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The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 Paperback – August 21, 2007
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“Marvelous. . . . Not just a heart-stopping account of the events leading up to 9/11, written with style and verve. . . . A thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“At once wrenchingly intimate and boldly sweeping in its historical perspective. . . . A narrative history that possesses all the immediacy and emotional power of a novel.”
—The New York Times
“A stunningly well-researched opus that puts the catastrophe in vibrant context.”
“Lawrence Wright’s book is my new touchstone. None of the previous books led me to say ‘Aha, now I think I understand’ as frequently.” —Steve Weinberg, The Boston Globe
“Should be required reading for every American; yes, it is that good. It is hard to imagine a better portrait of 9/11 and its causes emerging anytime soon.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“Powerful and important . . . a history of a man and a movement, replete with the accidents of history and historic inevitability.” —Kevin Horrigan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Don’t read The Looming Tower in bed. This book requires a straight spine and full attention . . . The reporting is so good that it will matter in 100 years. Wright’s determined, disciplined work has made his book indispensable. “ —Karen Long, The Plain Dealer
“A page-turner . . . encompassing religion, politics, economics and more. If you’ve been meaning to sharpen your understanding of what all led up to September 11, 2001, then Wright may have written just what you’ve been waiting for.” —Tom Gallagher, San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliant . . . describes the contorted intellectual journey that has taken place among some Muslims which allows a holy book that appears to condemn suicide and the killing on innocents to be used to justify catastrophic terrorism.” —Stephen Fidler, Financial Times
“A magisterial, beautifully crafted narrative . . . This focus on character, along with Wright’s five years of fierce on-the-ground reporting (he lists 560 interviewees), pays off.”
—Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Los Angeles Times
“Deeply researched . . . immaculately crafted.”
—Peter Bergen, The Wall Street Journal
“What a riveting tale Lawrence Wright fashions in this marvelous book. ‘The Looming Tower’ is not just a detailed, heart-stopping account of the events leading up to 9/11, written with style and verve. [It’s] a thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11, and of their progeny who bedevil us today. The portrait of John O’Neill, the driven, demon-ridden F.B. I. agent who worked so frantically to stop Osama bin Laden, only to perish in the attack on the World Trade Center, is worth the price of the book alone. ‘The Looming Tower’ is a thriller. And it’s a tragedy, too.”
–Dexter Filkins, The New York Times Book Review cover
“Dozens of intricately reported books about 9/11 are already available; I had read perhaps half of them [before] starting The Looming Tower. But Lawrence Wright’s book is my new touchstone. None of the previous books led me to say ‘Aha, now I think I understand’ as frequently.”
—Steve Weinberg, The Boston Globe
“A magisterial, beautifully crafted narrative . . . This focus on character, along with Wright’s five years of fierce on-the-ground reporting (he lists 560 interviewees), pays off.” —Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Los Angeles Times
“Deeply researched . . . immaculately crafted.” —Peter Bergen, The Wall Street Journal
“A searing view of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, a view that is at once wrenchingly intimate and boldly sweeping in its historical perspective . . . a narrative history that possesses all the immediacy and emotional power of a novel, an account that indelibly illustrates how the political and the personal, the public and the private were often inextricably intertwined.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Important, gripping . . . One of the best books yet on the history of terrorism.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Lawrence Wright provides a graceful and remarkably intimate set of portraits of the people who brought us 9/11. It is a tale of extravagant zealotry and incessant bumbling that would be merely absurd if the consequences were not so grisly.”
"Lawrence Wright's integrity and diligence as a reporter shine through every page of this riveting narrative."
—Robert A. Caro
“A towering achievement. One of the best and more important books of recent years. Lawrence Wright has dug deep into and written well a story every American should know. A masterful combination of reporting and writing.”
“Comprehensive and compelling…Wright has written what must be considered a definitive work on the antecedents to 9/11…Essential for an understanding of that dreadful day.”
--starred Kirkus review
About the Author
Lawrence Wright graduated from Tulane University and spent two years teaching at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law. The author of five works of nonfiction—City Children, Country Summer; In the New World; Saints and Sinners; Remembering Satan; and Twins—he has also written a novel, God’s Favorite, and was cowriter of the movie The Siege. He and his wife are longtime residents of Austin, Texas.
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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.
Al Qaeda and al-Jihad were both poorly operated and barely competent. But they survived early mistakes because the US had very little cooperation between the CIA, FBI, and State Department. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda could have been stopped. But the big three in the US were just as bumbling and stumbling as Bin Laden and his network were in the 1990's, albeit for different reasons. The rivalry between the CIA, FBI, and US State Department was a deadly one. It allowed Bin Laden's network to continue to thrive. The CIA committed the gravest sin because they had the pieces of the puzzle that would have destroyed Bin Laden and his network. But they refused to share this info with the FBI and US State Department, and our country paid a heavy price for it.