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

Hindsight is everything and Lawrence Wright knows it. Wright is the author of The Looming Tower, a methodical and sweeping history that’s so engaging and interesting you feel guilty for enjoying it. He published it in 2006, won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for it in 2007, and it was made into a mini-series with the same name in 2018. I watched the show a couple of years ago and I knew I had to read the book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version narrated by Alan Sklar. He did a crazy good job with the material, both the historical sections as well as the personal moments (he won an award for his narration). When someone was expressing disbelief or delight you could hear it in his voice. I got the sense that he approached the narration as an actor vs. as a reader. It worked splendidly and I’d recommend the audiobook to anyone. The physical copy is almost 500 pages long and it’s a dense read. Let Alan tell you the story. He has an indeterminate accent that lends itself to The Looming Tower. It’s like listening to a series of engrossing, lose-track-of-time lectures by your favorite professor.

I put Lawrence Wright up there with Michael Lewis (The Premonition, Moneyball, The Blind Side) as can’t-miss, must-read authors. Both are masters at research and compiling materials, data, anecdotes, and tidbits into a fascinating, page-turning story that reads like a thriller.

The road to 9/11 wasn’t that long of one, in the scheme of things. Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570 CE but the modern Islam of jihads and fatwas are relatively recent. The Looming Tower begins with a look at Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian educator, author and thinker. He came to post-war America in the late 1940s/ early 1950s to study. He asked himself what kind of man he was going to be – a normal student or special one, meaning one who stays true to his Islamic beliefs. He went with special and wrote about Muslims turning inward, away from Western influence. His writings and martyr’s death would influence future leaders of Al Qaeda.

This is the story of the rise of Al Qaeda but also the story of the US government response along the way. There were people who beat the drums and sounded the alarms and wouldn’t let up – they knew something was coming. It’s also the story of catastrophic “intelligence failures” where government agencies withheld vital information and made the mistake of sticking to the rules vs. doing what was right. They could have averted 9/11 but bureaucracy got in the way.

The Looming Tower is, in a word, riveting. It’s also fascinating, infuriating, confounding and heartbreaking.

As good as the research is, as painstakingly as it is all laid out, it’s still confusing. There is a dizzying amount of info to keep track of. This is where I want to slip into book report mode and tell you what I learned about Egypt, the homeland of the angsty Sayyid Qutb. And the bin Ladens – father and son. Osama’s father was a hard-working, beloved man who basically built much of Saudi Arabia: roads, buildings, mosques. Saudi Arabian history is fascinating and tied to the discovery of oil by an American. And then there’s Afghanistan. Invaded by the Soviets (sound familiar?) and assisted by the US. Yes at that point we were ok with bin Laden and the rest of the ragtag mujahadeen, including the recently deceased leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

When Afghanistan “won” the battle against the Soviets their leaders immediately got rid of school. They forced women to cover up so only their eyes could be seen. And now it’s been a year since the US left the country and let the Taliban take over and the same is happening all over again. The people of Afghanistan are starving and depressed and without much hope. It’s depressing.

It will always be a good time to read The Looming Tower but the timing of reading it and then hearing the news that a Hellfire missile had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri was a little surreal. He and Osama sort of battled because they had different ideas on how to move forward in Islam. Osama wanted war against America and he won out.

Another surreal moment came with the appearance of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Before he wrote for the Washington Post he was a Saudi journalist who interviewed Osama bin Laden. He implored Osama to be truthful on the record – bin Laden was saying one thing in conversation but refusing to say the same on tape. Eventually the Saudi government couldn’t take it anymore and they took bin Laden’s passport and kicked him out of the country. Off he went to Afghanistan again. But when he got there the Taliban had control of another section of the county and Osama had no idea who they were. He suspected they were a Soviet front. He was confused and I’m still confused with the blurred lines of Afghanistan then and now: who was fighting who, who was supplying who, who won – I try to piece things together and draw straight lines, but it’s impossible.

But for people like Osama bin Laden, it isn’t blurry at all. America (and the Jews, of course) are the enemy, end of story.

Wright includes the women, the wives and daughters, in his storytelling. We get a taste of what their lives were like through memoirs and diaries. He devotes a chapter to the women who follow Osama to Afghanistan after he’s banished from Saudi Arabia. Talk about strong, stoic, stand-by-your-man types. Many of the wives were educated and working, and they gave it up to live in squalor, in caves or mud-and-stone huts. They left their families to live among other wives and children. Some of the wives thrived, created warm homes, and taught their children despite bans on education. Some coveted things, beautiful things that were smuggled to them by others who visited the outside world. I really want more of their stories.

One of the more chilling moments was at the Al Qaeda camp the night before 9/11. Wright describes the dreams – multiple people had strange and disturbing dreams of airplanes. And these people didn’t know what was about to happen… They were all telling their dreams to each other until bin Laden, probably unnerved, said ok, no more talk of dreams.

A good book gets you interested in learning more. Since reading The Looming Tower I’ve become more invested in news out of Afghanistan. I just read that the Taliban is finally letting some girls attend school in the north. A photo of the school shows bullet-ridden walls and it looks pretty bleak but the students are there, ready to learn. Encouraging.

Have I convinced you to read The Looming Tower? I hope so. At a time when some MAGA supporters sound like the Taliban (did you hear the guy who threatened to cut the throat of Rep. Swalwell and his family), and look like ISIS (picture the truck rallies with MAGA flags) and openly advocate for America to become a theocracy, like Iran, but for “Christian Nationalists,” we need to take a look back. Hindsight is everything.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

William Faulkner

*Bonus book connection! There is a story in the book about Osama bin Laden and the royal falconers from the United Arab Emirates camping together in the desert south of Kandahar in 1999. I immediately thought of C.J. Box’s Off the Grid where master falconer Nate Romanowski comes across some shady royal falconers in Wyoming’s Red Desert.

**And lest you think Wright can only do nonfiction, here is my review of his pandemic book (published right before the pandemic began) The End of October

***Here is a little review of The Looming Tower – the show. I watched it on DVD courtesy of my library but it’s streaming on Hulu and other places online.

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