The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
By Lawrence Wright.
Knopf, $27.95, 469 pp.
When Bill Clinton blew up at Chris Wallace and began ranting about the "disinformation campaign" to hold his administration accountable for 9/11, he blasted the credible ABC miniseries that his former cronies had done their best to discredit, jumped on Fox News, and falsely claimed that ex-counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke cleared him of any negligence in the failure to stop Osama bin Laden. But he completely ignored Wallace’s reference to Lawrence Wright's new book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
For good reason – because this may be the most damning book yet about the Clinton administration’s efforts against Islamist terrorists, and there is no way Clinton can tie Wright to the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Wright comes to the table with impeccable liberal credentials, which include a long term at The New Yorker and serving as co-writer of The Siege, an execrable 1998 movie that posits that the real danger from Islamic terrorism on U.S. soil is it would lead to martial law and the establishment of concentration camps overnight.
The Looming Tower is impeccably sourced but reads like a thriller. With minimal commentary, Wright lets the events speak for themselves with an incredible wealth of detail. As the Sept. 11 attacks near, Wright recounts this damning incident as an FBI counterterror unit known as I-49 hunts for a few Al-Qaeda operatives who are at large in the United States:
"The FBI agents on the I-49 squad asked who was in the pictures, and when and where they were taken. ‘And were there any other photographs?’ one of the agents demanded. The CIA supervisor refused to say. … The meeting became heated; people began yelling at each other. The FBI agents knew that clues were being dangled in front of their eyes, but they couldn’t squeeze any further information from the CIA supervisor. … By withholding the picture of Khallad standing beside the future hijackers, however, the CIA blocked the Bureau’s investigation into the Cole attack and allowed the 9/11 plot to proceed."
Even many conservatives put this sort of non-cooperation down to the longstanding rivalry between the CIA and FBI and to the suicidal "reforms" that came out of the Church Committee’s post-Watergate witch hunts against American intelligence agencies. While those were contributing factors, along with intelligence agencies' tendency to hoard their data, Wright’s analysis goes far beyond the usual suspects:
"The June 11 meeting was the culmination of a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it. There had always been certain legal barriers to the sharing of information…But until the second Clinton Administration, information derived from intelligence operations, especially if it might involve a crime, was freely given to criminal investigators. In fact, it was essential." [Emphasis added.]
Clintonistas might point to the fact that this confrontation happened during the Bush presidency — which would rebut Clinton’s claim that nothing was done to hunt Al-Qaeda during Bush’s first 8 months — but the fact remains that it was the Clinton team’s paranoia about domestic intelligence operations that led to a fixation with separating rather than connecting the dots.
What sets Wright's work apart from other books on the subject is his attention to character. In most of our great conflicts, we know something of the players’ personalities. Accounts of World War II, for instance, are filled with details about Hitler's messianic mania, Goering's buffoonery and Rommell's heroism on one side and the calm and cool Eisenhower, patrician MacArthur and flamboyant Patton on the other.
When it comes to the major figures in the Global War on Terror, the media tend to treat the enemy with a shadowy sameness or gets it wrong. (For instance, Wright contends that reports of bin Laden’s height are greatly exaggerated — instead of standing nearly 6-foot-6, he barely cracks the 6-foot mark.) By personalizing the conflict, Wright not only achieves extraordinary dramatic tension, but he also explains, with remarkable clarity, how and why the terrorist networks operate. This is the book’s greatest achievement.
Anyone who reads this intimate history of Al-Qaeda and the current jihadist movement will recognize the sheer folly of liberals' claims that waterboarding suspected terrorists, tying underwear on the heads of prisoners or even the war in Iraq are the main reasons radical Islamists are willing to blow themselves up to get at us.
Wright describes Al-Qaeda as a "death cult" with one goal in mind:
"Their motivations varied, but they had in common a belief that Islam — pure and primitive, unmitigated by modernity and uncompromised by politics — would cure the wounds that socialism or Arab nationalism had failed to heal. They were angry but powerless in their own countries. They did not see themselves as terrorists but as revolutionaries who, like all such men throughout history, had been pushed into action by the simple human need for justice. Some had experienced brutal repression; some were simply drawn to bloody chaos. From the beginning of Al-Qaeda, there were reformers and there were nihilists. The dynamic between the two were irreconcilable and self-destructive, but events were moving so quickly that it was almost impossible to tell the philosophers from the sociopaths.”
