Eve of Destruction

Lawrence Wright on 'The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11'

Eve of Destruction
Photo By Traci Goudie

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Knopf, 470 pp., $27.95

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Austin author Lawrence Wright (Remembering Satan, God's Favorite) went to his editor at The New Yorker and asked to be put on the job. Now, as we near its fifth anniversary, Knopf is releasing Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, a history of the Islamist movement and al Qaeda up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Through countless interviews and tireless research, Wright weaves a fascinating tale that outlines the history of the movement while also uncovering the failures within the American intelligence community that allowed it to move in the first place.

Austin Chronicle: You've mentioned the poor research and reporting regarding al Qaeda up to this point. Was this book a mission to get the truth out?

Lawrence Wright: Yeah, I wasn't sure at the time that anybody else could be trusted to do it. I'm not saying that out of pride, I just knew that it was really important to me. The thing is, now I know there are several other really good reporters that have been working on this, and we're all friends now, although we're competitors. Steve Coll that wrote Ghost Wars, who is now a colleague of mine at The New Yorker; Peter Bergen who is the CNN terrorism consultant. They've both done terrific work on this. I felt that I wanted to make a commitment to this, and I didn't know if anybody else was going to give the same level of commitment.

AC: Not many people know the name Sayyid Qutb, whom you point to as being the founder of the modern Islamist movement. Do you see parallels between Qutb and other philosophical and political leaders?

LW: It's interesting how everything always goes back to a book. Marxism, even the Animal Rights Movement, at the base of it, there is a book. And the book that Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri and all the Islamist leaders read was Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq, which is Milestones or "Signposts Along the Way." It was written by Sayyid Qutb, who was imprisoned at the time in Egypt. He had come to America in 1948, and at that time America's standing was really high, especially in the Arab world, and he spent two years in the U.S., a good part of it in a little town called Greeley, Colorado. He hated the whole American scene. He had many complaints about it, ranging from racism to the way the barber cut his hair. Then he went home and wrote some very influential articles. His experience is kind of a template for a lot of the hijackers and the Islamists who discovered themselves as radical Islamists in the West. Nassar hanged him in 1966, but by that time he had written this tract, which spilled out all over the Islamic world with his views about how Islam had been corrupted by modernity in the West, and in order to redeem it – in order to provide salvation for mankind – Islam itself had to be redeemed and purified, and it could only be done by expelling and killing the leaders who were not real Muslims, restoring the caliphate, and bringing Islam into the center of people's political and social lives in a way that it hadn't been since the time of the prophet. And it was his vision of a vanguard of radical Islamic youth that became the mission statement for al Qaeda

AC: Bin Laden has always stated his reasons for hating the United States. Among them are the presence of U.S. troops on the Arabian peninsula, U.S. support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the two wars in Iraq. You point to an incident in 1991 when the U.S. military stepped in front of bin Laden's plan to defend Saudi Arabia from a possible Iraqi incursion. How much did that specific event feed into that, and was it a turning point for him?

LW: At that point he had just come from Afghanistan where he was taking credit for bringing down the Soviet Union. At the time he thought of al Qaeda as a Muslim Foreign Legion, which could go off and defend Muslims who were in jeopardy wherever they might be and could fight communism – he was really an anti-communist. He had a small army, but he didn't have an enemy, because the Soviet Union had just dissolved. He thought he could put al Qaeda to work defending Saudi Arabia, and they laughed at him. What was this small ragtag group of volunteers and fanatics going to do against the million-man army of Iraq? That hurt his feelings, but it was the fact that they turned to America to defend the Saudi people that really turned him against the royal family and directed his interest toward the U.S. On his deathbed, the Prophet said, "Let there be no two religions in Arabia," and at the time there were many religions in Arabia, Christians and Jews among them. Many people take that statement to mean that he was only talking about the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but bin Laden and other Islamists take it quite literally to mean that there should be no one on the entire Arabian peninsula that is not Muslim, and to turn to a foreign army that is largely Christian and invite them in to defend a Muslim land was a heretical action from his point of view; it turned him against the royal family and caused him to recalibrate his sights and turn his attention to America.

AC: You talk a lot about bin Laden's humble, gentle nature. How has that helped him be an effective leader?

LW: It's a combination of his shy and disarming character that he has, plus his reputation for great wealth. And the fact that he's a Saudi, which in the Muslim world has a certain extra standing. Saudis are seen as the pious guardians of the holy places. So there's an extra degree of prestige that is connected with being a Saudi. Plus, being rich and not having to subject himself to the amazing deprivation that the jihadis experienced in Afghanistan added immensely to his legend. For Saudis in particular, bin Laden is an archetype. He represents the way Saudis like to think of themselves: austere, laconic, and able to move around in a spare way, living life very modestly the way their ancestors did. Now, the Saudis are rich, they go to malls, they drive Mercedes, and there's a historic memory of the desert people of their world, of how they lived on dates and camel's milk. They fought constantly in tribal wars, and that's their historic memory. Bin Laden embodies that.

