Monday, November 27, 2006

‘Death will find you’

The Looming Tower
Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
By Lawrence Wright
480 pages
£20/NIS 165

Last month an Islamic seminary in northwest Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, was attacked by Pakistani helicopter gunships. Though 80 “seminarians” were killed, the raid’s primary target, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s No. 2 and one of the most wanted men in the world, managed to elude liquidation – again.

Reports mount that al-Qaida is planning a mega-attack, perhaps against a European target, over the Christmas holidays. British security officials are convinced that al-Qaida is actively trying to acquire a nuclear device.

Five years after the assault against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, al-Qaida’s top leaders remain at large, and the organization seems to be reinvigorating its operations from havens along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Against this threatening background comes Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Not just another 9/11 tome – there are some 5,000 in print – The Looming Tower may well be the most comprehensive, authoritative and balanced work available.

Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, has produced an engrossing story not only about the events leading up to the assaults, but about the men behind them – Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri – and their main pursuer, anti-hero FBI agent John O’Neill, ironically killed in the WTC attacks that fateful day.

The Looming Tower is a serious work of political history, but it reads like a thriller. The title comes from a passage in the Koran: “Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower.”
Wright answers the great “what if” that so consumes political historians: What if bin Laden had been killed early on – would al-Qaida have become the force it is now?

As with the development of the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s, the combustible ingredients were all there; but a catalyst was needed. Bin Laden is to the Islamist movement what Hitler was to the Nazis. Al-Qaida could not have developed in the way it did absent the Saudi-born prince of darkness.

So it is all the more heartbreaking that efforts, so vividly presented by Wright, to kill bin Laden before he became a household name failed so miserably.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had America’s political and intelligence echelons done their jobs, Wright asserts, bin Laden would have been caught or killed before al-Qaida’s greatest success: 9/11.

AFTER THE August 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 213 people were killed it transpired that the CIA knew about the plot a year earlier, but hadn’t taken the information seriously.

Bin Laden survived thanks to a combination of incompetence and fate. In retaliation for the Kenya attack, and a simultaneous one in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Clinton administration ordered a cruise missile assault against al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, as Wright explains, “it takes several hours to prepare a missile for firing, and the flight time from the warships in the Arabian Sea across Pakistan to eastern Afghanistan was more than two hours.”

As luck would have it, both bin Laden and Zawahiri were out of harm’s way by the time the “nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars’ worth of armaments” rained down on their training camps in Afghanistan and, simultaneously, on what turned out to be a genuine pharmaceutical plant, not an al-Qaida biological or chemical weapons facility, in the Sudan.

TIME AND again Wright shows that a combination of bad luck, bad intelligence and a myopic refusal to share pieces of a complex puzzle within the American intelligence establishment – among the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, even with the White House – allowed the 9/11 plot to proceed.

Even after the 9/11 terrorists infiltrated the US, had the various intelligence agencies shared fragmentary data – in particular, had the CIA told the FBI what it needed to know – the dots just might have been connected.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The CIA feared exposing its intelligence to the FBI, knowing that the FBI viewed terrorism as a police problem. The Bureau would have sought indictments against suspected terrorists, which, to stand up in court, could reasonably have been expected to have jeopardized the CIA’s assets and methods.

How painful to read that on July 5, 2001, intelligence “chatter” had reached such proportions that Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council’s counterterrorism coordinator, called a White House meeting of all the relevant intelligence agencies to declare: “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.”

But by then the FBI’s O’Neil, who knew the most about bin Laden, was being eased out of the Bureau and was preparing to take a private job as head of security at the WTC.

BEYOND THE nuts and bolts of how the plot went forward, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in a broad understanding of how the Islamist menace to Western civilization developed.

Wright provides the theological and historical setting to explain al-Qaida’s emergence. He ties the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, the sexually frustrated theoretician of the Islamist idea, to the emergence of today’s Muslim fanaticism. It was Qutb – executed by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966 – who theorized against secularism, rationality, pluralism, individualism, mixing of sexes and tolerance, all of which had seeped into Muslim society through its encounter with the West.
Basically, those Arabs who lost faith in their leaders’ ability to harness the energies of their civilization – first through Arab nationalism and then through pan-Arabism, so their shattered world could withstand the “modernity virus” – became Islamists.

