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At the end of my second visit to the 9/11 memorial and museum in New York City I went into the shop where various books were on sale. Among them Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower” - I later bought it on Amazon. To brief yourself on WHAT happened on 11th September 2001 go to the museum. To understand WHY it happened read Wright’s book.
Wright tells the story of Islamic Terrorism and of Al-Qaeda with the highest regard for the truth. His research was extensive - not easy in a subject area clouded with confusion, lies and not always with verifiable sources. He tracks the growth of fundamentalist Islam in a way that is sensitive to Islamic culture and to the polarised contrast it has to the all pervasive Western culture most of us in America and Europe regard as the norm. The path from being a devout Muslim to being a terrorist may seem a long one and one few would follow. That is true. But it only takes a small number to challenge the hegemony and the ubiquity of the West and an even smaller percentage of them to pursue the path of violence to cause chaos, and death and destruction.
The 9/11 terrorists and their compatriots in Al-Qaeda were not wild men from caves, and nor was Osama Bin-Laden. They were, and are, often well-educated and from comfortably-off families. It is self-evidently the case that terrorism runs counter to the core teaching of Islam. So the beliefs that drove Bin-Laden and his followers are a grotesquely perverted interpretation of Islamic teaching which most Muslims thankfully reject. But it was true that it was these beliefs that led to 9/11 and it is perverse to deny that. Lawrence Wright doesn’t.
What Al-Qaeda did was to defeat conventional national and international constructs with advanced guerrilla warfare techniques. America, in particular, is good at wielding a big stick and has overwhelming power to do this. But the subtleties of finding and defeating opponents who are fleet of foot and who can disappear and regroup was prior to 9/11 much more difficult. Wright describes in detail how, for example, internecine squabbles between the CIA and the FBI inhibited the US ability to respond to the growing threat of Al-Qaeda. It is no exaggeration to say that 9/11 would not have happened if everybody involved in intelligence gathering and response had worked together. They didn’t and the bureaucrats have blood on their hands.
The driver of the horror was ideology - a malignant ideology for sure but not a secret one. The hatred of the Western imperative and (in particular) the presence of non Muslims on Muslim lands was not some hidden secret. And yet the US had then few Arabic speakers among its security services and little or no understanding of how devotion to Islam could, for some, become a driver of violence.
History is influenced by conspiracy, confusion and chance - all play their part in the 9/11 disaster. The plannng of the attack (not described in detail here) was brilliant. Almost unbelievable in its daring in fact. The attackers did to an extent “ get lucky” but frankly American preparedness was woeful. The CIA/FBI knew about bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda, not least because of the recent attack in Aden on the USS Cole. 9/11 could have been stopped and modern history would have been different. A chilling thought.
This is a magnificent book and I commend it without reservation.
I first read this book in early 2016 ten years after its publication, having read many books on 9/11 and its aftermath. The passing of time and Islamic extremism's subsequent global growth make its contribution to one's understanding even more impressive and important.
As other reviewers have noted this book is not about 9/11 though that is the culminating event. Instead it is primarily about the growth of radical Islamic thinking from the late 1940s. The Muslim Brotherhood led by Sayyid Qutb until he was executed in 1966, existed mainly in Egypt a country the author knew as an English teacher during the 1960s. Reignited by the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the vacuum created, it's diverse supporters transformed into al-Qaeda under the control of a wayward son of the Saudi based wealthy Yemen family of bin Laden.
The detailed level of research and the concise explanations of what is so often not easily understood by non-Muslims is what initially marks this book out especially in the first two hundred pages up to the first truck bomb attack on the World Towers in 1993. From then on the book runs in parallel the roller coaster history of al-Qaeda under Osama bin-Laden and the story of the US and Saudi government's growing awareness and response (or lack of it).
Lawrence Wright's prodigious research and extensive interviews with representatives from all sides fill out these stories with facets that have largely been lost post 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. By telling events though a few key driven individuals, who nearly all ultimately were losers or victims in later events, Wright keeps the drama moving to its sad finale.
Bin Laden's activities during his time in Afghanistan and Sudan underline his lack of any coherent strategy and political, financial or global awareness. Al-Qaeda is revealed as an organization unsophisticated in approach and using a questionable religious basis. Yet driven by a small core group dedicated to violent jihad against the US, as it became bolder it attracted more likeminded Muslims seeking martyrdom.
