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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 Paperback – August 21, 2007
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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.
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This book is a relatively long (about 500 pages in paper version and about 15 hours in...Read more