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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda And The Road To 9/11 (2006)

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006)
4.36 of 5 Votes: 5
037541486X (ISBN13: 9780375414862)
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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda And The R...
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda And The Road To 9/11 (2006)

About book: Lawrence Wright is one of those guys who could easily put novelists out of business, and this book made me question why I read fiction at all. The locations, characters, and events in The Looming Tower are so much more fascinating than anything an author could invent, and the fact that they're real makes them seem important in a way fiction almost never does. I loved this book, and my picayune quibbles -- a few recurring awkward sentence constructions, inexplicably referring to domestic terrorists who bomb clinics and murder doctors as "protesters" -- just need to be dispatched with here so people know I actually read this book, and am not just brainlessly screaming about how good it is because someone's slipped me a Samsonite suitcase stuffed with cash.I never would've read this, actually, if it hadn't been assigned for school, because I purposely avoid everything written about the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. Having to read this book was good because it made me think a lot more about why I do that, plus most of it wasn't really about 9/11, but about the development during the last century of Islamist terrorism and formation of al-Qaeda, which is infinitely more interesting to read about anyway.As a very provincial, ignorant person who hasn't traveled a lot, I don't know much about Islam or the Arab world and am thus highly susceptible to a romantic Orientalist-type fascination. And so the descriptions in this book of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and a bunch of other places I can't even vaguely visualize without remedial assistance of the sort provided here) in the mid-to-late twentieth century were instantly riveting to me, as were Wright's patient and highly readable narratives of various key players' actions and lives. Partly because the people and places described were so exotic to me, the book had a quality of the mythic to it, and I'll admit that my ignorance and naivite about the rest of the world contributed to my enjoyment of this. For instance, his description of Saudi Arabia at mid-century, just as oil is being discovered, was at least as thrilling and evocative as some fantasy adventure story. The account of Mohammad bin Laden's construction in 1961 of a road uniting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had all the suspense and narrative power of incredible fiction... and the details of Mohammad's polygamous practices were too lurid and insane to have been made up.No, Hollywood with all its big budgets and CGI effects can't compete with this book's images of antsy Arab jihadists holed up in Afghanistan, mid-eighties Peshawar filling with the chaos of the Afghan war's overflow, a jihadi/US Army sergeant/al-Qaeda member/would-be CIA agent's adventures stateside, a Sudanese general's selling bin Laden fake uranium that was really cinnabar, the shadowy worlds of international intrigues and terrorism and American intelligence's determined bureaucratic obstructionism of itself... and of course all the violence, which is so pervasive and twisted and sadistic beyond even the most famously filmed gore. YOU JUST CAN'T MAKE THIS SHIT UP! Would that we had to...Okay, but Lawrence Wright didn't write his book just to entertain but also to inform. This stuff really did happen, and we're supposed to think something about it, I guess. Obviously part of what demands the comparison of this book to fiction is the over-the-top drama of its story: the "clash of civilizations" apparently driving these men to mass murder for reasons that seem so foreign and incomprehensible to me.I guess the main reason I avoid reading about the 9/11 attacks is that I feel profoundly embarrassed by my nation's reaction to them. Not only by our political and military response, but by our cultural processing, and what we've made of these events. Reasons for my discomfort with the political and military stuff is pretty obvious; throughout The Looming Tower, Wright makes clear that a goal of the terrorists was to provoke a repressive response: to make the United States behave more like, say, Egypt, where dissenters and suspected terrorists were rounded up and tortured without any due process, a practice many point to as a factor in Ayman al-Zawahiri's increasingly bloodthirsty radicalization. Well uh, yeah -- as the old cliche points out, cliches become cliche for a reason, and "the terrorists have won" out in many ways, not least in our country's treatment of suspected terrorists. Score one for the away team!I mean, I really don't want to get into some boring stupid political rant, but reading this did make my own thoughts and feelings about all this stuff clearer to me. In some ways the book had a sort of cartoonish simplicity in its presentation of the battle between good and evil, but the thing is that you can't argue that al-Qaeda and these other similar groups aren't purely evil. They are evil. Intentional mass slaughter of innocent civilians is objectively evil, and so painting these guys as two-dimensional Saturday-morning animated villains is not wrong. The only part of the equation that's not so simple is the goodness-of-adversary part, and so maybe the battle is more like evil v. at-least-somewhat-less-evil. But whatever your issues with the United States and our tendency to have robots drop bombs on wedding parties halfway