The key elements of the US story are the inter government agency battles, notably the FBI with a global terror mandate and an attitude of bringing people to trial in US Courts and the CIA with a historic desire to eliminate those it saw as enemies of the USA. The precision of the detail is what marks out this re-telling plus Wright is very good at conveying the mindsets different operatives faced.
The end outcome did not achieve bin Laden’s immediate hope of an Islamic global crusade through Muslims flocking to his cause, his subsequent life being one of hiding till his execution in May 2011. Nearly all the US players who had been his adversaries as his organization developed were gone or with no ongoing role to play post 9/11 as the USA embarked on the revenge attacks bin-Laden had dreamt of in uniting Muslims against the infidel.
My edition of the book contains a 2011 Afterword from the author. This was written after the Arab Spring commenced with the hope many of the problems al-Qaeda and other Arab rulers notably the Saudis had ignored would now be addressed and defeat radical Islam. Yet sadly by 2016 with ISIS establishing al-Qaeda’s planned Islamic caliphate and the ineffectual US response with drones and air power shows the original conflict has grown, not diminished.
This book focuses on the individuals that created al-Qaeda, tracing the ideology back from its early progenitors to the better known names like Osama Bin Laden. It is written in a narrative style, and is not a scientific study but rather written like a thriller, making it easy and exciting to read. I found myself at moments having to remind myself this actually all happened.
The detail of particular conversations has to be at least improvised in places, but I am convinced the author was both thorough and sincere, and didn't take much "artistic license". There is a ream of references and indeed many of the individuals are still alive today and he has spoken to as he explains in the afterword.
As others have mentioned it does not talk very much about the particulars of the 9/11 attacks. It's more about the philosophy and personalities that led up to the event. This does not diminish the book; there are plenty of others out there that go into a blow-by-blow analysis of 9/11 itself if that is what you are looking for.
I had scant understanding of the terrorist associations that try to associate themselves with Islam beyond the information we get from news reports; so I found it very instructive. You might find yourself turning to Wikipedia or Google at a few points to refresh your mind as there is a lot of names from the Arab world that I wasn't all that familiar with.
It is also thought provoking: you are given a window into the personal history of these individuals who went from being generally of sound mind to hardened radicals.
A very detailed account of how fundamentalism originated, established it's network as Al Qaeda, how Bin Laden changed from running his family's construction corporation to become an outcast and banned from entering his country, to planning and executing the attacks against US assets (USS Cole, Nairobi Embassy, World Trade Centre, Twin Towers. I could not put it down. The recent TV series follows closely the account from when John Neil is appointed to the FBI's New York Office.
Excellent book. It's scope is vast as it goes all the way back to the book that inspired fundamentalists and the time it's author spent in the USA through to just after 9/11. For a story with so many moving parts, CIA, FBI, Al-jihad, Al-qaeda, the Taliban and Saudi Royal family, and the multiple decades, countries and continents they're spread throughout it clear and easy to follow. All the writing has a sense of purpose and necessity to complete and further the story. There's no rambling viewpoints on who went wrong where just the facts which are unbelievably compelling. Fantastic book.
I;d recommend the paperback to the kindle version as it would have been advantageous to be able to quickly move back and forth between the extra information given on the many characters in order to differentiate them.
I found this book very hard going indeed! In fact I gave up after about 40 pages. I found it very ponderous and slow. I was hoping to read a summary of how Al Qaeda came into being and the events that led to 9/11. I suppose that is what this book is, but it seems to move along at a snails pace and gets bogged down in detail that I am not sure adds any value to the story. I am normally a fan of detail, but this book was not enjoyable or interesting I'm afraid, what a shame!
Finding the TV series fascinating, I bought the book. The sequence is slightly muddling, and almost too many characters, but the part I found most interesting was the early section, explaining the origin of various factions, including Bin Laden. An excellent way to educate myself.
This will probably be the most revealing account of what lead up to 9/11 and how it was allowed to occur. I used to wonder just how the USA was so vulnerable to such an enormous and devastating attack. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
The story of how Muslim Fundamentalism grew, and how it led to 9/11. Both could have been avoided, but events spiralled out of control. The US intelligence services come out of it very badly...the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA, and both agencies refusing to share info with each other conspiring to lead to the most brutally tragic event in modrn American history. An excellent conpanion to Ghost Wars.