Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Book Review: The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright (2006)

In the flood of books written after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower claims a place near the top of the heap in terms of depth, importance, thoroughness, and readability. It joins The Age of Sacred Terror (2002), by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, as an essential book on the topic.

Subtitled Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, The Looming Tower deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. It is a rich historical narrative that traces the emergence of Islamic extremism from its roots in the early 1900's to the fateful fall of 2001.

Author Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University, combines exhaustive research with a wonderful writing style. His research is evidenced by a list of more than 500 people interviewed in preparing this book; a 12 page Bibliography listing more than 200 reference books and documents; and more than 50 pages of Notes. This is as close to an academic study of the events leading up to the attacks of 9/11 as we are likely going to get.

Wright's key challenge is packaging the research into a cohesive and engaging story, and this he achieves brilliantly. The lives of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of modern Islamic extremism; Osama Bin Laden, founder of Al-Qaeda; and Ayman al-Zawihiri, founder of al-Jihad and ultimately Bin Laden's partner, emerge out of the shadows and into full colour. We get to know not only these men, but their homes, parents, wives, children, associates, influences, and evolving motivations.

Key transformational events that lead to the radicalization of Islam's fringes and Al-Qaeda's emergence are revealed. Wright takes us into the key towns, meetings, battles, prisons, interrogation rooms and training camps as critical events unfold over several decades. The environment that surrounded each man and event is brought to life to provide a rich context, and the result is a most well-rounded description of the path to radicalization.

The final one third of the book places Al-Qaeda somewhat in the background, and brings to the forefront the story of the key FBI, CIA, and National Security Council agents who had the best opportunity to stop the attacks of 9/11. Wright excels again by providing a gripping account of the brutal inter-agency battles that prevented the dots from being connected.

Despite the mounting evidence from the brazen attacks on the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole, the lack of cooperation between the FBI and CIA allows Al-Qaeda to proceed virtually unimpeded with the planning and execution of the attacks on US soil. Wright neatly describes all the dots that were available, and reveals the reasons why the connecting lines were never drawn.

FBI agent John O'Neill was one of the few to understand the gravity of the Al-Qaeda threat, and he most ironically died at the World Trade Centre after having retired from the FBI mere days before the attack. He takes centre stage in the story of the counter-terrorism intelligence efforts. Wright succeeds in painting a full portrait of O'Neill's larger-than-life personality, and a career spent battling large bureaucracies, personal enemies and internal demons.

The Looming Tower is a rare achievement: an essential, well-written, multi-dimensional history of critical events spanning several decades and occurring across the globe.

421 pages, plus Principle Characters, Notes, Bibliography, and Index.
Published in softcover by Vintage Books, a division of Random House.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 32.
All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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