around the world and to perform extraordinary renditions to Syria or whatever, there are some very nice things about living here, such as the Taliban not running our zoo.One thing I remember really clearly about being a kid was watching movies or reading books and always thinking that the bad guys were trying to destroy the good guys based on some misunderstanding -- that if the good guys sat down with the bad guys and they drank some apple juice together, the bad guys would realize that their vendetta was all just a silly mistake. Then I grew up, and came to understand that this was rarely the case. Violent hatred isn't usually based just in miscommunication or a lack of understanding; that's just a comforting myth we tell children because the truth kind of sucks. It's not that al-Qaeda hates me because they don't understand me. If they really knew me and what I'm all about, they'd hate me even more than they already do.Anyway, my book report is willfully trying to turn itself into a moronic political rant -- sorry. Where I think I was going was that Wright also emphasizes how badly bin Laden wanted to lure the U.S. into war in Afghanistan, which he envisioned -- after the Russians' misadventure there -- as a guaranteed destroyer of empires. Well, it is truly baffling to me why anyone would ever want to fight a war in AFGHANISTAN -- from what I can see this is a country of MUTILATED, DRUG-DEALING TRIBAL WARLORDS WHO ARE PERFECTLY COMFORTABLE BEING SURROUNDED BY LANDMINES, and it seems like you'd have to be crazy go fucking around with people like that -- but there we are. Or rather, there are our troops, dealing with God only knows what, while the rest of us sit around at home getting fatter and updating our Apple products and spouting off uninformed opinions in online book reviews and occasionally still making some kind of pious, wounded noise about the excruciatingly painful national tragedy that was 9/11.I mean, that's really why I avoid all the 9/11 stuff, and what I find so uncomfortably embarrassing about it. For me, in many ways what this book was about ultimately was violence, and about cultural understandings of violence and how it can be used. A lot of the things in here shocked me because of the nature of the violence described -- far before we actually got to jihad, the accepted levels of violence in a lot of these cultures was astounding. For instance, okay, yes, we still have the death penalty here, which also shocks me, but in Saudi Arabia -- who are our friends over there (well, more or less, as far as these things go) -- capital punishment is effected through beheading. BEHEADING! HOLY SHIT! Maybe you think it's culturally insensitive or something that I consider that more gruesome than lethal injection, but man, I sure do. That's just one example though: the wider culture that suicide bombers grow out of is one that seems to have a great deal more familiarity -- and thus perhaps, to some extent, comfort -- with actual violence than our own.I say "actual" violence because there is a pretty great scene in here towards the end when -- I hope I'm not getting the details wrong, I can't find it, sorry if this is wrong -- the al-Qaeda guys are sitting around in some caves in Afghanistan watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies to get ideas for their hijackings. One unexpected impact this book, though its good v. evil presentation, had was in making me question my own culture in a different way than I usually do. I was raised to be critical of American values, even while being so obliviously embedded within and formed by them that I couldn't even fully identify what they were. By explicating the terrorists' beef with the U.S. in such detail, Wright helped me see better why it is exactly that they "hate our freedoms," and what these freedoms are, and of which ingredients is brewed the American Kool Aid is that I was raised on... and remain ideologically committed to drinking.Maybe the amount of sentimentalism and exceptionalism that goes along with American discourse about 9/11 bothers me so much because I secretly feel some of it too. There are embarrassing things about being an American in this era, and the 9/11 stuff makes me feel a lot of them strongly. As I said at the outset, I am provincial and sheltered, and in this I am fairly representative of my countrymen. I haven't traveled much, but I lived in New York for several years, and descriptions of mass death there do affect me more than those of even more horrific violence in far-off Afghanistan, Egypt, Algeria, or Kenya.Lately -- before reading this book -- I've been troubled a lot by the thought that I'm not at all brave. One thing that got me started thinking about that was talking to men who'd served recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. These guys are very different from most of us Americans in that they have traveled to these places, and have witnessed and participated in violence there. They aren't motivated by religious fundamentalism; they go into dangerous situations hoping very much they won't get hurt or die, and I consider that very brave. But -- and I know this is no news flash, every idiot knows this -- while they were over there shooting people and having their convoys blown up we were all just back here buying shoes on the Internet and complaining about gas being expensive and acting like the events of September 11, 2001 were this completely isolated and exceptionally violent event that was so traumatic for all of us that our country just might never recover its emotional bearings. I mean, we're so removed from violence that the false memory of its rarity frightens us so badly that we can't even bring our shampoo on the plane. This bums me out so much because I don't want these jihadist assholes to be right about anything. I don't want them to be right thinking that we're not brave and that we're not a moral nation, but we haven't done that great a job proving them wrong in the years since this happened.Okay, this review got away from me and I'm just babbling and it's really really stupid, and I'm sorry, but anyway, bottom line: this is a fantastic book and I couldn't put it down the whole time that I was reading it. Highly recommended, though maybe not for the plane.