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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 Paperback – August 21, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Wright, a New Yorker writer, brings exhaustive research and delightful prose to one of the best books yet on the history of terrorism. He begins with the observation that, despite an impressive record of terror and assassination, post–WWarII, Islamic militants failed to establish theocracies in any Arab country. Many helped Afghanistan resist the Russian invasion of 1979 before their unemployed warriors stepped up efforts at home. Al-Qaeda, formed in Afghanistan in 1988 and led by Osama bin Laden, pursued a different agenda, blaming America for Islam's problems. Less wealthy than believed, bin Laden's talents lay in organization and PR, Wright asserts. Ten years later, bin Laden blew up U.S. embassies in Africa and the destroyer Cole, opening the floodgates of money and recruits. Wright's step-by-step description of these attacks reveals that planning terror is a sloppy business, leaving a trail of clues that, in the case of 9/11, raised many suspicions among individuals in the FBI, CIA and NSA. Wright shows that 9/11 could have been prevented if those agencies had worked together. As a fugitive, bin Ladin's days as a terror mastermind may be past, but his success has spawned swarms of imitators. This is an important, gripping and profoundly disheartening book. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Preloaded Digital Audio Player edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
The Looming Tower may be the most riveting, informative, and "heart-stopping account" yet of the men who shaped 9/11 (New York Times Book Review). The focus on individuals gives the book its emotional punch, but it is also a narrative bold in conception and historical sweep. Lawrence Wright conducted more than 500 interviews, from bin Laden's best friend in college to Richard A. Clarke, Saudi royalty, Afghan mujahideen, and reporters for Al Jazeera. The result, while evenhanded in its analysis of the complex motives, ideals, and power plays that led to 9/11, leaves few nefarious details uncovered. An abrupt ending did little to sway critics that Looming Tower is nothing less than "indispensable" reading (Cleveland Plain Dealer).
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Preloaded Digital Audio Player edition.
Top customer reviews
If you often just listen to the news casually, as background “Newsack,” you might not really understand the difference between such groups as Hamas, al Jihad, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. This book distinguishes those groups by region, history, and leadership so that readers can approach currently unfolding news stories more intelligently.
“Looming Tower” starts in the early1950’s with Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, telling how his ultimate martyrdom gave impetus to much of modern terrorist activity. Wright proceeds through the formation of the Taliban in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and on to bin Laden’s activities under the al-Qaeda banner. He tells how the latter became in effect, “a death-cult.” Enough biographical information is given about each of these leaders to convey a sense of who they were in their personal lives – of the frequent disjunction between what they did publicly and how they lived privately. There isn’t a huge amount of psychological analysis of how presumably religious people arrived at the point of justifying mass murder and suicide, but Wright does provide some insights into the process of transformation away from simple, often happy childhood days.
This book is written in straight-forward reportorial style. But it includes enough telling metaphor to graphically illustrate many points. For example, Wright tells how some factions fell away from having a centralized leadership and instead organized themselves into cells. This gave them a “spongy quality, clandestine, hard to combat.” With that one word “spongy,” Wright conveys the difficulty that U.S. and allied military forces have been up against.
The narrative includes some really surprising details about how Western and Middle Eastern cultures can differ in their interpretation of events. I had no idea how the Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton scandal was interpreted by many in the Middle East – and how it served to fuel further terrorist activity. Wright also tells of other instances where our failure to speak the language and realize cultural differences led to serious diplomatic and military miscalculations.
The last third of the book moves quickly, almost too quickly, towards 9/11. A lot of it is told from the perspective of FBI investigator John O’Neill. There isn’t quite the measured detail here that there is the first part of the book. I felt a little hurried along. Of course, events themselves were rapidly sweeping towards the terrorists’ fearful culmination. But I would have liked to have known somewhat more about how vital information that might have forewarned us got lost in the jostling egos of FBI and CIA operatives. Well, more detail on that score might have made this book too long and was perhaps better saved for separate books.
“Looming Tower” was first published in 2006, and includes an “Afterword” written in 2011. In that afterword, Wright expresses some optimism that a partial, peaceful resolution might be possible – an optimism that unfortunately doesn’t seem justified in light of recent developments.
There’s a map at the front of the book showing Middle East countries’ relationships to each other, and the location of key bases of activity. Wright also provides a list of “Principal Characters” at the back of the book, reminding the reader who’s who. Despite the many names in this book, I found that I didn’t often have to refer back to that reference section. Wright provides such a clear, chronological account, it was easy to keep track of the key players.
There are some great sub-stories intertwined throughout the book, especially about characters such as bin Laden’s father, the rags to riches construction magnate, and the turbulent lives of some of the princes of Saudi Arabia. Wright also intersperses stories of US intelligence efforts to subdue bin Laden, which he ultimately concludes fail because of perpetually elevated walls of miscommunication between the FBI, CIA, and NSA.
One of the more compelling and tragic stories woven throughout is the career and personal exploits of John O’Neill of the FBI. Wright argues that perhaps he alone had the force of personality and passion against terrorism to unearth the towers plot had circumstances been slightly different. Instead, his story ends tragically on 9/11 making his contribution all the more relevant to the books narrative.
This book is especially compelling in light of developments after its publishing in 2006. It would be interesting to see of post-script addressing the “Arab Spring,” the killing of bin Laden, the rise of ISIS, and the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan (maybe my biggest critique would be the way Afghanistan is briefly painted as nearly uncomplicatedly successful, but to be fair addressing those issues would go well beyond the scope of his thesis). If you want to watch the news of today intelligently, this book will give you many foundational narratives to draw from.