The Greatest


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

By: Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright is a Pulitzer Prize winning American author, staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and associate at the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. In 1980, Wright was a staff for the Texas Monthly.

American Overconfidence That Led to the Strike of 9/11

By: Jason Lee

It all happened on September 11, 2001 where 19 members of Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group, hijacked four United States airplanes and used them to attack various targets which killed about three thousand people living in the East Coast. As stated in the book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, “chaos and barbarism, which always threatened to overwhelm the movement, sharply increased as bin Laden took the helm.”1 An appealing narrative that spans five decades, The Looming Tower is a historical book that highlights the way Al-Qaeda was involved in various terrorist attacks, how they were investigated, and the events that led to the September 11 attacks. The book explains the detail of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of Al-Qaeda, and the failures that culminated in the attacks on the World Trade Center in an unusual or an unique way and tone. The Looming Tower written by Lawrence Wright is a thorough and comprehensive work of the details and aspects leading to September 11, “the deadliest day in history for New York City firefighters: 343 were killed.”2 Through the use of dialogue, Wright was able to portray the creation of jihadist movement and the explanation of why their ideas had such a vicious force. Additionally, he explains how each man became involved in the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, targeting Middle Eastern governments and United States with terrorist attacks. Wright advances his argument that extremism is a combination of religious and anti-Western ideology and frustration with one’s individual circumstances. The Looming Tower highlights the lack of seriousness by American intelligence considering Osama bin Laden, who played a significant role in the September 11 attacks in the United States and the failed efforts of the United States national security officials to prevent them.

The book, The Looming Tower, begins with a narrative storytelling of Sayyid Qutb, an author of an influential book, Milestones. He focuses mainly on his time as a student in the United States and this influence on his feelings toward Western culture and what he did when he returned to Egypt. The conflict is the discrepancy in how he became more radical. Qutb trip to America was not what he expected. He expected modern values, such as secularism, rationally, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of sexes, tolerance, and materialism that had infected Islam through the agency of Western colonialism. Although Qutb was granted the death penalty, Nasser offered him the post of minister of education as alternative. However, Qutb refused and said, “my words will be stronger if they kill me.”3 Wright describes the early life and ideological development of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who would later become one of Al-Qaeda’s early leaders. Wright focuses significantly on Zawahiri’s time spent in prison in connection to his attempts to overthrow the Egyptian government. Zawahiri, born in the year 1951, grew up in Maadi, a cosmopolitan suburb of Cairo. Maadi was a home to a large number of European and American along with some Egyptians. By contrast, Zawahiri’s family was more traditional and had little interest in the sporting club. Al-Zawahiri was noted for defiance of authority and admiration for Sayyid Qutb. The author describes Zawahiri’s presence in Saudi Arabia, noting that the Egyptian likely met Osama bin laden for the first time. This relates to the recent history of the Osama bin Laden’s family. Osama’s father, Mohammed Bin Laden, was a road king and a construction guru for the Saudis; thus, he became a very wealthy man. He was a Yemeni which means that he was not completely accepted in the Saudi society but deeply revered. Mohammed started his own company which favored the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz. Mohammed was granted many contracts for building royal palaces and his reputation grew. Bin Laden went to a prestigious grade school and grew up watching Western movies and wears Western clothes. In 1979 to 1981, the siege of the grand mosque and the beginning of the Soviet War in Afghanistan occurred. Prince Turki was the youngest child of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. On November 20, 1979, the Grand Mosque of Mecca was taken hostage by insurgents that used their control of the public address system to broadcast their message to the world. Prior to the insurgents cutting the telephone lines, a mosque employee called the bin Laden organization’s headquarters to notify of the hostile takeover which contacted King Khalid. In 1979, the siege of the Grand Mosque was going on and Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union and bin Laden believed they must have become more denotable Muslims. During the Afghanistan War against the Soviets, Bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam greatly helped the Arab Afghanistan movement that resulted in an extreme devotion to the Muslim faith by their followers. In the early 1980’s the “mujahideen were little more than disorganized mobs.”4 As a result, bin Laden and Azzam “agreed to create a more formal role for the Arabs in Afghanistan although there were few Arabs actually fighting in that time.”5 Osama financially supported anyone and their families who joined the jihad forces to get more Arabs actively involved. “Many of the Arab Afghans swore fealty to Azzam, but it was bin Laden who was paying their rent.”6 The financial support emphasizes the use of developing the cause of their jihad ideology and fighting the Soviets.

