The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
(Knopf, 480 pages, $27.95)
You aren’t going to find a better recounting of the events leading up to September 11th than The Looming Tower, journalist Lawrence Wright’s meticulously reported account just published by Knopf.
Wright, who once taught at the American University in Cairo, has spent almost five years interviewing 600 principles — more than half of them Muslims — in pulling together his dramatic narrative. He carries the story all the way from the 1940s visit to America by Sayyid Qutb — the prissy Egyptian exchange student who became the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood — to the frantic efforts of FBI antiterrorist John O’Neill trying to uncover the plot before being cashiered out of the Bureau and moving over to be head of security at the World Trade Center — where he perished three weeks later.
What emerges from The Looming Tower is that we are not facing a clash of civilizations so much as a conflict with an educated segment of a civilization that produces some very weird, sexually disoriented men. Poverty has nothing to do with it. It is stunning to meet the al Qaeda roster — one highly accomplished scholar after another with advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, medicine, engineering, a large percentage of them educated in the United States.
Ayam Al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s peer in organizing world jihad, is typical — a highly trained Egyptian doctor who was often providing sophisticated treatment to his hospital patients even as he plotted the overthrow of the Egyptian government. And of course there is bin Laden himself, the pampered child of Saudi Arabia’s biggest builder who often bankrolled the Saudi royal family the way the Rothschilds used to bankroll European governments.
As Wright shrewdly observes:
What the recruits tended to have in common — besides their urbanity, their cosmopolitan backgrounds, their education, their facility with languages, and their computer skills — was displacement. Most who joined the jihad did so in a country other than the one in which they were reared….Like Sayyid Qutb, they defined themselves as radical Muslims while living in the West…. Alone, alienated, and often far from his family, the exile turned to the mosque, where he found companionship and the consolation of religion. Islam provided the element of commonality. It was more than a faith — it was an identity.
All this conforms with the work of sociologist Will Herberg, who theorized in the 1960s that immigrants to America willingly shed their national languages and customs while regrouping around religion. What is different about Islam is that the mosques are so politically radicalized, usually under imams who are accustomed to contending with secular authorities for political power in their home countries.
As several people observe throughout the book, jihadists bear a striking resemblance to American student revolutionaries of the 1960s — overprivileged children who sense they have been coddled and feel compelled to prove their manhood by embarking on apocalyptic ventures to remake the world. With Islam, all this is confounded by a polygamous society where fathers are often distant from their sons and where men and women barely encounter each other as young adults. As Wright observes of Mohammed Atta, the vanguard of the suicide brigade:
Physically, there was a feminine quality to his bearing: He was “elegant” and “delicate,” so that his sexual orientation — however unexpressed — was difficult to read. . . Atta constantly demonstrated an aversion to women, who in his mind were like Jews in their powerfulness and corruption. [His] will states: “No pregnant woman or disbelievers should walk in my funeral or ever visit my grave. No woman should ask forgiveness of me. Those who will wash my body should wear gloves so that they do not touch my genitals.” The anger that this statement directs at women and its horror of sexual contact invites the thought that Atta’s turn to terror had as much to do with his own conflicted sexuality as it did with the clash of civilizations.
Beyond that, what glares through the pages of The Looming Tower (the title is taken from the Koran) is the ad hoc, improvisational way in which al Qaeda settled into its war against America. Al-Zawahiri, who contributed as much to the organization as bin Laden, was still dreaming of taking over Egypt in the late 1990s. With no colonial tradition, America often held a soft spot in the heart of early recruits. Even as they trained for war in Afghanistan, they were fond of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
In the end, however, the David-versus-Goliath imagery won out. As Wright observes, Osama bin Laden is much more a public relations specialist than a warrior. It was the image of a single man living in a cave in the remotest corner of the world bringing down two of the world’s tallest buildings that eventually won Muslim hearts. Meanwhile, Bin Laden expected American society to collapse with the fall of the Twin Towers. So much for his understanding of the world.
And what about things on this side of the ocean? It is grueling to read about the missed opportunities, the forgotten phone calls, the wadded up memos thrown in the wastebasket that could have uncovered the plot. The failure of the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Administration to communicate with one another is dismaying.
Where Wright falls down is in his failure to analyze how this happened. “The Wall” erected between the FBI and CIA is mentioned but never illuminated. Completely missing from these pages are the names of Janet Reno and Jamie Gorelick, those Justice Department stalwarts who decided to erect The Wall even “beyond what the statute required.” ABC-TV’s efforts to cast a little aspersion this week on Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger — a stunning development in the history of television — will pale to insignificance if the networks ever get around to telling the story of how Reno and Gorelick turned America into home base for terrorists by refusing to allow the CIA to inform the FBI when known conspirators arrived in this country.
Still, the ultimate message that emerges from Wright’s brilliant recounting is that, while we face a long, long conflict against a civilization that literally wants to move backward in time, the situation is not completely hopeless. For one thing, American security is healed. Until and unless the Democrats get back in and mess it up again, we will probably not repeat the mistakes of the 1990s.
More important, our conflict with Islam is not a war against a whole civilization. The jihadists are despised as much in their own countries as they are in the West. Egyptians are sick to death of the Muslim Brotherhood and its casual slaughter. The war between Fundamentalists and secular authorities in Algeria cost 100,000 lives.
What we are at war with is a Muslim intelligentsia — basically the same people who brought us the horrors of the French Revolution and 20th century Communism. With their obsession for moral purity and their rational hatred that goes beyond all irrationality, these “warrior-intellectuals” are wreaking the same havoc in the Middle East as they did in Jacobin France and Mao Tse-tung’s China.
Western and Eastern societies eventually emerged from this reign of terror. Maybe Islamic societies can do the same.