A brilliant account of the men who made and fought al-Qaida

Review Current Affairs


The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Lawrence Wright

Alfred A. Knopf / 470 pages/ $27.95

Just before Christmas 1948, a middle-aged Egyptian writer stepped off an ocean liner docked in New York Harbor and onto U.S. soil for the first time. He had come to escape the threat of persecution at home, but the next several months would bring a bitterness all their own.

The country's unabashed materialism repelled him. Americans seemed "a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money," and he longed, as he told a friend, for someone to talk to "about topics other than dollars, movie stars, brands of cars - a real conversation on the issues of man, philosophy, and soul."

He found the food "weird," the barbers incompetent, the racism pervasive, the religion empty and hypocritical and the women aggressive and promiscuous. "A girl looks at you," he wrote, "appearing as if she were an enchanted nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless."

These may have been little more than the observations of an embittered exile, but on Sept. 11, 2001, they would prove to have grand historic significance. The writer's name was Sayyid Qutb, and his "lonely genius," as Lawrence Wright puts it in The Looming Tower, would "unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives."

It was Qutb's U.S. sojourn that convinced him that the West and Islam were fundamentally opposed - an opposition that, half a century later, persuaded a generation of Muslim zealots to go to war against the West. "[T]o kill the Americans and their allies," proclaimed a then little-known terrorist group called al-Qaida in 1998, "is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

Wright's magisterial, beautifully crafted narrative of the path to Sept. 11 traces this notion of global jihad through Egyptian student movements, Saudi mosques and Afghan training camps, through the murderous fatwas of radical clerics and finally into the heads and hearts of a wealthy young Saudi named Osama bin Laden and the martyrdom-obsessed young men he recruited to al-Qaida's ranks.

But for Wright, a staff writer at the New Yorker, the story hinges less on ideas than it does on individuals - those behind al-Qaida and those in the United States working to stop them. "[T]he tectonic plates of history were shifting, promoting a period of conflict between the West and the Arab Muslim world," he writes, "however, the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature of this contest."

This focus on character, along with Wright's five years of fierce on-the-ground reporting (he lists 560 interviewees), pays off. More straightforward, analytical accounts often settle on dangerously simplistic explanations of terrorism's causes: Islam is inherently violent, on the one hand, or America is being punished for supporting Israel, on the other. Wright, in contrast, untangles the anxieties, resentments, aspirations and ideals that have driven and defined radical Islamism. Israel's victories over Arab armies in 1948 and 1967 "would shape the Arab intellectual universe more profoundly than any event in modern history," mostly because they seemed to encapsulate the decline of the Arab world. In the face of humiliating powerlessness, unsettling change and stifling autocratic governments, fundamentalism "provided a dam against the overwhelming, raging river of modernity."

At the same time, Wright manages to make the arch-villains of the Sept. 11 story scarily human. We learn, for example, what bin Laden liked to watch on TV (Bonanza), what he discussed with his mother after school (his lunch), how he drove ("very fast"), what he read (Qutb) and what his classmates thought of the fundamentalist crowd he ran with ("only nerds"). After one of his four wives gave birth to a mildly retarded son, Wright relates, "bin Laden always insisted on including [that son], taking special care to make sure he was never left alone." Given what came later, such banal detail is unsettling.

Although bin Laden had been a devout fundamentalist since his youth, his real initiation to jihad came in the 1980s with the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He helped pay travel and living expenses for the Arab volunteers who fought alongside anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas. Most were posturing teenagers, a motley assortment of aimless drifters and "pampered kids from the Persian Gulf" who would fire Kalashnikovs into the air, then "return home, boasting of their adventure."

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