Millions of Afghans fled the violence from the Soviet occupation and entered the northwest Pakistan province of Peshawar, Pakistan in March 1922. Osama dated the origin of his concerns about the United States to 1982, “when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them.”7 Abdul Basit Mahmoud Abdul Karim also known as Ramzi Yousef “was not a particularly devout Muslim-he was motivated mainly by his devotion to the Palestinian cause and his hatred of Jews-but he was the first Islamist terrorist to attack the American homeland.”8 On February 1993, Yousef detonated a truck bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing six people in the first attack by Islamic terrorist in the United States. The twin towers that complied the World Trade Center were labeled by bin Laden as “those symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights, and humanity.”9 Soon after the trade Center bombing, Al-Zawahiri entered into the United States to gain monetary support from Arab and Afghans there to help support the Al-Jihad. In 1992, Osama settled in Sudan, a poor country that welcomed him and his money. Zawahiri’s terrorist organization had run out of money and it joined Osama’s Al-Qaeda reluctantly. Near the end of 1944, Osama had invested poorly in several falling businesses and had to reduce the salaries of his Al-Qaeda’s terrorists. During circumstances in Sudan, bin Laden turned his sights in American ambassadors in Africa.

The story shifts back to the U.S. in 1995 and introduces, John O’Neill, the new chief of the FBI’s counter terrorism unit. He informed that the Yousef had been found in Pakistan and began planning a successful operation to capture him and return him back to the states to stand trial. His ability in overcoming these challenges, due to his strength of personality and network of contacts, made him a polarizing figure within the government. The first clear sign of terror by Al-Qaeda would have come on November 1995 in the form of a car bomb outside the communications center for the Saudi National Guard. The attack was clearly the terrorist attack from Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. On November 1995, the 18th anniversary of Anwar al-Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, Zawahiri’s men continued their attack against Egypt, bombing the country’s embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Meanwhile, the catastrophe that the radical Islamist leaders of Sudan had created for themselves finally made itself startely apparent. Wanting to get off the US watch list for states that supported terrorism, representatives from Sudan secretly asked what they had to do to plane the US. On August 1996, Osama issued a Declaration of War against the Americans occupying the land of the two high places. On June 25, 1996, there was a terrible explosion in Saudi Arabia. O’Neill set up a team of one hundred agents and met up with the director of the FBI to determine the people responsible for the bombing. O’Neill was in charge of counterterrorism and counterintelligence in Middle East. A deal was struck between the Egyptian government and the Islamic group while Montassir al-Zayyat, a Islamist lawyer, was brokering the deal. On July 1997, “the nonviolence initiative...had originated in the same prisons where Zayyat and Zawahiri had been incarcerated together sixteen years before.”10 Egyptians in charge of twenty thousand Islamists, Zawahiri fundamentalist movement had been held back and it was clear to the Islamic Group’s leaders that unless they renounced violence they would never see “daylight.” A couple of months later, six members of the Islamic group attacked Queen Hatshepsut’s temple at Luxor, Egypt. The attack at Luxor shocked and revolted the Egyptian people and failed to influence people favorably towards ideology.

In US, O’Neill and Schewer planned an operation to capture bin Laden, though their dispute over whether bin Laden should be tied in a US court or simply killed which will prevent ny actions. Instead, the CIA asked Saudi Arabia to remove Osama from Afghanistan and contain his influence. Osama called the US, a nation of tyrants and criminals, thus making acts of terror against it morally justified. Bin Laden originally selected the US capitol, the White House, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center as the targets of what eventually became the 9/11 attacks. Wright recounts the aftermath of 9/11 most notably FBI investigations into the attacks. Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American former FBI agent who was involved in anti-terrorism cases, returned to Yemen to further investigate the Cole bombing. “The warship USS Cole was attacked on October 12, 2000, at 11:15 a.m. by a small fishing boat...The destroyer represented the capital of the West and the small boat represented Mohammed.”11 This points out that the attack was symbolic because its intention on striking had a target that depicts a significant figure. Then, Soufan questioned Quso, one of the men arrested, about photos of a meeting in Malaysia to plan the 9/11 attacks. Quso identified one of them pictured as Khallad, who planned the Cole attack. Upon learning of the 9/11 attacks, Abu Jandal initially maintained that al-Qaeda could not possibly be responsible.