AC: Do you think bin Laden intentionally helped Bush win in 2004 by appearing on tape the week before the election?

LW: I called his brother-in-law, Jamal Khalifa, after bin Laden made that tape, and he said, "I think Osama just voted for Bush!" [laughs]

AC: How has the American agenda in the Middle East aided bin Laden's agenda of global jihad?

LW: The rise of Islamic extremism has fed off of American policies. Not to say that it might not have arisen in any case. It was looking for an excuse, and it was able to attach itself to American behaviors. When bin Laden attacked America beginning in 1998, with the embassy bombings in East Africa, he had a goal, which was to get the U.S. to strike back. He wanted to lure the Americans into Afghanistan, which he saw as a big trap, and create another jihad in Afghanistan, which brought the Soviet Union to its knees, hoping the Americans would fall for the same trick. In response, we sent a bunch of cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan, missing him and making him a far more heroic figure in much of the Muslim world than he had been before. So we actually elevated him in terms of prestige and failed to do anything in terms of really dealing with the threat that he and al Qaeda represented. In fact, in the Cole bombing in October 2000, we didn't respond at all. So really at that point, bin Laden had failed in his real mission to get the U.S. to attack in Afghanistan. He had to create some further outrage, and 9/11 was that. And I think he overdid it. I don't think that anyone in the inner circles of al Qaeda realized the damage would be as catastrophic as it was or that the American response would be such an overwhelming one. And it turned out that Afghanistan was not the secure redoubt that he imagined it to be. What is happening now in Iraq is more what he had in mind.

AC: At this point, are we better off with bin Laden alive or dead?

LW: Bin Laden is a unique figure in the radical Islamist world, and there is no question in my mind that we would be better off with him gone. He's an irreplaceable asset, he's got great charisma, and there's nobody else in the entire movement that speaks with the kind of authority he does. The theme now in al Qaeda is "leaderless resistance." So any number of freewheeling cells spring up and act on their own authority, but none of them can bring the kind of planning and training that the al Qaeda mother ship created to start with.

AC: So, at this point, do you think he's more of a figurehead or an operational leader?

LW: He's an inspirational leader. But I wouldn't discount the idea that they are still operating. Clearly, they are able to get out video tapes and direct operations around the world. So they're not so incapacitated as some people would like to think. There is no doubt in my mind that their intentions are to create new outrages in order to promote this clash of civilizations that is an essential part of bin Laden's game.

AC: But if he did die, by whatever means, don't you think his martyr status would create an inspirational mythos around him?

LW: I do think that his death would create a chaotic and spontaneous reaction among a lot of radical cells around the world. I also think that it would be very difficult for the movement to replace him. Who would be the central authority? Can you name others?

Eve of Destruction

AC: Zawahiri?

LW: Zawahiri has always had a problem with not being able to be the leader himself. He had his own terrorist group, al Jihad, and it was constantly stumbling from one barrier to another, and it was full of disaffected elements that were constantly fighting each other. He was never a strong leader, but he is a brilliant manager, and I think of his relationship with bin Laden being kind of like that of Colonel Parker and Elvis. Colonel Parker can't take the stage, but he knows how to manage his property, so he does a wonderful job of stage-managing bin Laden, and he tells Bin Laden, to some extent, what to think and what to say. For instance, he wrote the declaration of 1998, which unified all these different radical elements into a war against the U.S. He's a very powerful intellectual.

AC: Why can't he just find someone else to spew the rhetoric?

LW: It's not just rhetoric. There's an element of charisma, and it's a difficult quality to find. There aren't that many charismatic leaders that are able to summon up thousands of people who are willing to die. So, to start with, bin Laden is a unique personality. Secondly, there aren't that many contenders for the throne, especially after the death of Zarqawi, and Zawahiri has proved that he is not an effective and appealing leader. I know that the CIA is trying to determine how to handle bin Laden's death or his capture. What to they do? Suppose they capture him, is that worse than having killed him? It poses a real problem because, for one thing, there's the threat of mass kidnappings to try to redeem him or trade for him. You can imagine miserable scenarios where hundreds and hundreds of children are captured, or something like that. There's no limit to what kind of barbarity might be perpetrated. My personal feeling is that I would like to see him captured and put on trial. But I'd like to see it in Kenya, where he killed 280 people and where he really first began his campaign. One hundred fifty people were blinded by that explosion. I'd like to see a parade of 150 blind people and the relatives of all the people who died and end this in the place where it began and take the onus off of America versus Islam. Just look at the damage to the people he's done all over.

