On September 11, 2001 I was a high schooler living safe and sound in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Fate would determine that my second period would be with the American Studies teacher who was also the school's A/V supervisor. So a group of us juniors watched slack-jawed as the second plane struck and as both towers fell. All the while our teacher bellowed at us about how these events would change everything, and the world we thought we knew would be different now.
For the nearly ten years between that day and his death, Osama bin Laden to me was just the thin, silent figure on grainy VHS tapes, shooting range targets, and occasional photographs. The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road To 9/11, Lawrence Wright's riveting history of bin Laden, his al-Qaeda organization, and Islamic extremism seeks to flesh out that vague image.
The winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, The Looming Tower traces back the origins of the militant, and virulent strain of Islamism that would eventually visit such devestation on the world. Wright shows us that much of the Crusades-like rhetoric and anti-western sentiments espoused by bin Laden can be traced back to a frustrated college student, scandalized by the immorality of 1950s America. From there these seeds fueled unrest in Egypt and dissent in Saudi Arabia before becoming a sort of extremist pilgramige of "Arab Afghans" intent on joining up with the mujahideen of Afghanistan and fighting the secularist Soviet Union.
As the Soviets withdrew and collapsed, bin Laden and his followers began to believe in the myth they were selling. Then despite the following years of wavering in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and eventually returning to Afghanistan in poorly funded disarray, bin Laden's true believers began to organize and to plot a war against an enemy they saw as weak.
Simultaneously, Wright leads us through the infinitely more frustrating tale of the FBI and CIA officials who were fighting Islamic terrorism throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The book gives us countless examples of Cassandras, near misses, and other disappointments, but it hits hardest on the unfathomable obstinance of the Central Intelligence Agency with regards to sharing information with the FBI. It is nearly impossible to come away from this book without believing with near certainty that the CIA is almost entirely responsible for the nation's failure to prevent the September 11th attacks.
The various officials profiled provide a remarkable look at the idiosyncratic nature of law enforcement and intelligence officials, and the stories of these players is at least as compelling as that of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The book is not entirely without its flaws, however. Wright's attempt to use a novelistic approach, weaving the stories of the American intelligence officials with the stories of their quarries, occasionally makes the exact series of events described difficult to follow. Wright will occasionally tell us several years' worth of one party's tale and then backtrack to tell the other party's side, resulting in confusion over when exactly we are. Wright also tends to play fast and loose with basic sentence structure. His penchant for treating stray clauses as sentences will drive those more fastidious about grammar to drink.
The Looming Tower is action packed, filled with intrigue and espionage and mystery, and would give any similarly themed fictional novel a run for its money. I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the complex, but not unknowable "why" behind al-Qaeda. Wright does a masterful job of bringing the reader into the training camps, and knowing how the story ends in May of 2011 does nothing to lessen the tension.