* * * *Okay, I had to chop off this already overly-long non-review, because I heard the screams of my neighbors and realized the Superbowl had started, so not wanting to be "against us" I had to run off to that. But now, having patriotically reaffirmed my faith in the greatness of my powerful nation by watching Cee Lo Green and Madonna lip sync "Like a Prayer," I thought I'd try to wrap up some of my irrelevant and incoherent non-thoughts.I'm actually not sure what it is that I was trying to say here about violence. Maybe I'm saying that I think we need to be more consistent in our cultural understanding and application of it, but this book could be a warning about the dangers of consistency, which is perhaps not just the hobgoblin of little minds but also the lifeblood of fundamentalism. One thing I think Wright did a really good job of explaining was the lure that these ideas have for men who then blow up themselves and a whole bunch of innocent people. What's the trade-off, what do they get from it, aside from that rumored afterlife stacked with nubile virgins? Yeah I know these people are real different from the people I know, but they are still people, and I just don't think humans are wired for purely delayed gratification.What they get from fundamentalism -- taken to murderous extremes, sure, but fundamentalism in general -- is the happy comfort of moral clarity, of a simplified world. Me, I just don't know what to make of all this. All the violence, all the pain, all the baffling overwhelming complexity of an insane world. It's hard enough figuring out what to think of any of it, let alone to know how to live every day in a way that doesn't feel like a series of idiotic and self-contradicting mistakes. But if you become one of these jihad guys, such confusion is no longer a problem you face. There's good, and there's bad, and you know what you must do. And what you must do does seem super batshit crazy and horrible to me, but to you it makes so much sense that you'd never even dream of questioning it, and that's gotta feel pretty great... maybe so much that it's a feeling worth killing and dying for.But I am still disturbed by our culture's relationship to violence, which seems very hypocritical and problematic to me. Obviously there's something distasteful about letting our enemies define us, but if we are going to play that game and say we stand for the opposite of what they do, then what we stand for, what we do and believe should make sense. If they are for repression and we are for freedom, then we need to be free. If we are against violence, let us be against violence; if we are not against violence, then let's be honest about that, and not cry and whine so much when that violence touches our lives.I don't know, it was easy for the terrorists to be consistent in their actions, because they were fundamentalists: they were willing to die in order to kill (though tellingly, bin Laden expressed in his will that he didn't want his sons to join al-Qaeda: it's understandably a lot easier to send someone else's kids off to die, as we see here at home when powerful people happily start wars that their sons won't have to fight). It is a lot harder for a diverse nation of people with wildly different ideas about morality and violence to agree about how we're going to see things and respond to something like terrorist acts. But it should start at least with our owning the consequences of our actions -- it should have started with much more responsible media coverage of this last decade's wars, for example. I mean that's just an example. I don't really know what else to say about it, except that I thought of some article a few months ago in one of those mainstream weekly news magazines -- Time or Newsweek -- about the United States military and how sealed off in many ways from the rest of the population they've become. I think that's a really important problem that points to a lot more than just itself. In my experience, it seems to me that a lot of us either tend to be lefty doves, who tend to be naive about certain global realities, or righty hawks, who can be cavalier about the effects of violence. It seems to me that Americans who have fought in the military and people who have grown up in really violent neighborhoods not surprisingly tend to be more realistic and less sentimental about violence, but is that what we want? As this book shows, once you get comfortable with violence things can quickly get horrific and disgusting.Blah blah blah blah. I don't know who I'm talking to or what I'm saying or why, I'm really just babbling -- procrastinating on homework. Sorry.The final thing that I wanted to say about The Looming Tower was that I learned how all the terrorists would blend in and get legal status -- whether in California or Somalia or wherever -- by simply marrying a native woman. THIS SERIOUSLY FREAKED ME THE HELL OUT! Those who know me are aware that I have a reputation for poor judgment when it comes to affairs of the heart, and a weakness for swarthy men with an air of mystery about them... and so what am I supposed to do now with this piece of information!?? If I turn down dates with foreign guys named Muhammad does that mean the terrorists have won?Ah, questions, troubling questions of "the post-9/11 world."In any case: a truly great book.

