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Monday, September 5, 2011
Discovering What Everyone Never Remembered (on Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower)
Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden
Lawrence Wright The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)
Perhaps no book more clearly details the US's determination to keep history a secret than Lawrence Wright's brilliant post-9/11 study of the Muslim terrorist world and its interaction with the American FBI, CIA, and other government organizations, The Looming Tower.
Wright begins by lucidly outlining the various terrorist organizations and the individuals who led them, starting with a young Egyptian student studying in the US at what is now the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Sayyid Qutb had mixed feelings in this community, originally planned as a temperance colony by Nathan Meeker. Greeley was a planned community that "would serve as a model for the cities of the future," drawing from the virtues of "industry, moral rectitude, and temperance." Accordingly, Qutb, a devout young Muslim, had, as Wright describes it, "stumbled into a community that exalted the same pursuits that he held dear: education, music, art, literature, and religion." But just as Qutb had found New York life frantic and unfamiliar, he found disturbing forces at work in this small Western Eden as well. Although the community had been founded on prohibition, students in the summer of 1949 could easily procure alcohol for their weekly parties, and Qutb perceived the fall of prohibition an American failure. As a man of color, Qutb witnessed a black man beaten by a white mob, and, although in the summers students from many different racial backgrounds attended, in the regular season there were only a couple of black students, one of whom, Qutb noted could not get a haircut in the local community. At one point, Qutb and a friend were turned away from a local theater because the owner saw them as being black. Although the theater owner ultimately apologized, Qutb refused to return.
Even the sport of football "confirmed Qutb's ideas of American primitiveness," since he felt it less a team sport, like soccer, than a game in which one player attempts to run with the ball, while others try "kicking him in the stomach, or violently breaking his arms and legs...." Women teachers outraged him. Accordingly he returned to Egypt more radicalized in relation to his religion than he left it. Qutb went on to establish the Muslim Brothers, the first of a series of radical reactionary groups against what they felt was Egypt's failure to keep the tenants of the Muslim faith.
The pattern was to become a quite typical one, with many of the well-educated and often wealthy young radicals receiving their educations in the West, opening them to experiences that only hardened them in their beliefs. The fascinating story of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who grew up in a planned community, Maadi, Egypt—that in its conception, at least, was not so very different from Greeley, Colorado—is a high point of the book. With his father working as a doctor and his mother a professor of pharmacology at Ain Shams University, Al-Zawahiri was raised in one of the most liberal and prominent families in Egypt. But as he grew older, Al-Zawahiri, influenced, in part, by Sayyid Qutb's writings, became more and more dissatisfied with the Egyptian government, ultimately creating, along with others, the al-Jihad movement, and involving himself, if only through his friendships, with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat. Through his friendship with Abdullah Azzam Al-Zawahiri was ultimately drawn to Afghanistan, there befriending the charismatic Osama bin Laden.
Wright outlines these and numerous other relationships, introducing us, one by one, to most of the major figures and their families of the Muslin Brothers, Al-Jihad, the Taliban, Al-Queda, and other terrorist groups, including the numerous young, violent, and dissatisfied youths that eventually would make up the growing world-wide attempt to destroy anything American. It is Osama bin Laden, obviously, who through his early financing of terrorist activities and his gathering of many of these forces in Sudan to train them, who is the most fascinating—and puzzling—of figures. Even Wright's extensive presentation of bin Laden's family history and other major Saudi figures reads like an account by T. E. Lawrence. Through bin Laden's machinations, what began as fairly local attempts in the Muslim world to rid individual countries of Western influences, became a general call to destroy what they came to see as the common enemy: the United States.
Through hundreds of interviews gathered over a five-year-period, Wright brilliantly puts all the pieces of the puzzle together, so that the reader can discover that what seems to be a myriad of terrifyingly unrelated events grew, as the millennium approached, into an interwoven skein with the aim of strangling what all Muslim radicals began to see as the cause of all their misfortunes.
Of course, hindsight is always a superior position than that of suffering blindly through history. But how one wishes that minds like Wrights might have been employed in the very organizations whose function it was to piece these threats together! Instead, we are shown American fact gathering organizations such as the CIA, the FBI, and White House itself, begin by doubting any real threat, and later, when it was almost too late to change course, deliberately withholding information from each other. Given a directory intended to protect later court hearings, the various organizations perceived the so called "wall" as a barrier to any shared knowledge. FBI Chief of Counterterrorism, John O'Neil was perhaps the one man who had the tenacity and intelligence to bring the data together that might have saved the nation from the events of September 11, 2001. However, his own often dictatorial methods, his far flung affairs with various women, and even his dashing way of dressing, made for many enemies, including coworkers in the FBI and, in particular, the director, Michael Scheuer, of the so-called Alec Station in the CIA, which was also attempting to track the activities of Osama bin Laden and Al-Queda.
In the rivalry between the two, O'Neill ultimately won, with Scheuer suffering a psychological breakdown. But O'Neill's breaches of security—at one point he had brought one of his mistresses into FBI headquarters and, at another event, his computer, filled with sensitive information, was temporarily stolen—also brought reprimands and possible termination of his job. Yet, even in those difficult days, had the CIA reported to other organizations that Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, both Al-Queda operatives, had entered the US on January 2001, and lived for a while in San Diego, O'Neill likely could have acted, spoiling bin Laden's plans.
O'Neill's abilities are outlined throughout Wright's book, capsualized, perhaps, in his clever extraction of information from figures involved with the bombing of the U. S. Cole without any torture, tracing, with the help of his Yemeni specialist Ali Soufan, the first real connection between the Cole and Al-Queda. But even in Yemen O'Neill was dogged by personality differences, in this case with US ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, who forced him exit the country.
Even as O'Neill was scheduled to leave the FBI to become—in one of the most ironic situations in American history—head of security for the World Trade Center, he sensed something very large was the wind. "We're overdue," O'Neill told friends.
Only a week before O'Neill's retirement, a report from a flight school in Minnesota to the FBI noted that one of their students, Zacarias Moussaoui, was asking suspicious questions about flight patterns and locked cockpit doors. When the agent in Minnesota asked permission to search Moussaoui's computer, he was told he was "trying to get people 'spun up.'" His answer: "I am trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center."
Wright asks several of his interviewees why the CIA had been so determined to keep the crucial information that two Al-Queda operatives had been in the country secret, particularly since the men had been discovered on US soil, where the CIA had no jurisdiction. The answers range from the belief in CIA plans to use them as potential informants to the often stated argument that for legal reasons they simply could share that knowledge. But the truth, perhaps, is what Wright describes simply as the radically different make-up of the two major information-gathering organizations, the CIA consisting of internationally-seasoned individuals who often gathered information as a kind of protective act, using it only behind-the-scenes, so to speak, to influence the actions of other countries. The FBI world, Wright suggests, was made up primarily of Italo-American and Irish-American men, who much like the immigrant communities out of which they came, believed in information as a justification to act; from the earliest Hoover days, as Michael Mann's recent film, Public Enemies, reiterates, they were men of action. Each organization highly suspected (and perhaps still do) the other as being ineffectual. Their failures to work together, however, along with a weak grasp of the situations by the Bush administration—which clearly led to thousands of deaths—should be repeatedly retold and remembered by all.
O'Neill survived the original attack, running, as bodies fell from the towers into the plaza below, to access the damage. He reentered the South Tower, which, a short while later, collapsed, entombing him within.
Los Angeles, July 4, 2009