Thursday, February 28, 2008


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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
Knopf, 2006

Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower is the best history of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden that I have come across. Wright traces not just the history of the terrorist, but the fascinating if disturbing history of Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, where religion was more intimately linked with people's way of life than in any other nation in the world, and where a perception of the world engendered by old tribal customs and anti-Western attitudes fanned hate and extremism that was nonetheless seen by its practitioners to be essential to maintain their culture and religion- a point that has been sadly lost on Westerners. As CIA agent and bin Laden expert Michael Scheuer says, they don't attack the US because of "its freedoms". They attack the US because they see the US as interfering in their quintessential Islamic way of life, what they hold dearest, irrespective of whether it's justified or not. They are as much in love with Islam as any one ever was with any entity. That is what is frightening.

Wright traces the roots of extremism in the Middle East through Saudi Arabia's history, where extreme and primitive religious traditions juxtaposed strangely with immense wealth driven by exploration for oil. It was in this milieu, after World War 2 that Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri grew up and acquired a taste of jihad. Often lucidly Wright talks about the environment where they spent their childhoods, and brings the rustic Saudi Arabian landscape to life. Wright also talks about the enduring influence of Syed Qutb, the devout Egyptian religious scholar who was disturbed by what he perceived as the hedonistic coed culture of the United States, when he visited the country as an exchange scholar in the 1950s. It was his writings and his image as a martyr- Qutb was jailed and executed as an extremist in Egypt- that greatly inspired Bin Laden's and Al Zawahiri's calls for worldwide Jihad.

Wright also documents in considerable detail both Bin Laden's and Al-Zawahiri's transformation from educated, well-to-do moderates to extremist radicals in love with the Quran and martyrdom. Bin Laden's extremism was only set aflame during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Wright vividly describes the deadly brotherhood and romantic visions of martyrdom that bound the Jihadis together in that war-torn country. It only helped that Bin Laden had the money to draw followers and finance missions. After that, it was only natural and a small step before Bin Laden turned his already brainwashed and transformed psyche towards the US.

On this side of the Atlantic, Wright also narrates the urgent and often heartbreaking efforts of the few CIA and FBI agents who recognized Bin Laden's threat in the 90s, the marginalized Michael Scheuer among them. The central tragic figure in the book is John O'Neill, the brilliant, swaggering but restless and tormented FBI agent who was desperate to snare Bin Laden, often fighting tenaciously against the foot-dragging and bureaucracy in the government agencies. A man who never achieved satisfaction in life, O'Neill was a heavy drinker who lived with three women at the same time. After many failed attempts to capture Bin Laden and convince the administration to be more serious about the threat- a journey that along with some other dedicated FBI agents led him around the world from Africa to the Middle East- O'Neill finally had enough and took up a new position as head of none other than the World Trade Center. O'Neill could have escaped in the initial attacks. But keeping with tradition, he decided to go inside the flaming towers to save others. The man who more than almost anyone else had been trying to catch or kill Bin Laden tragically perished inside the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Wright's book is a gripping treatment of an urgent subject. It demonstrates what fearsome power religion can summon, how it can completely transform the minds of men in the service of romanticized deadly causes, how blind ideology can have devastating and heartbreaking consequences. It shows us how the Middle East is largely and tragically still a land stuck in time, where irrational beliefs and tribal brotherhood can manifest in the most violent ways. The story of these gentle-looking, pious Jihadis is chlling by any standards. It is yet another illustration of the insidious nature of religious faith. It deserves to be read, and we all deserve to read it and think about what we can do to stop such fanaticism. The leader of the United States is not even close when he says that the men of Al Qaeda are cowards and fanatics. They are anything but that; they are cold, calculating, determined men who have dedicated their lives to what they see as the most just cause in their lives. They need to be stopped at any cost, and understanding where they come from will be the first step in trying to do that.

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