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The 9/11 Reading List: Al-Qa'ida before the Twin Towers

Commentary, 9 September 2011
Kevin Stringer reviews 'The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11' by Lawrence Wright

Kevin Stringer reviews
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11
By Lawrence Wright
Allen Lane, 2006

Lawrence Wright weaves a chilling tale of the development of Al-Qaeda as a global Islamic insurgent organization. He shows how the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian strands of fundamentalist thought, ideology, and religious world view combined with Saudi financial capital to form the basis for the creation of Al-Qa’ida.

Wright explores a number of underlying factors that catalyzed the cadre of Al-Qa’ida to declare their jihad on the United States and its secular allies in the Middle East. One critical factor that the West underestimates is the humiliation the Arab and Muslim world experiences or perceives in its struggle with modernity, Israel, the United States, local despots, and globalization. This humiliation and frustration lead generally modern, and well-educated Muslim males to fall under the influence of religious figures and imams who are still living mentally in the Middle Ages. A case in point noted in the book was the leading cleric in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, Abdul Aziz bin Baz. He claimed the sun rotated around the earth and that the manned landing on the moon had never occurred. With these types of mentors, the fundamentalist disciples in Al-Qa’ida became the terrors of the Western world. Osama bin Laden was one such male and is portrayed as the cult leader and symbol for this angry generation of Arab males. Andrew Wright draws a comprehensive yet personal picture of bin Laden as a father, husband, businessman, and terrorist within the book. The reader sees bin Laden not as the invulnerable terrorist leader, but as the real man who is often sick during his campaigns in Afghanistan and makes errors of judgment in a number of operations.

The author particularly highlights the role the Afghan experience against the Soviet Union had on the future members of Al-Qa’ida. This forging event created the personal bonds, loyalties, and necessary myths for the emergence of the jihad against the United States and its allies. Wright does a good job of drawing out the often delusional perspectives possessed by bin Laden and his ilk with a number of examples. A notable instance occurred after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Fearing a US led coalition fighting against Iraq from the holy soil of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden approached Prince Sultan, the Saudi Arabian Minister of Defence with his plan for Kuwait’s liberation. He offered a non-existent army of one hundred thousand fighters from his Afghan colleagues and unemployed Saudi youth. When the prince observed that there are no caves in Kuwait to hide in like Afghanistan and asked what he would do when Saddam Hussein lobbed missiles at his army with chemical and biological weapons, bin Laden responded, ‘We will fight him with faith’.

Most striking about this book is its factual depiction of the appalling inter-agency relationships that plagued the United States government in the run-up to 11 September 2001. Most damning was the lack of co-operation between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Department of State (DoS). With intelligence possessed but not shared by the CIA, the FBI may have been able to prevent the 9/11 attacks and the DoS could have kept a number of terrorists out of the country by depriving them of visas. Organizational boundaries and personality conflicts precluded these positive outcomes. Clearly with less bureaucracy and fewer turf battles lives would have been saved.

The book draws from impeccable sources based upon extensive field research and interviews. This work gives the reader what the author terms ‘approximate truth’ to the rise of Al-Qa’ida. Although some key players are currently beyond the law or incarcerated in places like Guantanamo, Wright is able to lift the veil on the operations and machinations of a global Islamic terrorist organization. In terms of style, Wright has an effortless prose that makes the reading of the book smooth and a great pleasure. He mixes fact, history, analysis, and anecdotes effortlessly. The book is also enhanced with several pictures of the heroes and villains; equipped with a list of principal characters for sorting out the various Arab and Afghani names; and has maps to support reader understanding of Afghanistan, where large parts of the story play out.

I strongly recommend this book to all policy-makers, military officers, diplomats, and scholars needing to understand the global Islamic insurgency phenomenon for two reasons. The text gives enormous insights into the perverted mindset possessed by the Al-Qa’ida terrorists and provides a numbing number of ‘lessons learned’ on the follies of poor inter-agency co-operation and over-bureaucratization of the national intelligence process. As Wright notes, ‘Al-Qa’ida had aimed its attacks at America, but it struck all of humanity’. To understand this threat to humanity, his book is a must for every personal library.

Kevin D. Stringer, Ph.D.
Author of Military Organizations for Homeland Defence and Smaller-Scale Contingencies – Comparative Approach (Praeger).

This book review was first published in the RUSI Journal (Vol. 153, No. 2, April 2007).

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