THE LOOMING TOWER: AL QAEDA AND THE ROAD TO 9/11 BY LAWRENCE WRIGHT KNOPF, 469 PAGES, $27.95
It may seem impious to nominate Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower” as the perfect 9/11 book, in the same way you might hail a Michael Crichton novel as the perfect summer thriller. But I don’t know of a book that does a better job – indeed, a thrilling job – of illuminating the main human factors that went into producing the horrendous attack of five years ago (minus one day).
A staff writer for The New Yorker, Wright has done extraordinary research, interviewing a huge list of the main players on both the jihadist and the American sides.
He also knows how to tell an unflaggingly compelling story, starting with the intellectual roots of al Qaeda, such as they are, in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian radical and literary man hanged by that country’s dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. Wright’s “characters,” chiefly Osama bin Laden and the FBI agent John O’Neill who pursued him, emerge as vividly as any novelist could accomplish with fictional material.
So what or who produced 9/11?
Bin Laden’s hubris and twisted moral vision were obviously essential. But that vision was drawn from a strain in Islam going back at least to the 13th century. It was neither bin Laden nor Qutb who invented the theological rationalization for the slaughter of innocents, including of women and children professing Islam as their faith. That innovation, expressed in a fatwa seven centuries ago, may be traced to a venerated religious scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah. So much for the idea that “Islamism” is nothing more than a modern heresy, deviating from the trunk of classical Islam.
But a certain lack of vision on the American side was also critical to the attack’s success. Wright emphasizes the CIA’s repeated failures or refusals to share critically important intelligence with the FBI, representing “a bizarre trend in the U.S. government to hide information from the people who most needed it.” Which isn’t to say that the FBI itself had the necessary vision of the danger posed by jihadism. The bureau’s director, Louis Freeh, “repeatedly stressed in White House meetings that al Qaeda posed no domestic threats.”
That, in turn, may explain how it happened that under the Clinton administration, the government and military turned down five separate opportunities to seek to kill or kidnap bin Laden. Wright documents all this with clarity and an appropriate dispassion that is nevertheless moving and infuriating.
As we observe tomorrow’s anniversary, the question of whether it could happen again – let’s say, tomorrow – naturally intrudes. One thinks of the eerily prophetic words uttered exactly five years ago, the night of Sept. 10, by Wright’s main protagonist, John O’Neill.
The next day he would die when the World Trade Center, where he had his office after retiring from the FBI a month earlier, collapsed on him. But on Sept. 10 he was carousing with friends at the China Club, a Manhattan nightspot. And as Wright recalls, “O’Neill told his friends that something big was going to happen. ‘We’re overdue,’ he said.”
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.”