Wright’s book is clever. It’s filled with memorable but insignificant trivia (Osama bin Laden grew up loving Bonanza!) that mask a lot of serious history, told through vignette-type biographies of the important figures in the rise of contemporary Islamic terrorism. Although the subtitle is “Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” Wright starts with Sayyid Qutb, the mild-mannered Egyptian whose writings influenced many terror groups, and spends as much time on Ayman al-Zawahiri and his national jihadist organizations as he does on Osama bin Laden and the international al-Qaeda.
Later, the book detours into Afghanistan and the Taliban. The U.S. perspective is always second fiddle, though it does provide much of the book’s emotional engagement (hard to expect feelings for terrorists, I guess), but that’s not a negative. The theme of FBI and CIA discord is far less interesting than the politicking, bumbling adventures and legalistic arguments of the terrorists. It’s chilling how easily men like al-Zawahiri summon justifications for the killing of fellow Muslims, women, children and innocents; and perhaps equally surprising that they always try. It’s also eye opening to see how the ranks of groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad (terrorism within Egypt) and al-Qaeda (terrorism aimed at the west, especially the United States) were filled with middle- and upper-class men, many of whom were educated professionals (e.g. Ayman al-Zawahiri was a doctor). This is in contrast to the Taliban, for example.
(The group members were men but the book spends time on their wives and daughters, too.)
Wright also shows for how long al-Qaeda sat dormant or ineffectual. In Afghanistan, the Arabs raised a mighty battle cry but rarely fought, and when they did they didn’t fight very well. When al-Qaeda moved to the Sudan, bin Laden took up farming. The men who joined his and other terror groups were often unwanted in their own homelands, which increased their need to create a new one. They were weirdos or troublemakers, made more so by harsh treatment at the hands of various domestic authorities, and despite their insistence on the primacy of Islam, many were ignorant or at best passably knowledgeable about their religion. Eventually—motivated by the First Gulf War and Saudi Arabia’s pro-American reaction to it, including the acceptance of American troops on its soil—the various groups united with al-Qaeda (they considered Osama bin Laden rich even when his funds from Saudi Arabia, where his father had almost literally spent his life building the country, were cut off, rendering him quite poor) and turned their attentions across the Atlantic.
The book’s final chapters are its weakest, overdoing the violins and indulging in too much descriptive rubber-necking, but they’re also short. This is not a book about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s about the road to that attack. And, On second thought, maybe the subtitle fits after all.
Recommended to anyone interested in contemporary history, terrorism, or who thinks history is by definition dry. Wright writes with the lightness of pen of an author of political thrillers, but his research is solid and his characters real. The Looming Tower is an excellent example of “popular history”.