THE LOOMING TOWER: AL-QAEDA AND THE ROAD TO 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (Knopf), 470 pages, $36.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
They say a hurricane hitting the United States begins as a breeze in Africa.
The cataclysmic hurricane of September 11, 2001, grew out of the anti-Western, radical Islamic ideas swirling in the head of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual tortured and hanged in the mid-1960s for opposing the oppressive Nasser regime in Cairo.
New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower - winner of this year's Lionel Gelber Prize for writing on internatinal issues - is a brilliant examination of the decades leading up to 9/11, a story so improbable, savage and sad, it still seems impossible that it happened.
Wright takes the reader from the execution of Qutb into the dark world of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian revolution, the 1979 terrorist attack on and seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and, most importantly, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the CIA-backed mujahideen.
These milestone events form the seeds of the intellectual and religious backlash that facilitated the rise of two of the book's key players, Egyptian radical doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, the outcast terrorist son of a Saudi billionaire.
The war in Afghanistan was the bloody, rich soil in which al Qaeda and other fanatical groups germinated. When that war was over, bin Laden turned his wrath against the United States, believing it could be destroyed if, through increasingly deadly terrorist attacks, he could draw it into Afghanistan, the graveyard of earlier superpowers.
The other main character in this tragedy is John O'Neill, the deeply flawed FBI chief of counter-terrorism who became Washington's Cassandra on al Qaeda. Wright explains how bad blood between the CIA and FBI smothered information-sharing that might have thwarted the attack on the Twin Towers.
Incredibly, O'Neill became head of security at the World Trade Center a few days before the planes struck, and died on 9/11.
This extremely gripping narrative will keep you up late at night reading - and worrying.
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