AC: It's been said that George W. Bush has a "daddy complex." Would you say the same about Osama bin Laden and his famous father?

LW: Yeah. I think you can't understand Osama without understanding his father, what a potent figure he was, and what a legend. He was this one-eyed Yemeni laborer who came into the kingdom in 1932 and worked as a bricklayer and then got a job working for Aramco doing contracting work. He grew to become the biggest contractor in Saudi Arabia and built much of modern Saudi Arabia. He renovated the mosques and the holy places. He built the highways and the airports. He's just such a stunning story. This is a guy who had nothing, walked in across the desert floor, and became the head of a billion dollar company. So, Osama grew up in the shadow of this father that he didn't know very well – he was one of 54 children – and his father died when he was 9. He idolized him. He dropped out of school to go to work for the family company because he wanted to make his mark, and he wanted to be like his father. It is an irony that his father was famous for construction and he's famous for destruction. He was like his father – a business man and a leader. He brought to the world of terrorism a level of managerial expertise that had never been applied.

AC: You cite many occasions where pre-9/11 intelligence between the FBI and the CIA failed to connect the dots, such as the CIA's failure to disclose the existence of an al Qaeda sleeper cell in California to the FBI. How much of this failure to communicate can be attributed to bad blood between the agencies, and how much of it was simply bureaucratic red tape?

LW: Well, it's almost impossible to extricate the two, but there was a lot of unprofessional turf rivalry, and I think that had our intelligence community worked together, 9/11 could almost certainly have been prevented. The CIA knew about the presence of two al Qaeda members in the U.S. 19 months before 9/11, plenty of time for the FBI to investigate them, follow them, [track] their computer, tap their phone, all they things they could have done and actually had the authority to do – because it could have all been folded in under the bin Laden indictment – and they had the legal authority to go after these people. The fact that the CIA withheld that information is probably the single most damaging action in the failure to prevent 9/11. It's possible that they could've informed the FBI and 9/11 would've still happened, but that's certainly the best chance you had. A lot of people in the CIA hated [the FBI's] John O'Neill and wanted to keep him out of the case. Also, it was bureaucratic because the CIA, in general, has a contentious relationship with the bureau. They've always struggled over the question of who should really control terrorism in the U.S. It's a longstanding turf war.

AC: Have things gotten any better since then?

LW: I think things have just gotten worse. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security by an administration that's not interested in government creates a handicapped, ineffectual organization without a clear mandate. The creation of this new Director of Intelligence Office hasn't straightened out the lines of authority, it's just added another bureaucratic lookaway. I think things have gotten more confused and less clear-sighted than they were in the past.

AC: The power vacuum in Iraq has created another fertile breeding ground for radical terrorism. How has the war in Iraq aided al Qaeda's cause?

LW: We've certainly created a huge zone of attraction for potential jihadis who are flooding in there from the surrounding Islamic countries and from Europe, as well. It has been another recruiting ground for al Qaeda and, in many ways, far larger and more fertile than Afghanistan. That's not to say that al Qaeda has succeeded in Iraq. Al Qaeda has problems in Iraq just like the U.S. has problems. We don't tend to look at their problems, but there are diaries of jihadi fighters in Iraq who are very discouraged about how the Iraqis don't welcome them and how they don't appreciate what they're trying to do. On balance, when Zarqawi was at his prime, bin Laden and Zawahiri were alarmed by his behavior and the fact that he was aggravating the schism between the Sunnis and the Shia in a place in Iraq where the Sunnis had no chance of succeeding. Al Qaeda is a strictly Sunni organization, and until now, bin Laden and Zawahiri have always been very cautious not to pick on the Shia. It was their goal to unify Islam and to reinstitute the caliphate. There are several letters in which Zawahiri chastises Zarqawi, saying, "What are you up to? This business of cutting people's heads off is giving us bad press." Iraq, on balance, is going to leave a terrible legacy for us to deal with for a long, long time.

AC: Is this ongoing conflict a holy war and a clash of civilizations, or simply a power grab on our end for natural resources and global hegemony while using bin Laden, Hussein, and the Islamic world in general as the erstwhile boogeymen, or both?