The turning point was the 1967 Six Day War, when Arab efforts to destroy even a truncated Jewish state backfired, leading to the loss of the Sinai, Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem.

The Arabs’ shift to pan-Islam was unexpectedly bolstered by the 1979 revolution in Iran, in which Persian nationalism was replaced by Shi’ite fundamentalism. Whether spread by Sunni fundamentalists in Arabia or the Shi’ite mullahs of Iran, the nature of the Muslim struggle against Western influence had now taken on added momentum.

It doesn’t matter that the various Islamist strains despise one another, or try to outdo each other in closed-mindedness. What does matter is the direction in which they are taking Muslim civilization.

ARGUABLY, SAYYID Qutb’s successor was the blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Now sitting in a US jail, Rahman is the key figure connecting the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, to the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York in 1990, to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing carried out by Ramzi Yousef. And it is Rahman who was Zawahiri’s spiritual mentor.

Had US authorities relentlessly pursued the clues left behind by el-Sayyid Nosair, Kahane’s killer, the menace of the burgeoning Islamist threat might have been revealed much sooner.

As biography too, The Looming Tower is simply captivating. Bin Laden is the scion of the Yemen-born Muhammad bin Laden, who came to Saudi Arabia as an impoverished construction worker and found his way into the hearts of the royal family, eventually building a global dynasty.

As Wright tells it, Osama had a religious epiphany during adolescence that would lead him to a life of asceticism. I was fascinated to read that he fasted on Mondays and Thursdays (as do some pious Jews).

Wright also unveils the personality of the equally devout Ayman Zawahiri – a bookworm and himself scion of an Egyptian medical dynasty. Both men abandoned lives of comfort and security to pursue their vendetta against the West. (Wright suggests that Zawahiri may well be the real brains behind al-Qaida.)

The Looming Tower is also a work of political psychology, providing glimpses into the pathological minds of the Islamist leadership. We meet men from middle-class backgrounds, many of whom “return” to religiosity. They share a sense of displacement; some are expatriates, or the offspring of ex-pats. Many have issues about their sexuality.

One example: Muhammad Atta, the Egyptian leader of the 9/11 hijacking team who piloted American Airlines Flight No. 11 into the WTC, gave these instructions about the handling of his martyred remains: “Those who will wash my body should wear gloves so that they do not touch my genitals.”

Yet in telling the stories of the main fanatics, Wright also illuminates the life of their chief nemesis, John O’Neill, the agent-in-charge of the FBI’s national security division. A practicing Roman Catholic, O’Neill was also an adulterer, emotionally dependent, a bigamist and a spendthrift. Most significantly, he was an indefatigable lawman obsessed by his pursuit of bin Laden.

There were a handful of others equally dedicated scattered throughout the security establishment. But they were often forced by institutional rivalry to work at cross-purposes, or ignorant of each others’ efforts.

ABSENT THE Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, there would have been no 9/11. An amalgamation of mujahadeen fighters backed by the US, China, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia had indeed overcome the Soviets. But, as Wright reveals, bin Laden played a thoroughly minor role in that effort.

Yet thanks to a combination of hubris, delusion and religious fanaticism, bin Laden convinced himself that his band of Arabs had been ordained by God to wage jihad, that just as they had overcome the Soviets, so too they would beat America.

In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that the United States was at the root of all that was wrong in Muslim society. Wasn’t it America that was dragging Arabia toward modernity? Wasn’t it America that stood behind Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians? Didn’t it corrupt a pious Saudi regime to the point where Riyadh had actually invited infidel soldiers to defile the holy soil of his homeland?

Washington had corrupted all that was holy.

Today, bin Laden has inspired – it’s not an exaggeration to say – millions of followers with his ideas. His perniciously-enticing Islamist theology has metastasized.

