24 January 2008

Lawrence Wright - The Looming Tower

9/11 is undoubtedly the most significant event of the 21st Century so far. I was in the US when it happened, and was frustrated at the unwillingness of the US (television) media to question who might have done it and why. For this sort of analysis I had to come across, by chance, programmes on C-Span such as that evening's Newsnight, or NPR radio shows. This lack of rigour, at least by the most popular news media, arguably enabled the Bush administration to conflate the threat from al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, creating a non-existent link so that over half of Americans thought that Iraq was responsible, and so backed the invasion of that country.

Of course more know now that there was no link, and there have been many mea culpas in the media for buying the Bush line unquestioningly. But even people who consider themselves well-informed are quite hazy about the nature of al-Qaeda, its history, aims and activities. The major players are household names, thanks to the White House's need for demons - bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed - but they are known as symbols, as Saddam Hussein was, and latterly Ayatollah Khomeini and Colonel Gaddaffi.

Lawrence Wright makes these men human. He spent five years researching this book, a history of al-Qaeda from 1948, the year that Sayyid Qutb went to America to study, up to 2001. The culminating event itself is dealt with quite briefly - there's an assumption that the reader is well aware of the events of that day, and it is barely alluded to during the book, although it hangs over it in the way that the fall of Troy hangs over the Iliad.

The humanising of bin Laden is a little disconcerting, just as the knowledge that the operation to hijack 4 planes may have cost just $40,000 was. He isn't the evil genius of myth, nor did he have bottomless wealth from his father's construction millions. He actually spent much of what he had in Sudan, and arrived in Afghanistan broke; the training camps he subsequently organised there, plus fund-raising in Saudi Arabia, have provided him with his current resources.

Bin Laden's early experiences are comically incompetent. He raised a small Saudi force to assist the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, but the arabs were untrained and not battle-hardened, and had more embarrassing retreats than successful actions. He tried to claim credit for attacks in Africa that were almost certainly not organised by him, although he was part of the movement that inspired them. His anti-American speeches and interviews at the time are rambling and generalised. It wasn't until Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was introduced to bin Laden that the grand concept arose.

The story starts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, though. Sayyid Qutb, highly intelligent, partly educated in the United States, became a political martyr and the chief philosopher of the Brotherhood, executed in 1966 for his part in sedition against Nasser. Wright follows the line from there to the emergence of al Qaeda, via Saudi Arabia and the fascinating story of Mohammed bin Laden, the barely literate builder who became one of the biggest industrialists in the Middle East, responsible for the refurbishment of the holiest sites in Islam.

Wright's research for this book is admirable. He talked to people on all sides - from FBI agents who investigated the bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, to ex-AQ members and relatives of bin Laden - and travelled extensively, including a spell as a work shadow on a Saudi newspaper as a pretext in order to get access to the key information from the kingdom. But the research is the least impressive of his achievements. He presents the history of al Qaeda, astonishingly, with little moral judgement, although he does comment on the competence of some of the actors. This objective distance enables him to get close to his subjects, to the benefit of the reader. We see, because of witness interviews or memoirs, the home life of men considered the greatest threat to the United States, and the banality of it makes our vulnerability more chilling.

One criticism I have of the book is the focus on John O'Neill. He was a senior FBI officer who was responsible for counter-terrorism, and oversaw some of the investigations into the African embassy bombings. Flawed, adulterous, manipulative and short-tempered, he didn't get the appointment he deserved, to be Richard Clarke's successor as National Security Council counterterrorism coordinator. Wright believes that this was a missed opportunity, among many, as O'Neill was well aware of bin Laden's threat, but of greater relevance to the narrative is that the job O'Neill did accept, in August 2001, was as head of security for the World Trade Centre in New York. His death a month later was one of the ironies of that tragedy, but I think Wright makes too much of the personal side - his multiple mistresses, for example, have little relevance to the big picture with which he's concerned.

This is, however, an excellent work, probably the best non-fiction book I'll read this year, comparable to Fiasco by Thomas E Ricks, a similarly brilliantly researched and written book by a US journalist.


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