The Looming Tower

by Lawrence Wright

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What roles do leaders in Islamic terrorist groups in The Looming Tower play in shifting focus from near to far enemies?

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Lawrence Wright's argument in The Looming Towers is that, by focusing on the distant enemy (the United States or the West or western society), Jihadist groups hoped to unite all or most Muslims behind them. Most Muslims knew very well the US's role in supporting Israel and brutal dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa. Settling a focus on the "distant enemy" was their attempt to give Muslims of disparate nations and backgrounds a common focus. It dis not work, obviously. Only a very small fraction of Muslims support terrorism. The most devout know the Islamic injunctions against attacking innocents.

Jihadists actually tend to not be very religiously devout. Many are lapsed or non practicing Muslims who often spend their weeks violating the tenants of Islam (drinking, using drugs, and going to strip clubs). The profile of suicide bombers is similar to that of American mass shooters. Most are alienated or failed college age students or have recently lost jobs. However, where American mass killers are usually white supremacists, Jihadist suicide bombers use Islam as a marker of identity, even when they are not devout. They focus on the distant enemy also as a way to situate blame for what they view as their failed life.

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I certainly think that Wright is fairly direct in his suggestion that leadership of a radical Islamist movement played a vital role in moving the shift of in focus to a far enemy perspective.  Wright points out that in 1986, Bin Laden and Zawahiri both collaborate with one another to make clear their agenda of an Islamic leadership sphere from Spain to Asia.  This becomes their goal in moving the focus of the organization and their embrace of terrorism to the "far- enemy."  Even though the United States is not directly identified as the enemy it will become, it is evident that the leadership of these two men played a vital role in moving away from a near- enemy perspective and something more broad.  Perhaps, this becomes a move that the leadership made out of necessity.  Wright makes it clear that it benefited the leaders to focus on the far enemy because of the subtleties and nuanced challenges in focusing on the shortcomings of the Saudi government, spending too much on materialist ends, and on the government of Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Kuwait and the mistreatment of his own Arab people.  The leadership, or those in the position of power in Islamic terror organizations, understood that focusing on the far- enemy could consolidate their power and position in the organization, as well as the vitality of the organization in emphasizing the presence of the far- enemy, even if it was unnamed and unspecified.  In this, the leadership made a tactical decision to move the shift in order to divert from the challenging elements of examining the near- enemy or assessing the failures of Arab leadership, in general.

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