One doesn’t put The Looming Tower down with anything but a sense of foreboding and a despondency over the failure of Europeans and even many Americans to acknowledge that a civilizational war has been declared against modernity and the West.


Lawrence Wright is an author (six books), screenwriter (The Siege) and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He received an MA in applied linguistics from the American University in Cairo.

Q) Are reports that Iran is grooming Saif al-Adel to replace bin Laden and Zawahiri true?

Iran has worked with al-Qaida (AQ) in the past, especially during the time when Osama bin Laden was in the Sudan from 1992-96 – when Iran and Hizbullah trained AQ operatives. Ayman Zawahiri supposedly sold information to Iranian intelligence, and he may have maintained those contacts. Moreover, many al-Qaida operatives took refuge in Iran after the invasion of Afghanistan by US and coalition forces in November-December 2001. One Saudi paper said that as many as 500 AQ members were in Iran, which sounds really inflated to me.

The two most prominent members of al-Qaida known to be in Iran are Saif al-Adl, the organization’s security chief, and Saad bin Laden, one of Osama’s most committed sons. The nature of their sanctuary there is unclear.

So there is a long-standing association between Iran and al-Qaida. But that doesn’t mean that the two entities can function together, because AQ is an entirely Sunni organization, and part of its dogma is that Shi’ites are heretics.

The FBI tells me that Saif al-Adl and Saad bin Laden are under a form of house arrest in Teheran. In one of Zawahiri’s letters to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [leader of al-Qaida in Iraq] before an American bomb found him, Zawahiri chastised him for promulgating a war against the Shi’ites, and reminded him that Iran was holding al-Qaida hostages.

Al-Qaida strategists would like to see Iran pulled into open conflict with the US and the West, and to that extent I think the leaders would be willing to work with Iran. But there’s no possibility that AQ will ever become an organ of a Shi’ite state.

Q) Is Iran providing assistance to al-Qaida units operating in Iraq?

It’s very difficult to know what’s true now in Iraq, but if there was any substance to such reports it would indicate that Iran has decided that chaos serves its immediate goals, though not its long-term ones.

Iran is in a dilemma in that it doesn’t seek a regional war – at least not until it’s secured a nuclear weapon – and that is a lively prospect if Iraq’s civil war begins to spill over the borders; on the other hand, a democratic Iraqi state, even a shaky one, poses a threat to the Iranian example.
The Iranian goal is to keep the Iraqi state weak enough to not ever be a threat again, but not so weak as to utterly fail. That’s a difficult balancing act.

Q) Does the al-Qaida that masterminded the 9/11 attacks still exist?

The old, hierarchical al-Qaida, where a member had to fill out forms in triplicate to buy a new tire, the organization that offered health benefits and paid vacations – that’s gone, but AQ strategists had planned, as early as 1998, for a new model, one composed of smaller groups that may not be networked at all, functioning more like street gangs. We’ve already seen this in Madrid and London.

That’s not to say that bin Laden and Zawahiri are irrelevant. Every day they are free is a propaganda victory for AQ. Moreover, they are still able to give direction to the movement and inspire followers.

Q) Some Israeli analysts here are talking about al-Qaida having set up up operations in Gaza. So al-Qaida still lives?

Yes, of course. It still lives as an organization, although the mother ship is much reduced. But as a movement it has certainly grown, especially in Europe.

Q) What can Israel do to undermine the al-Qaida idea?

Israel doesn’t really matter to bin Laden. He’s never attacked it, except peripherally, although he talks about it all the time. If the Israeli-Palestinian problem were resolved tomorrow, he would be heartbroken. No issue has served AQ propagandists better than the chronic stalemate that has fueled the anger of Muslims all over the world.
[That’s why] I have been urging that the US administration renounce the settlements. Half a million [settlers] should not be allowed to stand in the way of a just resolution to the Palestinian cause.
There are many causes of terrorism, but what they have in common is that they usually spring from the hopelessness and sense of futility that is so common in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Al-Qaida really is an engine that runs on despair. And it’s going to be with us as long as there is not sufficient hope to change that balance.

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