Friday, January 04, 2008

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

I read this non-fiction work by Lawrence Wright in paperback, hoping to find clues as to which administration was more to blame for 9/11 -- Bush or Clinton. Instead of finding those answers, I found much more: a history of the al-Qaeda movement from its beginnings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; a portrait of one of the top cops tasked with tracking Arab terrorism, who happened to have died in the towers on September 11; a description of the "wall of separation" between intelligence and police work (the CIA and the FBI) and how it stopped some crucial information from getting to the right people. Some big questions, though, go virtually unanswered -- how did these guys become so ruthlessly effective? They bungled a few early operations, but then they succeeded spectacularly in bombing two African embassies and the U.S.S. Cole before 9/11. Also missing in the description of how Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri transformed themselves from, on the one hand, an Arab millionaire with strong family ties to the Saudi government, and on the other, an Egyptian doctor, into ruthless killers is an in-depth discussion of the psychology of terrorism. The book describes many factual things about life in al-Qaeda. They took credit for stopping the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, even though they had little to do with the military defeat; bin Laden had four wives and many children living with him in miserable conditions in Pakistan. Still, it is hard to understand how they justified the murders to themselves. Perhaps this is a good thing. The book participates only tangentially in the myth-making surrounding bin Laden and in fact deflates some myths -- he is not as tall as many thought, nor does he likely have a kidney condition, as has been reported in various media outlets. The ending of the book, though, allows for some myth-making of a sort. All in all, it is an interesting and worthwhile read for those trying to understand al Qaeda's roots in a specific way.
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