Monday, November 19, 2007

The Looming Tower

Perhaps due to GWOT overload, I put off reading the The Looming Tower, despite the high praise and the Pulitzer award. Don't make my mistake, move this one to the bedside table right away. This is the sort of non-fiction that keeps you reading way past a reasonable hour. The book is a personality driven history of the development of Al Qaeda and, to a much lesser degree, the people who tried to warn the US about it.

The main body of the story concerns the intellectual, political and murderous development of Osama Bin Laden and the lesser known but equally important Ayman al-Zawahiri. The two men were competitors for leadership of a Pan-Sunni Islamic movement, but circumstance, and poor decision-making on Zawahiri's part, brought them together, to our despair. Bin Laden comes off as a desert visionary, with little in the way of realism, but with great PR skills. Zawahiri brought the operational focus and helped developed the rationale for mass murder. Author Lawrence Wright clearly describes the philosophical shifts from trying to create more just regimes in the Arab world to a brutal nihilism that made 9/11 seem correct.

The dogged determination to destroy is surprising given how poorly Bin Laden and Zawahiri fared early in their jihadist careers. Their activities in Afghanistan were laughable in their ineptitude and their actions in the 90s almost always went sour. Their persistence and improvement led to the embassy bombings, the Cole and of course 9/11. This strong drive to survive, recoup and destroy is worrisome, because the organization still exists despite being relatively quiet in the past few years.

On the US side, we see the conflict between the flamboyant FBI agent John O'Neill and the aggressive CIA man Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris and other books. The personal conflict between the two is tragic becuase together they might have been able to prepare fror 9/11. Given the organizational conflicts between the FBI and the CIA, which range from legal to cultural, real cooperation might have been impossible anyway.

There are many books about 9/11 available today, but The Looming Tower is probably the best for most readers. The Age of Sacred Terror provides a much richer view of the US governmental response, but is geared towards a more educated audience, and it is quite a bit drier. Ghost Wars is an excellent book, but is focused specifically on Afghanistan and requires more dedication. Ideally you would read all three, and those that have read the latter should also read The Looming Tower, if only to get a better idea of the internal activities of the organization.

No comments: