Lawrence Wright

The Looming Tower

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The Looming Tower Summary

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The Looming Tower is a 2006 non-fiction work by Lawrence Wright. Wright builds a historical perspective on the birth and growth of the militant terrorist organization Al Qaeda, profiling the various terrorist attacks it aided or helped carry out. The book also explores the different ways each terrorist attack was investigated, focusing centrally on the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Wright was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2007 for his depth of research.

The story begins with a profile of Sayyid Qutb, an educator and intellectual leader in the Islamist movement. Wright recounts how a stint in the United States in the years following World War II radicalized him. He was later jailed by the regime of Gamal Nasser, elevating his stature to martyr to the Egyptian revolutionary movement.

Wright then outlines the radicalization of another terrorist leader in Nasser’s wake: Osama bin Laden. Heir to a huge fortune in Saudi Arabia, he was once a shy child who loved American television. Allegedly first radicalized by a charismatic gym teacher from Syria who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood group, bin Laden grew into a solemn and highly religious teenager.

The second formative stage in bin Laden’s life began in the 1980s when he met Mr. Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor. Both charismatic and full of malice as a result of being tortured in Egyptian prisons, Zawahri cast himself as a protector figure for bin Laden, cultivating his political beliefs and closing him off within a team of bodyguards. Given this evidence, Wright argues that had bin Laden not met Zawahri, he might have gone on to build a benevolent and peaceful political future. Apparently hesitant, it was at Zawahri’s direction that bin Laden conceded to the plan of utilizing biological and chemical weapons to join Al Qaeda and force political change.

Later, living in Sudan while exiled from Saudi Arabia, Wright argues that bin Laden hesitated to stay on his radical trajectory, considering quitting Al Qaeda to become a farmer. It appears that continuing US military occupation in Saudi Arabia aggravated bin Laden’s internal struggle; the movement of troops into Somalia in 1992 also put pressure on Al Qaeda to fight back against being surrounded. In 1992, Al Qaeda underwent a transformation from what bin Laden once had envisioned as an anti-communist Islamic army, into a bona fide terrorist organization targeting the United States.

Wright provides an account of the day-to-day life at Al Qaeda’s training camps during this period. He argues that intelligence narratives provide evidence that bin Laden did not oppose the United States’ ideology or culture, but rather opposed its military occupation in the Islamic world. One example he provides is an account of bin Laden allowing his sons to play American video games, as well as instances where trainees watched Hollywood movies at night. There is also evidence that his wives were well socialized and educated; one of them held a degree in child psychology; another enjoyed beauty products from the United States.

Wright concludes with a general argument that the FBI, CIA, and NSA failed to share critical intelligence information with each other, and that their derelictions of duty are numerous and well-documented. He criticizes both the Bush and Clinton administrations for making terrorism a low priority during a critical period in terrorist groups’ development. Certain attacks that the United States made were poorly planned and actually strengthened their targets’ influence: namely, the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that intended to kill bin Laden, which, instead, turned him into a celebrity. Failing repeatedly to drive U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, and needing to galvanize more terrorist factions rapidly, bin Laden resorted to the events of 9/11 to provoke massive retaliation.

Wright concludes his book on a somewhat pessimistic note, but one that carries the hope of finding a new solution: the War on Terror is the exact type of asymmetrical war bin Laden desired; a kind of identity politics fed by continual brute retaliation from the U.S. Coupled with deep research, his analysis offers a compelling take on the origins of the predominant terrorist groups that exist today, asserting that the United States’ current strategy will remain insufficient until reexamined.