And where did these fanatics come from? Wright, as did many before him, dismantles the leftist cliché that poverty creates terrorism. In fact, American universities have more to do with creating Al-Qaeda than the fabled "Arab street."
Among the ranks of Al-Qaeda’s major operatives are more American-educated students than the sons of poor Arab families. Even the godfather of the jihadist movement, Sayid Qutb — the man everyone from bin Laden on down looks to for spiritual inspiration — gained his view of the West during his time at the "progressive" Colorado State College of Education.
Wright begins with a mini-biography of Qutb, an Egyptian bureaucrat who became a middle-class revolutionary. Ironically, he was sent to the United States to study by the government whose overthrow he advocated. His manifesto, Milestones, and eventual martyrdom inspired a generation of jihadists. This section is the most effortless introduction into the philosophical roots of Islamist radicals available; and readers will find themselves instantly conversant in everything from Sufi Islam to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In cinematic style, Wright alternates between the stories of two children of privilege who fell under the spell of Qutb — bin Laden and Zawahiri — and their rise to the top of the terrorist heap. Interestingly, Zawahiri was more operationally active and intellectually consistent than bin Laden. Zawahiri came from a family of medical professionals and was himself a talented doctor. He also was committed to the overthrow of the Egyptian government. While he answered the call to anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden, he treated patients across the border in Pakistan.
On the other hand, bin Laden, the son of a self-made billionaire who became the Saudi royal family’s favorite contractor, was more of a drifter intellectually. His one constant conviction seemed to be that he was destined to be the great leader who would lead the Muslim world back to purity and world dominance.
Bin Laden drifted between wanting to be a holy warrior on behalf of the House of Saud to being committed to its overthrow. He flirted with anti-communism in Afghanistan and had favorable impressions of the Americans who funded the Afghan resistance through the Saudis. Bin Laden helped raise money for the jihad in Afghanistan and was heavily allied with his government.
Contrary to leftists' assertions, bin Laden was not trained by the Americans, nor was he in any way a creation of the CIA. Wright’s account of the Arab jihadis in Afghanistan thoroughly rebuts that claim and many other media myths that have become part of leftist pundits' conventional wisdom.
For the Arab jihadis, their Afghan experience was a comedy of errors. The Afghans considered them so useless in their struggle as to be a detriment. The jihadis were obsessed with the idea of martyrdom, Wright notes, adding: "The Afghans were fighting for their country, not for Paradise or an idealized Islamic community. For them, martyrdom was not such a high priority."
When the Russians fled the country, bin Laden and the other jihadis fattened their resumes and created their own myth of heroism. Bin Laden and Zawahiri were more effectively ruthless than the Soviets against their rivals as they seized control of the jihadist movement. The one thing bin Laden did do in Afghanistan was get very good at using caves as a base of operations.
Bin Laden was still working for the Saudis when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and he offered his services to keep the kingdom safe. His first resentment of Americans stemmed not from the religious motivation he now claims of driving foreign devils from Islam's holy land, Wright contends, but from being dismissed out of hand to combat Saddam Hussein in favor of U.S. forces.
After bin Laden began agitating against the Saudi government, he became persona non grata and was disowned by his family. He found a friendly welcome in Sudan, where he invested his remaining money and became a landowning tycoon of sorts. He also began gathering like-minded radicals around him and building Al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Zawahiri was still focused on Egypt and led a terrorist group called Al Jihad. Zawahiri and bin Laden eventually joined forces in the Sudan, where they stirred up the civil war — of which the tragedy in Darfur is a direct result — and launched attacks on other Muslim governments. One of their close allies was Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
While in Sudan, bin Laden began selling his idea of a war against America. This both mystified and terrified the people around him who had more provincial interests and thought of the United States as nearly omnipotent. But bin Laden's anti-Americanism eventually would turn out to be his most brilliant marketing ploy.
