2006-12-22 / Community

‘The Looming Tower’ Looms Large As Reading ‘Must’

A Wave Review By Howard Schwach

A Wave Review
By Howard Schwach

If you plan on reading only one book in 2007, make that book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” by Lawrence Wright.

Far from an academic tome, this book reads like a fiction thriller that keeps the reader glued to its pages far into the night.

It is a sweeping narrative history of the events leading to September 11, 2001 and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

It is really, however, the story of four men with a destiny they cannot avoid: Osama bin Laden, the head of Al-Qaeda, a brilliant and remote Moslem nationalist; his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri; the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterterrorism chief, John O’Neill, who tracked Al-Qaeda for years without success, only to retire and go to work in the World Trade Center as its security chief, who died in the attack; and Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence.

The New York Times, in its book review section last week, called this book the best non-fiction book of 2006, a title that is well-deserved.

That article said, “In the fullest account yet of the events that led to that fateful day, Wright unmasks the secret world of Osama bin Laden and his collaborators and also chronicles the efforts of a handful of American intelligence officers alert to the approaching danger but frustrated, time and time again, in their efforts to stop it. Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker, builds his heart-stopping narrative through patient and meticulous accumulation of details and through vivid portraits of Al Qaeda’s leaders. Most memorably, he tells the story of John O’Neill, the tormented FBI agent who worked frantically to prevent the impending terrorist attack, only to die in the World Trade Center.”

A book does not get a review much better than that from the New York Times.

American readers, of course, will be most interested in the stories surrounding O’Neill, who at times seems to be the only man in America who takes bin Laden and his organization seriously.

For example, by April of 1996, most of the American staff in the Sudan mission had been moved out of that nation because of its designation as a “terrorist state.” On his final night in country, the American ambassador, Timothy Carney, met with the vice president. They discussed what could be done to help that nation’s reputation in the world community, and Carney suggested sending bin Laden, already a well-known Moslem nationalist and trouble-maker, back to Saudi Arabia, not that he was welcome in his home nation at the time.

According to Wright, the Sudanese minister met in Virginia about a month later with Carney and CIA operatives. Sudan asked again what it could do to restore its reputation. The Americans gave him a checklist that included expelling bin-Laden and turning over the names of all of the Moslem extremists he had brought with him to Sudan, where he was living.

Sudan told the CIA at that meeting, “We are ready to hand him over to you.”

According to the book, the Clinton Administration “still perceived bin Laden as a wealthy nuisance, not a mortal threat. His name had arisen as a financier of terror mainly because of his support of the blind sheik. There was a consensus that he needed to be pushed out of his sanctuary in the Sudan because that country was overrun with Islamic terrorists. There was no real debate about the consequences of expelling him, however. Nor was there any point in forcing Sudan to hand him over to U.S. authorities because there was no evidence so far that he had harmed American citizens. Administration officials briefly nurtured the fantasy that the Saudis would accept back their wayward son and simply cut off his head.” When Carney asked Sudan to simply expel bin Laden, the minister told him that the extremist would simply go to Afghanistan. “Let him,” was the answer. We all know how that worked out once bin Laden tied up with the Taliban.

The book also sheds lots of light (and heat) on the Moslem take on life in the west in general and America in specific. It also reveals how many of those in the Moslem world look at democracy, something that resonates with what is now happening in Iraq.

Wright says, “For Moslems everywhere, Khomeini reframed the debate with the west. Instead of conceding the future of Islam to a secular, democratic model, he imposed a stunning reversal. His intoxicating sermons summoned up the unyielding force of the Islam of a previous millennium in language that foreshadowed bin Laden’s revolutionary diatribes. The specific target of his rage against the west was freedom. ‘Yes, we are reactionaries, and you are enlightened intellectuals. You intellectuals do not want us to go back 1,400 years.,’ he said soon after taking power. ‘You want freedoms, freedom for everything, the freedom of parties, you who want all the freedoms, you intellectuals, freedom that will corrupt our youth, freedom that will pave the way for the oppressor, freedom that will drag our nation to the bottom.’”

Brilliantly conceived and written by a man who spent two years teaching in Cairo, Egypt, “The Looming Tower” draws all of the elements of the September 11 story into a galvanizing narrative that adds immeasurably to our understanding of what really happened on September 11, 2001.

It is a book that we all should read in order to understand not only the past, but what is happening today and what might happen again in the future.

“The Looming Tower” is published by the Alfred A Knopf publishers in New York City. It is available through internet booksellers, local book stores or by contacting the publisher.

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