In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright portrays that contrary to the belief in the power of numbers by some analysts, personalities matter and a small group of people can profoundly change the course of history. He draws on a wealth of information derived from rare documents and interviews with sources that range from the lowest ranks of the jihadist movement to the highest tiers of the United States government. America paid a huge price for ignoring and under evaluating the presence of Al-Qaeda by pointing out that “the acrid stench penetrated the office of FBI, a sickening reminder of their failure to stop the attack.”12

Lawrence Wright is best known as the author of the 2006 nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. This book was translated into 24 different languages which points out the popularity and how exemplary it is. In 1993, Wright published a two-part article in the magazine about recovered memories, titled “Remembering Satan, which won the National Magazine Award and the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Journalism.”13 The Apostate which won another National Magazine Award for his 2011 profile of Paul Haggis increased his profile. He is also known for his work with documentarian Alex Gibney who directed film versions of Wright’s one man show “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” and his book Going Clear. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School and attended Tulane University. Moreover, he taught English in Egypt for about two years which somewhat points out that he is not bias. He was nominated for the “National Book Award for Nonfiction,” “National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction,” and “Goodreads Choice Awards Best Nonfiction.” This highlights that many audiences and nominators are recognizing his work which proves that he is an acknowledgeable figure when it comes to writers.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 was published in 2006, a few years after the attack of September 11, 2001. Wright highlights that bin Laden “was wavering-the lure of peace being as strong as the battle cry of jihad.”14 Agriculture captivated his imagination and he told various friends that he was thinking of quitting Al Qaeda and becoming a farmer. Wright not only traces how Al-Qaeda evolved from an opponent of two of America’s enemies, the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein to America’s foe, but he also gives the reader a visceral sense of day to day life at its training camps.

Rich, an individual from New York, who purchased The Looming Tower, and read it says that, “[the book is] an autopsy of the organizational failures that led to 9/11 and beyond. Wright organizes the often byzantine matrix of the jihadists and more importantly describes the perversion of Islam into a vicious cult run by thugs.”15 Rich later highlights that this book is “required reading for any elected official and necessary for the American public to keep pressure on the services charged with providing a secure environment in the USA.”16 Additionally, an individual from Southern California, Michelle W., who also read this book states that, “this is a thoroughly researched book that describes the family background, recent history, and influences on Osama bin Laden, the beginning of al-Qaeda, and the events that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001.”17 These reviews emphasize that Wright is not biased and touches on the key points from different perspectives. This allows the audience to believe that the author is credible and provides information with a deep historical perspective. Wright provides full information in his books, specifically background informations, such as what is going on during a certain time period he is writing about and touches mostly on all the viewpoints or perspectives of audiences.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which was mentioned in the book, The Looming Tower, the Bush administration declared a worldwide war on terrorism. This involved “open and covert military operations, new security legislation efforts to block financing of terrorism, and more.”18 Washington called on the other states to join or unify in the fight against terrorism pointing out that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”19 Critics charge that the war on terrorism is an ideology of fear and repression that creates enemies and promotes violence rather than mitigating acts of terror and strengthening security. Ultimately, Lawrence Wright re-creates firsthand the transformation of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri from an idealistic and unskillful soldiers in Afghanistan to leaders of the most successful terrorist group in history through this book. He follows John O’Neill, a FBI counterterrorism, as he uncovers the emerging danger from Al-Qaeda in the 1990s and struggles to track his new threat specifically, Osama bin Laden. The Looming Tower is the definitive “history of the long road to September 11.”20

[1]Lee, Ann. What the U.S. can Learn from China. San Francisco, 2012. 5.
[2]Lee, Ann 14.
[3]Lee, Ann 53.
[4]Lee, Ann 121.
[5]Lee, Ann 227.
[6]Lee, Ann 10.
[7]Lee, Ann xvii.
[8]Lee, Ann 163.
[9]Wucker, Michele. What the U.S can Learn from China http://www.demos.org/publication/what-us-can-learn-china
[10]Woo, J. Franklin. Review: What the U.S. Can Learn from China: An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor as Our [11]Greatest Teacher by Ann Lee. University of Hawaii Press, 291.
[12]Ann Lee xvii
[13]Ann Lee xiv