Al-Qaeda’s blatant use of Sudan to launch operations eventually brought down enough heat on the Sudanese that they made overtures to the U.S., hoping to gain some semblance of international respectability. Wright recounts the now-familiar tale of the Sudanese offering bin Laden to the U.S. and Clinton lieutenants Sandy Berger, Madeleine Allbright et al. deciding they had nothing to charge him with should they take custody.
One of the most interesting points Wright reveals about bin Laden's expulsion from the Sudan is that it left him nearly destitute. He had invested heavily in the country, but its leaders paid him pennies on the dollar. In addition, he was leaving behind his organization — which had no desire to follow him into exile — and his sources of income.
Wright recounts that when the Sudanese warned the Americans that bin Laden would go to Afghanistan, the response was, "Let him."
Eventually, heat from the Egyptians also forced Zawahiri out of Sudan, and he rejoined bin Laden in Afghanistan. They lived on a shoestring — their families often went hungry — but they planned and executed the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in East Africa and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
Ironically, it was after the African embassy bombings when the Clinton administration finally took bin Laden seriously — by its weak standards, at least — that it provided him with his greatest opportunity for rebirth.
When Clinton sent Tomahawk missiles — which Wright dubs "the Administration’s weapon of choice" — into a Sudanese aspirin factory and into empty tents in Afghanistan on the day Monica Lewinsky testified before the grand jury, calling it Operation Infinite Reach, it exemplified everything that was lame about the U.S. response to Islamist terror and magnified bin Laden in the eyes of potential allies.
There was a more practical benefit to Al-Qaeda, however. Wright reports that six of the Tomahawks did not detonate, and bin Laden sold them to the Chinese. Suddenly, Al-Qaeda once again could fund big-time operations.
The Looming Tower enters more familiar territory when Wright deals with the embassy attacks and the Cole. However, the wealth of insider detail and the vividness of the storytelling make this just as gripping. Wright makes a case that the United States had the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong time in the 1990s. CIA Director George Tenant was all but allergic to operations, FBI Director Louis Freeh had let the Bureau’s technology degenerate and the agents who foresaw the terrorist threat were such peculiar characters that it gave the Clinton security apparatus excuses to disregard them.
At the CIA, bin Laden was hunted by Michael Scheuer, who was right about bin Laden but had enough eccentric opinions on other topics to undercut his credibility. Then there was Richard Clarke, the uncomfortably intense counterterrorism chief, a control freak who let everyone in the room know he was the smartest, best informed guy there at every opportunity.
The best of the bunch might have been FBI agent John O’Neil. A working-class stiff who dressed like the gangsters his agency was best at pursuing, O’Neil had cultivated the kinds of international security contacts it would take to fight Al-Qaeda. However, O’Neil’s personal life — he was only a few marriage certificates away from being a polygamist — kept intruding on his professional life and discrediting him in the eyes of his superiors.
O’Neil was not only a classic security risk — a financially extended man with too many personal secrets is ripe for recruitment or blackmail — but the pressure was making him a bit scatterbrained. On two instances, he lost track of vital top-secret material while he was juggling his personal obligations. Ironically, O’Neill’s job after leaving the FBI in frustration was as the World Trade Center head of security, where he perished heroically on 9/11.
Wright shows that it is undeniably true that Clinton’s failure to respond to the attack on the Cole directly led to the attacks of 9/11, as bin Laden thought — and hoped — that the bombing would be enough for the United States to attack Afghanistan. He wanted the United States to invade Afghanistan in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Like the homegrown pundits who predicted such action would subject America to tens of thousands of war casualties, bin Laden thought we would be mired in a quagmire like the Soviets as jihadis from all over the world flocked to his side.
Ultimately, bin Laden got what he thought he wanted from George W. Bush, but his second Afghanistan combat tour didn’t any better for him than his first.
Some might complain that Wright is short on details on the 9/11 plot itself. But the book is aptly subtitled, Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. The focus is almost exclusively on how we got here, and who the enemy really is. There are numerous good accounts of what happened on that awful September morning, but I can think of no other book which covers the same ground that Lawrence Wright travels in The Looming Tower. This is an instant classic, and reading it will make you more informed that 95 percent of the talking heads blathering about these issues on your TV screen.
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