Well, I finally found my notes and got this review finished - long overdue.For all the energy, lives and treasure we have devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s important to remember that they had nothing to do with 9/11 which became the excuse for our actions rather than the proximate rationale. We are now in a war that would appear to have literally no end, this “war of terror,” one that any sane person who recently traveled on an airplane can see the terrorists have won as we meekly surrender our civil rights to government agencies who now can tap phones, examine library records, collect data, cavity search, etc., in the name of some illusionary sense of safety, a theater of the absurd. In addition they convinced us , this tiny group of delusionary men (no women), to send thousands of troops to a hostile land and environment where they could be more easily picked off. Wright traces the rise of anti-semitism in the MIddle East to the influence of Naziism during WW II and especially afterwards when many Nazis fled to Egypt for sanctuary from the victorious allies. For centuries Jews had lived quite peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, but several events fueled a return to a fundamentalist, Islamicist view. The Six-Day war was used by these in a rather tortured logic to validate their position, i.e. that God had favored the Jews because Muslims had wandered away from the true Islam and the Caliphate. (This kind of perverted thinking is not unique to Islamists. It’s rampant among fundamentalist Christian groups such as the Westboro Baptists who insist that US military deaths are caused by God’s displeasure with current U.S. policies with regard to homosexuality. Other examples abound.) The war, which an overwhelming victory for Israel, humiliated Egypt, where, following Nassar’s death, Sadat needed to appeal to the fundamentalists to strengthen his government; so he released many who had been jailed from prison. Not a smart move.The actions of the Egyptians, following the assassination of Sadat, solidified a diverse, incoherent movement. He flatly states that 9/11 was born in the torture chambers of the Egyptian government which created an appetite for revenge and turned moderates into extremists, not to mention destroyed any notion that western society actually practiced the ideals of freedom and human rights they espoused. Communism, Zionism, and Imperialism were all lumped together as the great western enemy of Islam and the only solution was to use violence to try to create an Islamic theocracy. By throwing all of the anti-government groups together in prison, many individuals and groups which had been unaware of the other’s existence were now thrown together and molded into a more coherent movement. Torture was an instrument of humiliation, revenge and punishment as well as information gathering and Ayman Zawahiri emerged as the new leader of the group.I was astonished how intertwined the Bin Laden family, wealthy beyond measure from lucrative construction contracts, was with Saudi government and culture. That said, Osama comes across as a pathetic little man whom, for some bizarre reason, we have inflated to mythic proportions. He left a long trail of words that Wright has used effectively to build a comprehensive picture of the man that Afghans, in the fight against the Russians, thought was rather pathetic, but who was adopted by the United States and supported. Another example of how certain actions taken for a variety of reasons can have long-range negative effects. How one might ever develop the perspicuity to avoid making such mistakes remains a mystery to me.If there are any heroes in this book, it’s the field officers of the FBI and one John O’Neill (who tragically died in the World Trade Center.) They had been concerned that the Islamic fundamentalists would try something spectacular but got little support from Washington. One Minneapolis supervisor, admonished for his reports and concerns, simply said back to the bosses in DC that he was simply “ “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” This in August of 2001Wright has done a magnificent job of melding detail and the broader picture to present a better understanding of why we are where we are today.The title, drawn from the Koran is ironic in light of Osama’s killing by American troops: ““Wherever you are, death will find you, Even in the looming tower,” a quote from one of Osama’s many videos.After-note: Read a couple of the one-star reviews on Amazon to get a feel for psychotic thinking.Previously written: "Therefore when you induce others to construct a formation while you yourself are formless, then you are concentrated while the opponent is divided... Therefore the consummation of forming an army is to arrive at formlessness. When you have no form, undercover espionage cannot find out anything, intelligence cannot form a strategy." Sun Tzu, 500 B.C.For some reason, I failed to get very far into this book and was reminded of it when I read an excellent column recently at Salon ( regarding the costs of our obsessiveness with regard to airline security. I was reminded that Wright discussed Al Qaeda strategy at some length. It was quite simple. Bin Laden knew he couldn't maintain an attack on U.S. soil so he needed to get us to come to him. And he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. We send troops and treasure over to him to be whittled away at. His first attempt to draw us in was the U.S.S. Cole; Clinton failed to fall into the trap as did Reagan after the 200 Marines were killed in Lebanon. Bush swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. Iraq and Afghanistan have cost more than a trillion dollars of borroweded money in the first unfunded war in our history. And we spend more hundreds of billions searching for the latest object in someone's crotch for the illusion of security. Wait till someone detonates a small bomb in a TSA security line or at a McDonald's. We will then lose all our freedoms in the name of maintaining an empire we cannot afford.
