose religious faith led him to the mountains of Afghanistan in the early 1980s to fight in the jihad against the Soviet invaders in that remote Muslim nation in Southwest Asia.
Although al-Zawahiri and bin Laden didn’t see eye-to-eye at first, the fiery Egyptian firebrand and the soft-spoken Saudi billionaire’s son eventually discovered that though they had different methodologies, they shared a common vision: the eradication of “corrupting” Western influence and – especially – American military forces from traditional Muslim lands, particularly bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia.
The Looming Tower also chronicles the evolution of Al-Qaeda, which sprung from the various efforts – some of which were bankrolled by the Saudi government and wealthy Saudis who wanted to create a Sunni counterweight to the Kingdom’s main rival, Shia-dominated (and Persian) Iran. The Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran in 1979 had sent ripples of alarm in the Sunni-majority ruled regimes of the Middle East, and the House of Saud, fearing that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s brand of Islamic radicalism would infect the Kingdom’s restless and increasingly devout youth, figured they could harness that sort of fervor, idealism, and Wahhabism’s peculiarly strict interpretation of the Koran and its morbid focus on martyrdom by sending jihadis to fight the Russians – and remove them as threats to the House of Saud’s stability and power in the Arabian peninsula.
And if you’ve watched Hulu’s 2018 10-part “limited series” based on the latter section of the book, you know that The Looming Tower tells the story of how, after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, thousands of these battle-hardened and emboldened veterans of the anti-Communist jihad turned their attention to what they saw as their main enemy: “the West,” the liberalized democracies of Western Europe and – especially – the United States. Inspired by the philosophies of Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser after being imprisoned and tried for plotting to assassinate Nasser and impose an Islamic dictatorship in Egypt, men like al-Zawahiri and bin Laden saw the world in stark terms of Islam vs. the “evil” United States and its lackeys in the Arab world.
Another narrative thread that Wright touches on in The Looming Tower and its Hulu adaptation is the utter failure of the American intelligence community to see Al-Qaeda as a rising “clear and present danger” to the United States until the terror group committed various terrorist acts aimed at Americans, starting with the near-simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam,Tanzania in August of 1998 and the suicide boat attack on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Cole on October 12, 2000.
In particular, both the book and the miniseries examine the dysfunctional rivalry between the CIA’s Bin Laden Issue Station (“Alec Station,” led by Michael Scheuer) and its FBI counterpart, Team I-49. Wright persuasively argues that Scheuer’s personal dislike of New York-based Special Agent in Charge John O’Neill and his refusal to allow Alec Station to share intelligence about Al-Qaeda with the FBI liaisons and, by extension, I-49, allowed the 9/11 hijackers to operate in the U.S. unhindered and bin Laden’s plot to crash four U.S. airliners against the Capitol and Pentagon in Washington, DC and the World Trade Center in Manhattan to go forward.
In a first-class stateroom on a cruise ship bound for New York from Alexandria, Egypt, a frail, middle-aged writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb experienced a crisis of faith. “Should I go to America as any normal student on a scholarship, who only eats and sleeps, or should I be special?” he wondered. “Should I hold on to my Islamic beliefs, facing the many sinful temptations, or should I indulge those temptations all around me?” It was November 1948. The new world loomed over the horizon, victorious, rich, and free. Behind him was Egypt, in rags and tears. The traveler had never been out of his native country. Nor had he willingly left now.
The stern bachelor was slight and dark, with a high, sloping forehead and a paintbrush moustache somewhat narrower than the width of his nose. His eyes betrayed an imperious and easily slighted nature. He always evoked an air of formality, favoring dark three-piece suits despite the searing Egyptian sun. For a man who held his dignity so close, the prospect of returning to the classroom at the age of forty-two may have seemed demeaning. And yet, as a child from a mud-walled village in Upper Egypt, he had already surpassed the modest goal he had set for himself of becoming a respectable member of the civil service. His literary and social criticism had made him one of his country’s most popular writers. It had also earned the fury of King Farouk, Egypt’s dissolute monarch, who had signed an order for his arrest. Powerful and sympathetic friends hastily arranged his departure.
At the time, Qutb (his name is pronounced kuh-tub) held a comfortable post as a supervisor in the Ministry of Education. Politically, he was a fervent Egyptian nationalist and anti-communist, a stance that placed him in the mainstream of the vast bureaucratic middle class. The ideas that would give birth to what would be called Islamic fundamentalism were not yet completely formed in his mind; indeed, he would later say that he was not even a very religious man before he began this journey, although he had memorized the Quran by the age of ten, and his writing had recently taken a turn toward more conservative themes. Like many of his compatriots, he was radicalized by the British occupation and contemptuous of the jaded King Farouk’s complicity. Egypt was racked by anti-British protests and seditious political factions bent on running the foreign troops out of the country—and perhaps the king as well. What made this unimposing, midlevel government clerk particularly dangerous was his blunt and potent commentary. He had never gotten to the front rank of the contemporary Arab literary scene, a fact that galled him throughout his career; and yet from the government’s point of view, he was becoming an annoyingly important enemy.
