28 September 2007

Still Looming Large

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road To 9/11
By Lawrence Wright
Allen Lane/Penguin
Pages 470
£ 9.10

“Death will find you even in the looming tower.”
~ Sura 4, The Koran

In 1996 few people had heard about al-Qaeda. Not even the FBI. Or even the CIA, bar the few officers who had served in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation at the height of the Cold War, and perhaps befriended a tall, lanky, rich Saudi – Osama bin Laden, part of a bunch of Arab jihadis come to nettle the Russkies. Today, al-Qaeda experts are legion around the world and many of them have been busy writing books in recent years. Jason Burke set the benchmark with his gripping piece of journalism, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (2004). The most recent addition to the al-Qaeda corpus is New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright’s book, The Looming Tower.

Wright, also the screenplay writer of the Hollywood thriller The Siege (1998), tells an even-paced, meticulously researched (plenty of legwork and 600 interviews), compelling story of this many-headed monster that could have very easily not come into being, so tentative were its beginnings.

Sayyid Qutb, a small-town, reticent Egyptian academic, finds himself homesick in booming post-War New York, shocked by the ‘reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money.’ Appalled by the racism; the American role in the creation of the nascent Jewish nation-state, Israel; and the overt sexuality of American women; Qutb soon becomes the perfect prototype of our present day rabidly anti-West jihadist.

Like a perfect sleeper, though outwardly well adjusted to the American way of life, he writes the brief for the yet unborn al-Qaeda: ‘The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy. [He] crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilisation... Let us instead plant the seeds of hatred, disgust, and revenge in the souls of these children.’ He goes back to Egypt to do just that, convinced that a return to Islam’s fundamentals is not just the solution to the Arab world’s ills, but that Islamists like him will be able to achieve their goals through political means.

Qutb was hanged to death by the secularist military regime, and the main Islamic organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood’s cadre was hounded into extinction. His torture in Egyptian jails spawned many legends which became a part of the collective Arab consciousness.

The story of al-Qaeda is essentially the story of a few young men, full of this very Qutb-spirit, drawn together almost by providence, with a shared vision of Arab states forming an Islamic vanguard against the decadent West and the godless communists.

Surprisingly enough, these men came from fairly to filthy rich families; all in possession of University degrees; all born in Islamic societies struggling to reconcile faith with new found wealth, and with political systems that are still in turmoil because basic freedoms still remain incompletely negotiated between the rulers and the ruled. All of them felt an urge sometime in their lives to shun suburban comforts and touch base with the spirituality of Islam; and finally all of them envisioned a political Islam.

The inexorable inching-closer of the two main strands of al-Qaeda form the substance of the book: Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician (second-in-command to Osama bin Laden and the writer of the entire 9/11 plot), whose bespectacled talking-head image was only recently spewing venom against America, and who formed the underground al-Jihad to overthrow the Egyptian government; and bin Laden himself, the scion of one of the richest Saudi families, once an energetic hands-on entrepreneur happily married with three wives and many children.

The third element that comes in later, though equally critical, is of the FBI’s counterterrorism chief John O’Neill, the cigar-smoking, tall Yankee with a flair for pressing flesh and network-building.

Bin Laden founded the al-Qaeda in 1988. They were even helped by a James-Bond-like US army officer, Ali Abdellsoud Mohammed, who used the US army’s training manuals to conjure up his own multi-volume terrorist-training guide, which became al-Qaeda’s ‘playbook.’ In 1988 he went to Afghanistan to train al-Qaeda in unconventional warfare techniques including kidnapping, assassination and plane hijacking. Though potentially potent, it was still an Afghanistan-bound, anti-Soviet, largely aimless outfit.

Then the two men met in Afghanistan. Bin laden the patient, Zawahiri, his physician: ‘Each man filled a need in the other. Zawahiri wanted money and contacts, which bin Laden had in abundance. Bin Laden, an idealist given to causes, sought direction; Zawahiri, a seasoned propagandist, supplied it. They were not friends but allies.’

When Zawahiri’s al-Jihad and bin Laden’s al-Qaeda finally came together in 1993, in Tora Bora’s rocky wilderness in Afghanistan, the real, new, improved al-Qaeda was born.

However, it was sometime before the two men could trust each other. And it was American foreign policy decisions that finally made the two fuse their similar hates and point the resultant focussed beam at the World Trade Center towers, the symbol of West’s excesses – the looming towers.

It took excruciatingly careful planning and endless deception to plan the 9/11 attack. O’Neill, who saw the attack coming was like the mythical Cassandra – with powers of prophecy but none to convince others. O’Neill was in one of the towers when the planes hit.

Wright has the full picture, and god-like, he does not judge. He does not make any pointed recriminations at specific American security agencies. He even paints bin Laden and Zawahiri as ordinary and relatable, like the family next door in an American suburb. Showing his New Yorker-pedigree, Wright does not tell; he shows.

‘[W]hen I’m reporting an international story I do my best to strip away the exotic veneer of the place in order to write about my characters in a fashion that is recognizable in any context. Then, once I’ve established their everyday humanity, I can get at the truly exotic dimension of the story,’ explained Wright in an interview to a fellow journalist. He might as well have been talking about The Looming Tower.

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