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The Looming Tower was recommended and lended to me by a friend. This is definitely a book that every American should read. This book will open up your eyes to how the events of 9/11 came to be.The book begins in the 1940's and we learn about Qutb. He is said to be the father of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. As the book continues, a lot of the names that were brought up on the news are mentioned. The story progresses and gives the reader a sense of understanding for a topic that is very complex and is based on an entirely different culture. This information is important as the reader needs to see where men like those that make up Al-Qaeda come from.The author does an excellent job of not pointing the finger and placing blame, Wright tells the story as it happened and does so in a way that is very easy to understand. Wright, also does a great job discussing some of the men and women in the FBI and CIA who played crucial roles in cracking down on Al- Qaeda. He particularly tells the sad story of John O'Neill who ironically met his fate in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Although we all know how this story ends it is worthwhile to learn the full story and The Looming Tower is the place to get all of the facts. A definite read for all Americans.
George Bradford
On the morning of September 11, 2001, most Americans had never heard of Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. But they were very well known to the FBI, CIA, NSA and the White House. This book (which won the Pulitzer Prize) explains why. "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright precisely details the individuals and events that lead (over the course of five decades) to September 11, 2001. The writing is crisp. The narrative is compelling. The historical context is vivid. Shortly after World War II ended the seeds of Islamic fundamentalism (and its bitter grievances against the United States) were sown. And in this history book (that reads like a novel) Lawrence Wright describes the ideas, people and developments that lead to the dramatic terrorist attacks.Most readers are familiar with "the events" of September 11, 2001. But what lead up to that fateful day? Why did it happen? "The Looming Tower" answers these questions. And in doing so, it also explains:Why Islamic fundamentalism grew rapidly during the second half of the 20th Century.How the Muslim Brotherhood came to be. And why its ideas appealed to the majority of students in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.Why Islamic extremists tried to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. How the crime was solved. And how the perpetrators were indicted, arrested, tried and convicted. How an Egyptian (Ayman al-Zawahiri) and a Saudi (Osama bin Laden) came to declare war on the United States during the 1990s. And how the U.S. Government failed to neutralize them. How intelligence agencies in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt repeatedly warned the United States of the growing threat of Al-Qaeda. And how the FBI, CIA and NSA failed to connect a blizzard of dots. Why young, well educated, professional men repeatedly undertook suicide attacks on United States interests throughout Africa and the Middle East. And why the U.S. Government failed to adequately respond to the growing phenomena.How the U.S. Government concluded in August 2001 that Osama bin Laden was intent on striking inside the United States. And how the U.S. Government failed to prevent the attack."The Looming Tower" is an important book. Any citizen interested in understanding what really happened to the United States on September 11, 2001 would benefit from reading it. "The Looming Tower" is a fascinating story that is very well written. But it is also disheartening.On the morning of September 11, 2001, America was shocked by the crimes of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. But the FBI, CIA, NSA and White House were not. "The Looming Tower" explains why.
there are the books that make our heads explode, that make every minute of the day a chinese water torture of waiting for the chance to get the hell home and read some more, the books that live inside us all through the day, the books that make us excited to take a crap just so we can shut the door behind us (or not) and sneak in a few pages, the books which cause horn-honking at red lights from drivers irritated we're reading at the fucking wheel... the looming tower is one of 'em. as riveting and compelling as any novel i've read. only on page 230 and stamping with a fiver. fucking fantastic.
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