Aug 12, 2006

Review of Laurence Wright’s Looming Tower

Profiles in Terror

A Detailed Look at al Qaeda's Founders And the U.S. Agents Who Saw the Threat

By PETER BERGEN August 11, 2006; Page W1

The announcement in London yesterday of the dismantling of a major terror plot against American passenger flights between Britain and the U.S. provided fresh evidence that the threat of terrorism -- whether inflicted by the militant jihadist movement al Qaeda or inspired by it -- is still very much with us. The arrival, then, of Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower," a deeply researched history of al Qaeda, is welcome and timely. This is a largely Egyptian and Saudi tale, one that Mr. Wright intercuts with the stories of the small group of U.S. officials who early on understood the threat posed by the group. Mr. Wright focuses on the decisions made by certain individuals rather than on the play of great impersonal forces. At one point he considers "whether 9/11 or some other similar tragedy might have happened without [Osama] bin Laden to steer it." His answer: "Certainly not. The tectonic plates of history were certainly shifting, promoting a period of conflict between the West and the Arab Muslim world; however, the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature of the contest."

One of those individuals was Sayyid Qutb, a nebbishy Egyptian writer who arrived in Greeley, Colo., in 1946 to attend college. A priggish intellectual, Qutb found the U.S. to be racist and sexually promiscuous, an experience that left him with a lifelong contempt for the West. "Instead of becoming liberalized by his experience in America, he returned even more radicalized," Mr. Wright says. Once in Egypt again, Qutb joined the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and was later jailed and tortured.

Key al Qaeda Doctrine

In jail Qutb wrote his manifesto, "Milestones," which would become the primer for jihadist movements around the Muslim world. He insisted there that jihad be conducted offensively against the enemies of Islam. What was revolutionary was his insistence that Islam's enemies included Muslim governments that did not implement true sharia law. As Mr. Wright explains, Qutb wanted secular Middle Eastern governments excommunicated from the Muslim community. That process of declaring other Muslims to be apostates is known as takfir. It would become a key al Qaeda doctrine.

There would be no more eager student of Qutb's writings than a cerebral, prickly Egyptian doctor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who founded his first jihadist cell when he was 15 and who would go on to become the number two in al Qaeda. In 1981, Zawahiri was imprisoned and tortured by Egyptian authorities just as Qutb had been, an experience that further radicalized him. Mr. Wright notes that "one line of thinking proposes that America's tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt."

As Zawahiri was serving out his prison sentence in the early 1980s, a small number of Arabs were volunteering for the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation, among them a shy Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden gradually established himself as one of the leaders of the Arab legion fighting in Afghanistan. Sprung from jail, Zawahiri met bin Laden in 1986 in Pakistan. Mr. Wright observes: "Each man filled a need in the other. Zawahiri wanted money and contacts... Bin Laden, an idealist given to causes, sought direction; Zawahiri, a seasoned propagandist, supplied it."


It was a marriage of convenience that would have hellish consequences. The doctrine of takfir would take organizational shape in al Qaeda, which bin Laden and a group of Egyptian militants founded in 1988 to install Taliban-style theocracies around the Muslim world. In the unipolar world of the 1990s, al Qaeda's leaders believed that they had only one force standing in their way -- "the far enemy," the U.S.

While bin Laden was based in Sudan in the early and mid-1990s, al Qaeda slowly became operational -- sending men to Somalia, for instance, to fight U.S. forces stationed in the country. It was at the tail end of al Qaeda's sojourn in Sudan in 1996 that U.S. counter-terrorism officials got their first big break. Jamal al Fadl, an early member of the group, defected. His debriefer was Daniel Coleman, Mr. Wright says, a "scholarly and inquisitive" FBI agent who "concluded that al Qaeda was a world-wide terrorist organization dedicated to destroying America."

A Tiny Club

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Coleman was a leading member of a tiny club within the U.S. government that understood the substantial threat to American security represented by al Qaeda. Another was FBI official John O'Neill, Mr. Wright says, who "cut a memorable figure. Darkly handsome, with slicked-back hair... O'Neill talked tough in a New Jersey accent that many loved to imitate." Mr. O'Neill, a born networker, after long days on the job could often be found at Elaine's, the Manhattan watering hole, hanging out with visiting overseas law-enforcement officials, making him "perhaps the most widely known policeman in the world." The schmoozing had a purpose: to garner intelligence about the al Qaeda network.


[The Looming Tower]

THE LOOMING TOWER By Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 469 page, $27.95)

When al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors, Mr. O'Neill led the investigation. His inquiry was so aggressive that it earned him the enmity of the U.S. ambassador in Yemen, Barbara Bodine, who in an unusual move banned him from the country. Historians will record that the Cole attack was al Qaeda's warm-up for the 9/11 attacks.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Wright documents, leads that might have uncovered the 9/11 plot generated by the CIA in the course of the Cole investigation were not shared with the FBI because of a legal/bureaucratic wall between the two agencies. (The wall has been largely dismantled by the Patriot Act.) Mr. O'Neill would not live to discover this infuriating fact. Bin Laden's American nemesis died on Sept. 11, 2001, in the World Trade Center, where he had started his job as head of security two weeks earlier. His story is the most poignant, and frustrating, of many in this immaculately crafted, unsettling book.

Mr. Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know" (Free Press).