Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

I decided to read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright after hearing it recommended several times. The book traces the roots of Al-Qaeda and “the road to 9/11” so it seemed quite relevant to today and the war on terror.

The story starts in November 1948 with an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb. He is on his way to America to study and must decide whether to fit in with the alien culture or stay true to his Islamic beliefs. Focusing on only the worst parts of American culture, Qutb became quite radicalized in his Islamic beliefs. After returning to Egypt and preaching revolution against the moderate Nasser, he was arrested, tortured and eventually killed. He was the first Islamic martyr.

The story continues with Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian born into the middle class, able to see the wealthy but never get there himself. His uncle had been a student of Qutb’s and regaled young Zawahiri with tales of the martyr and his call for purity. 

After becoming a doctor, he was asked to help the Afghan refugees fleeing into Pakistan during the Afghan war in 1980. He made furtive trips into Afghanistan to witness the courage of the Afghan mujahideen personally. After returning home, he began to recruiting brave young Egyptians to join the freedom fighters to defeat the Soviet invasion. For his radical efforts, he too was arrested. But his fame grew and his message spread during his years behind bars. He worked with his fellow prisoners to create a group called al-Jihad which would purify the Muslim world.

Once he was released from the Egyptian prison, Zawahiri moved to Saudi Arabia. Here, the bin Laden family had risen to prominence in the backward, desolate country. The patriarch, Mohammed bin Laden had deep connections to the royal family and subsequently became very wealthy with construction contracts. He took full advantage of the Muslim male’s ability to marry and divorce with ease, fathering 54 children from 22 of his wives. His most famous offspring, Osama, deeply bothered by increasingly modern Saudi Arabia, would go onto a career in terror.

Before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Islamic rebels invaded the newly remodeled Grand Mosque in Mecca. While they were eventually subdued and executed, Osama was inadvertently accused of being one of the rebels. Although the connections of his father and name protected him and he proclaimed his innocence, years later, after joining the holy fighters, he would claim allegiance to those rebels.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri were both drawn to Pakistan to help the Afghan refugees and to see how they could become involved in the struggle. They began working together to recruit young, disaffected Muslim men from all around the region to join them in the fight for Afghanistan. Political and familial obligations kept them for joining the fight directly, but they worked behind the scenes raising money, weapons, and an “army.” Eventually, after engaging in crude training exercises, they tried to slip into Afghanistan and work with the mujahideen, but were ill-treated and humiliated. 

The whole experience left many of them as men without a home. Their native countries did not want these radicalized males in their midst, and the Soviet-free Afghanistan did not welcome them either. They were forced to remain in the caves of Pakistan on the Afghanistan border. With nothing else to do, they began to train even more extensively and organized themselves as a new entity, al-Qaeda.

When bin Laden’s home nation of Saudi Arabia found it necessary to turn to the United States for arms and military help, bin Laden felt further humiliated. He hated America and hated that his nation partnered with the “enemy.” He found America weak and believed he and his men could strike a blow against the United States. 

After a stint in Sudan, a relatively peaceful existence, failed business dealings, and the bombing of a hotel wrongfully thought to be housing American troops, bin Laden and his people realized they needed to become even more radicalized and decided even killing innocents in the name of Islam was permit able. The global terror organization was born. Knowing only America had the capability of stopping their goal of a world-wide caliphate, they turned their sights on the Great Satan. America, around 1995, was clueless. 

With nowhere else to go, bin Laden traveled to the now Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. From his rudimentary abode, and with nothing but failure and humiliation behind him, he plotted war on America. “You are not unaware of the injustice, repression and aggression that have befallen Muslims through the alliance of Jews, Christians, and their agents, so much so that Muslims’ blood has become the cheapest blood and their money and wealth are plundered by the enemies,” bin Laden declared while seeking to build his army.  One person attracted to the training camp was Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. His nephew had bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and he was a wanted man. Americans remained largely unaware and uninterested in the group housed in the caves of Tora Bora. 

Bin Laden did everything he could to scare up some publicity and spin even defeats and humiliations into victories. As various terrorists, trained by bin Laden, or under the influence of Zawahiri in Egypt, engaged in acts of terror, the U.S. finally began paying some attention. However, internal turf wars and ego problems kept those assigned to national security from seeing the whole picture. The bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya got their attention. America’s feeble and failed response of bombing the Pakistan training camp only elevated bin Laden’s position. 

After the wildly successful bombing of the USS Cole failed to spur the U.S. into action, Al-Qaeda began to plan what KSM had dubbed his “planes operation.” The plan was to strike America’s homeland flying hijacked planes. Hints abounded but because the CIA and the FBI, with their different focuses, would not work together, the plan was not discovered. One FBI agent, John O’Neill, did his best to wake up the bureaucracy to the threat al-Qaeda represented. He finally quit on August 22, 2001, and took a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. Only a couple of weeks later, he did not make it out.

As to the importance of bin Laden, Wright states, “At a time when there were many Islamist movements, all of them concentrated on nationalist goals, it was bin Laden’s vision to create an international jihad corps. It was his leadership that held together an organization that had been bankrupted and thrown into exile. It was bin Laden’s tenacity that made him deaf to the moral quarrels that attended the murder of so many and indifferent to the repeated failures that would have destroyed most men’s dreams.” He had the ability to “enlist the imagination of the men whose lives bin Laden required.” Eventually bin Laden would be hunted down and killed by American Navy Seals. But the war with this deadly, yet pathetic bunch of malcontents, continues.

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