LW: As for our actions in the Middle East – we've got a lot to answer for. It's all generated by a dependence on foreign oil. It's not just an American need, but the Western world, the developed world, the industrial world, needs a stable supply of oil, which is what industry runs on. There is a geo-strategic need for a steady, reliable supply of petroleum. Even at the heightened price levels like we have now, as long as the oil keeps flowing, the West will continue to pay. I'm convinced, for instance, that our invasion of Iraq had a lot to do with trying to get a second reliable petroleum-supplying American ally. I think the geo-planners in the White House looked at the long-term stability of Saudi Arabia and wondered if they would still be there, and the second-largest petroleum reserves are in Iraq. So maybe the collateral advantage of invading Iraq, and installing what they expected would be a democratic government, would be another reliable source of oil that wouldn't be run by one of these regional hegemons like Saddam Hussein. Until such time as the industrial world can find another source of energy, I have a feeling we're going to be chained to the region. We really are over an oil barrel, and there are real consequences of trying to control it, and there are also potential consequences for letting it spiral out of control.

AC: How significant was the recent disbanding of CIA's Alec Station?

LW: I think it was an admission of failure. I don't think it can be read any other way. Bin Laden has become a worldwide phenomenon, and the truth is they failed in their mission. The continued existence of a whole CIA virtual station dedicated to the elimination of one man demonstrated how the CIA was failing and failing and failing. Clinton gave them the order in 1998 to "take this man out," and in a couple of years al Qaeda will celebrate its 20th anniversary. So I think the CIA looks at that and thinks that having this station is a rebuke in the eyes of the intelligence community.

AC: You state that Clinton called for bin Laden's assassination. Why didn't they or couldn't they?

LW: They had a couple of really good opportunities where they could have killed him, but they would have killed a lot of other people, too. Michael Scheuer, who was the head of Alec Station, was furious on one occasion. There was a gathering of Emirate princes where they were meeting with bin Laden in southern Afghanistan, and there was a pretty clear sign that bin Laden was most probably there, not a hundred percent, but most probably there, so Scheuer and [George] Tenet went to see [Richard] Clarke, who had just come back from the [United Arab Emirates], where he has a lot of friends and had just sold a big American defense consignment worth billions of dollars worth of war planes, so they had a reason to be sensitive to the fact that there might be several hundred dead princes scattered around in the sand. We would have got bin Laden, but at what cost?

AC: Do you think Europe should be worried about the rise of Islam on its turf?

LW: Yes, I do. You can understand why Europe feels so threatened. The number one name for a child born in Belgium now is Mohammed. In 20 years, there will be more Muslims in Holland than there will be native Dutch people. So, Europe does feel overwhelmed. It feels very threatened by this invasion. And of course, the situation is one that the Europeans have brought on themselves by this kind of unconscious decision not to reproduce. You have welfare societies greatly dependent on immigrant workers, and the most easily accessible ones are Muslims. That creates the situation they have over there. They are disaffected, they are alienated, and they don't fit in to European society, which is rather closed to them. Europe doesn't define itself in the same multicultural, multi-ethnic way that America does. That's why America is not threatened in the same way. People ask, "Why do they hate us? Because of who we are, or what we do?" In the case of America, it's because of what we do. Our policies have aggravated a lot of extremist elements, which are eager to be aggravated, and they've seized on things we've done. In Europe, it's because of who they are. It's because they feel that their own identities are threatened. They're not accepting these Muslim immigrants into their communities in the same way that the Muslims and Arabs have been allowed to become Americans, they have not been able to become Dutch. That's a real existential problem. Diversity is what defines us, and I think it's going to take awhile for Europe to understand itself.

AC: Is this World War III?

LW: I don't know. I think the Middle East periodically comes to some sort of violent orgasm like it seems to be in right now, and it often threatens to spin out of control, but then it doesn't. That doesn't mean the past can predict. I think I'm pessimistic about the long-term future of Israel. Just imagine right now, Hezbollah is able to lob these rockets to the suburbs of Tel Aviv that have 200 pounds of explosive in them. Suppose they had a dirty bomb – and that's not a stretch. The whole of Israel would be under attack in an existential way, and it would be very difficult to respond with 240 nukes, to know exactly how to defend itself. I despair over the fact that Israel cannot think strategically. It only thinks in minute-to-minute tactics. It doesn't seem to have a long-term strategic goal for survival. The Arab and the Iranian regimes have a strong interest in prolonging the conflict. It's very striking to me that this whole episode that we're in right now comes just at the moment when the Palestinian people were about to vote for a two-state solution. They were going to vote for peace. But there are all these different factions in the region that have no interest in peace at all, and they systematically undermined the process. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Taylor Holland
Exploring the McNeil Crossing Strip Mall
Exploring the McNeil Crossing Strip Mall
Exceptional forays into Indian and Vietnamese cuisine, plus a short trip to Subway

April 12, 2024

The Strip Club: Lake Creek Festival Shopping Center
The Strip Club: Lake Creek Festival Shopping Center
Sampling noodles, shoes, salsa, and silencers at the Northwest Austin strip mall

Feb. 23, 2024


Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower:Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9 / 11, Knopf

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle