The Looming Tower

“The Looming Tower,” by Lawrence Wright, which is an account of the rise of Al-Qaeda in particular, and Islamic fundamentalism in general, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for 2007.

I learned a lot of things from this book. For starters, radical Islam has been around for quite a while, starting with the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a scholar who attended school in the United States in the late 1940s. Qutb’s writings excoriated the influences of modernity, specifically secularism, democracy, individualism, tolerances, materialism, mixing of sexes, etc.

Wright recounts the long history of Islamic movements in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, culminating the formation of Al Qaeda in the 1990s, headed by Osama bin Laden. Their philosophy of mass murder of innocents relies on the concept of “takfir,” which essentially says that anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who does not agree completely with the fundamentalists’ particular interpretation of Islam, is an infidel and should be killed. A rather extreme point of view, which has no basis in the Koran but developed later among some radical Muslims.

Wright did exhaustive research for this book (his list of interview subjects takes up seven pages), and it shows in the meticulous detail of his story. For the most part the story moves right along, but it gets bogged down a little in the details of the long series of wars in Afghanistan (against the Russians), where bin Laden and his friends first started to wage “holy war.” As Wright humorously points out, the Afghans actually just wanted Osama and pals to go away because they were such incompetent fighters.

The book also describes, in painful detail, many of the puzzle pieces held by either the FBI, CIA or NSA, who didn’t share information and thus couldn’t put together the big picture of Al Qaeda’s grand plan.

Alongside the chronicle of Al Qaeda's rise, Wright recounts the compelling story of FBI agent John O’Neill and his efforts to track down the terror network. O’Neill was a flamboyant character who juggled relationships with four (yes, four) women at once as he worked long days and nights on the Al Qaeda case. O’Neill, the one person who could have probably put all the pieces together, didn’t get the support he needed and retired from the FBI in August 2001. He took a job as head of security for the World Trade Center and was killed on Sept. 11.

So, it’s not exactly a cheery tale, but it’s definitely worth reading, if you are interested in learning about the factors that led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the people who tried to stop it.