The Looming Tower

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a masterful account of the events that culminated in al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. To relate the story as fully as possible, the author, in addition to using available published sources, interviewed over five hundred people. Wright readily admits that The Looming Tower is not the final accounting. At the time of writing, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leaders, were in hiding, and the principal governments involved, notably Saudi Arabia and the United States, had information that has not been made available to Wright or any other investigator of the events of 9/11.

The title The Looming Tower comes from the Qurՙn. After the terrorist attack, in a tape belonging to a member of an al-Qaeda cell, bin Laden urged the future highjackers to embrace martyrdom and recited a passage from the Qurՙn’s fourth sura: “Wherever you are, death will find you,/ even in the looming tower.” In 1996 Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian, openly declared war on the United States. Until then American authorities had largely ignored him, and there was only one FBI agent assigned to the bin Laden threat prior to that year. Hardly anyone in the American government took him seriously.

Wright begins his narrative with Salyyid Qutb, an Egyptian educator who visited the United States in 1948. He became convinced that there was a clash of civilizations between Islam and materialistic cultures, both capitalist and communist. Even contemporary Islam was straying, and Qutb envisioned a restoration of a purer Islam, the Islam of the Prophet Muhammed, who died in 632 c.e. Wright refers to this attitude as the “paradise lost” syndrome. Convicted of involvement in plots against the secular Egyptian government of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Qutb was executed in 1966, but he was an inspiration for later al-Qaeda terrorists, notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, a middle-class Egyptian doctor. In the aftermath of the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1981, al-Zawahiri and others were imprisoned and tortured.

After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Wright reports, many Muslims believed that fighting the Soviets was a religious jihad sanctioned by the Qurՙn. Osama bin Laden, one of fifty-four siblings, was the son of a wealthy contractor for the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. While in college he was influenced by the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Bin Laden was an early supporter of the jihad against the Soviets, raising funds even from the Saudi royal family. Ironically, given what was to transpire, the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations contributed weapons to the fight against the Soviets, a classic example of unintended consequences inasmuch as many of those armed Muslims would become al-Qaeda adherents. In 1986 bin Laden and his family moved to Pakistan, where he became head of a small Arab brigade. Zawahiri also relocated to Pakistan, resuming an earlier relationship with bin Laden. They complemented each other perfectly. Bin Laden had the money and the idealism, Zawahiri had the experience and was a brilliant propagandist. The result was a commitment to global jihad, not just against the Soviets. The goal was to restore the unity of Islam under religious leadership from Spain across Asia to the Philippines. Al-Qaeda was founded in 1988, but bin Laden and Zawahiri had not yet focused on the United States as the principal target.

Wright goes on to discuss the problematic relationship bin Laden had with the Saudi royal family. Although of the puritanical Wahhabi Islam sect, the Saudi royals were widely criticized for their spendthrift habits and playboy activities, and bin Laden became a rallying point against the regime’s materialism. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 created other complications. The royal family was divided on allowing Saudi Arabia to be used by the United States as a staging area in the Gulf War, while bin Laden adamantly opposed any American presence. After radical Muslims came to power in the Sudan, bin Laden moved to Khartoum in 1992. By then America had become the primary enemy, the personification of Christendom and the eternal enemy of Islam. Wright argues that bin Laden and al-Qaeda had little in the way of a political program other than a purified Islam to be achieved through jihad. Bin Laden, believing that America was a toothless tiger, found an example in Somalia, where in the aftermath of the downing of two United States helicopters, President Bill Clinton withdrew Americans from that country.

Because of bin Laden’s support of jihad, his Saudi...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 22 (August 1, 2006): 34.

The Economist 380 (August 5, 2006): 74.

Foreign Affairs 85, no. 6 (November/December, 2006): 174-175.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 11 (June 1, 2006): 566.

Maclean’s 119, no. 38 (September 25, 2006): 84-85.

National Review 58, no. 16 (September 11, 2006): 46-48.

New Statesman 135 (August 28, 2006): 46-48.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 16 (October 19, 2006): 12-15.

The New York Times 155 (August 1, 2006): E6.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (August 6, 2006): 1-9.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 25 (June 19, 2006): 56.