“I’m going to be training the people I was trying to kill 18 months ago to kill the people I’ll be training 18 months from now.”
I’ll submit that Lawrence Wright knows and explains the answer to that question better than anyone else in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9-11.
Wright himself is a fascinating character. A journalist (this book won him the Pulitzer Prize) and sometime screenwriter, he wrote the screenplay for the weirdly prescient 1998 move “The Siege.” That fictional story -- about a series of massive, well-organized terrorist attacks in New York City, and a convulsive, angry, sometimes self-destructive American response -- foreshadowed many of the images, themes and abiding traumas of 9-11. (It was the most rented movie in America in the weeks that followed the real-life attack.)
The movie’s deadly intersection of art and reality wasn't limited to the prescience of its story. Even before the film was released, it was widely protested in the Arab world as being “anti-Muslim” (which it simply was not), and people died as a result of the protests. Wright was by all accounts shaken by the experience and, after 9-11 brought his movie horrifyingly to life, he turned to the question of Muslim extremism in a more journalistic way. The result was The Looming Tower.*
Despite the fact that the book is meticulously detailed and footnoted with an academic fervor, it reads like a thriller. Like the best fiction, you will be let down when you finish that there isn’t more to read. Like few scholarly works you’ve held, you will actually read all those footnotes.
Wright tracks modern Muslim extremism back to where it was just a gleam in the eye of some very angry (justifiably angry, one has to say) Egyptian students. From the earliest stages, you learn, the men who would later lead the movement so effectively against us had a deep familiarity with the United States – having studied, for example, at Midwestern universities. From the earliest beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood, Wright details a burgeoning – then flourishing – ideology that made 9-11 or something like it all but inevitable from the standpoint of the perpetrators. And far from being “anti-Muslim,” Wright’s book makes clear the distinctions between these dedicated enemies and the rest of Islam. Indeed, the book chronicles a volume of Muslim on Muslim terror, perpetrated by Al-Qaeda and its forebears against those seen as apostate, about which you may not have heard before.
Of course, much of the book is dedicated to Osama bin Laden, who turns out to be simultaneously much less and much more of a figure, man, leader and threat than his typically cartoonish depictions in other media let on. (The detailed accounts of OBL’s father, a self-made construction genius with essentially no formal education, are fascinating in themselves and give tremendous insight into who OBL really is.) But Wright also gives much space to issues others simply take as read: Why, for example, are certain Middle Eastern nations such fertile grounds for harvesting willing martyrs? It may not be why you’re thinking.
The book is four years old now, but I re-read it recently and it could not be more relevant to a country that has declared – if not exactly victory – at least an end to the war in Iraq, while leaving 50,000 of our countrymen at risk there, and is simultaneously struggling to define the mission of many more than that in Afghanistan. (And is fighting this war in lots of places like the Philippines and Somalia that do not feature on the nightly news.)
Ultimately, even as Wright’s book provides abundant nuance, it does not fall victim to equivocation. Instead, it identifies our enemy convincingly and definitively: not Islam itself, but a certain strain of Islamists for whom terror is not a means at all, but an end in itself, and who are not susceptible to any dissuasion short of utter destruction.
*In what has to be the best recent example of comprehensive vertical integration in the world of arts and culture, Wright then created a one-man Broadway show to talk about all of this, which was then became an HBO special. One imagines Wright’s wife, if he has one, gently suggesting it might be time for a project about the history nutmeg, or Great Lakes ore boats, or anything else.