He was Western in so many ways—his dress, his love of classical music and Hollywood movies. He had read, in translation, the works of Darwin and Einstein, Byron and Shelley, and had immersed himself in French literature, especially Victor Hugo. Even before his journey, however, he worried about the advance of an all-engulfing Western civilization. Despite his erudition, he saw the West as a single cultural entity. The distinctions between capitalism and Marxism, Christianity and Judaism, fascism and democracy were insignificant by comparison with the single great divide in Qutb’s mind: Islam and the East on the one side, and the Christian West on the other.
America, however, stood apart from the colonialist adventures that had characterized Europe’s relations with the Arab world. America, at the end of the Second World War, straddled the political chasm between the colonizers and the colonized. Indeed, it was tempting to imagine America as the anticolonial paragon: a subjugated nation that had broken free and triumphantly outstripped its former masters. America’s power seemed to lie in its values, not in European notions of cultural superiority or privileged races and classes. And because America advertised itself as an immigrant nation, it had a permeable relationship with the rest of the world. Arabs, like most other peoples, had established their own colonies inside America, and the ropes of kinship drew them closer to the ideals that the country claimed to stand for.
And so, Qutb, like many Arabs, felt shocked and betrayed by the support that the U.S. government had given to the Zionist cause after the war. Even as Qutb was sailing out of Alexandria’s harbor, Egypt, along with five other Arab armies, was in the final stages of losing the war that established Israel as a Jewish state within the Arab world. The Arabs were stunned, not only by the determination and skill of the Israeli fighters but by the incompetence of their own troops and the disastrous decisions of their leaders. The shame of that experience would shape the Arab intellectual universe more profoundly than any other event in modern history. “I hate those Westerners and despise them!” Qutb wrote after President Harry Truman endorsed the transfer of a hundred thousand Jewish refugees into Palestine. “All of them, without any exception: the English, the French, the Dutch, and finally the Americans, who have been trusted by many.”
The man in the stateroom had known romantic love, but mainly the pain of it. He had written a thinly disguised account of a failed relationship in a novel; after that, he turned his back on marriage. He said that he had been unable to find a suitable bride from the “dishonorable” women who allowed themselves to be seen in public, a stance that left him alone and unconsoled in middle age. He still enjoyed women—he was close to his three sisters—but sexuality threatened him, and he had withdrawn into a shell of disapproval, seeing sex as the main enemy of salvation.
I bought The Looming Tower, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2007 not too long ago; I had just watched five episodes of the eponymous 2018 miniseries that streamed on Hulu and was released on Blu-ray by Warner Home Entertainment later that year and learned that it only covered the part of the book that focused on why the CIA and FBI failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks.
Like many of my fellow Americans, I watched the news coverage of the 9/11 attacks on TV on that horrible Tuesday nearly 19 years ago. I can still tell you where I was and who I was with when I first heard the news on Good Morning America, and I can still close my eyes and summon mental images of the second plane deliberately flying into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 AM (Eastern), 17 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into its twin, the North Tower.
I am not a 9/11 “junkie,” but as good as the Hulu miniseries is, it does not delve too deeply into the genesis of Al-Qaeda, its peculiar and morbid blend of twisted piety and communal death wish, and the men who planned and executed the largest and bloodiest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Wright’s book, of course, is a deep-dive into the rise of Ayman al-Zawahiri (Al-Qaeda’s co-founder and current leader), the radicalization of Osama bin Laden, and the mutation of “The Base” from a group of idealistic Arab “mujahedin” seeking to free Afghanistan from a Soviet occupation into radicalized anti-Western and especially anti-American terrorists.
Wright, who in addition to writing novels, non-fiction books, and journalistic articles for The New Yorker, is a playwright and screenwriter whose works include 1998’s The Siege and, of course, the core story for Hulu’s The Looming Tower. He knows how to tell a gripping and complex narrative from various perspectives, and he is a dogged investigator and interviewer who leaves no stone unturned, as it were, when he’s after a story or seeking hard-to-get sources and information.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is extremely well-written and immensely readable. Because Wright is primarily a storyteller, the book is not didactic or dry. Rather, it feels as though you are reading a “torn-from-the-headlines” technothriller such as the ones Tom Clancy used to write before his 2013 death – except that the prose style is more polished and less clunky than Clancy’s.
If you have watched The Looming Tower and want to get the whole story behind Al-Qaeda’s history and the American intelligence community’s tragic dysfunction that allowed 9/11 to occur, you need to read this book.
Obviously. the original edition that won the Pulitzer Prize was written and published while bin Laden was still alive and probably just settling in his Pakistan hideout, so the best version of The Looming Tower is the 2011 Vintage Books paperback (or its Kindle/audiobook counterparts). Wright added a new afterword with a brief recap of events that took place after the first edition was published in 2006. That’s the edition I have, and for my money, it’s definitely worth adding to your reading list.
2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11’”
As always, wonderful review. It reminds me that I must excavate it from my TBR pile and finally read it sometime during this lifetime. Thanks.
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I’m glad you enjoyed the review! Thanks for the kind comment.
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