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Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

(Lawrence Wright)

The Looming Tower

I've plodded through a bunch of books about the War on Terror, by academics and by journalists. This is by far the best. Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker, which is saying a lot, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for this study of the personalities and the feuds that led up to 9/11. Buy it. Read it. Here are some of my notes from my own first read of a book that I will certainly read again:

E. B. White, writing in The New Yorker at the dawn of the atomic age in 1948, noted that for the first time in its history, the city had become vulnerable: "A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers.... In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm." (p.14)

Anti-semitism in Egypt: "in the 1930s, Nazi propaganda on Arabic-language shortwave radio, coupled with slanders by Christian missionaries in the region, infected the area with this ancient Western prejudice. After the war Cairo became a sanctuary for Nazis, who advised the military and the government. The rise of the Islamic movement coincided with the decline of fascism, but they overlapped in Egypt, and the germ passed into a new carrier." (pp.38-39)

Al-Qaeda recruits got $1,000 a month ($1,500 for married men), a round-trip ticket home each year, a month's vacation, a health-care plan, and a buy-out option: if you wanted to leave, you got $2,400 and no hard feelings. "From the beginning, al-Qaeda presented itself as an attractive employment opportunity for men whose education and careers had been curtailed by jihad." (p.142)

Bin Laden's goal from the beginning was to "drag the United States into a war with Islam--'a large-scale front which it cannot control'." (p.172, quoting al-Hammadi, "The Inside Story of al-Qa'ida.")

In 1992, Abu Hajer al-Iraqi (Mamdouh Salim) formalized the jihad with two fatwas, one authorizing an attack on American troops passing through Somalia, the other approving the murder of innocents in the pursuit of the first. Al-Qaeda was no longer an army of mujahideen defending Muslim lands, as in Afghanistan and Chechnya. "The Soviet Union was dead and communism no longer menaced the margins of the Islamic world. America was the only power capable of blocking the restoration of the ancient Islamic caliphate, and it would have to be confronted and defeated." (p.175)

After the fact, bin Laden spoke of the World Trade Center as "those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights and humanity" (p.176, quoting OBL on al-Jazeera, Oct 2001. Note that, to him, liberty and human rights aren't concepts to be admired.)

Omar Abdul Rahman ("the blind sheikh") came to American and issued a fatwa that allowed his followers to rob banks and kill Jews. "He traveled widely in the United States and Canada, arousing thousands of young immigrant Muslims ... against Americans, who he said are 'descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communists, and colonialists'." And the West generallly: "cut the transportation of their countries, tear it apart, destroy their economy, burn their comanies, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air, or land." (pp.176-77, quoting Kohlmann, Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe.)

The actual bomber (1993) was Ramzi Yousef. "It is unclear if bin Laden sent him, but he was a product of an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, where he had learned his bomb-craft." (p.177)

There were 33 American cities that opened branches of bin Laden's and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam's organization, the Services Bureau, to support jihad. (p.179)

One of the al-Qaeda instructors was Ali Mohammed, who had enlisted in the U.S. Army Special Forces with such good effect that he'd taught a course on Middle East politics and culture at Fort Bragg, meanwhile copying the army training manuals at Kinko's. In the Sudan, bin Laden took his first course on surveillance. (p.189)

"This battle is not between al-Qaeda and the U.S. This is a battle of Muslims against the global Crusaders." (p.209, quoting bin Laden on al-Jazeera, Oct 2001)

Bin Laden: "America is a great power possessed of tremendous military might and a wide-ranging economy, but all this is based on an unstable foundation which can be targeted, with special attention to its weak spots. If it is hit in one hundredth of those spots, God willing, it will stumble, wither away and relinquish world leadership." (p.308, quoting Bin Laden's Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice, Feb 2003) Thus the White House, Capitol, and Pentagon were targeted. Kaled Sheikh Mohammed proposed the World Trade Center, which his nephew Ramzi Yousef had tried to bring down. Buildings in Chicago and Los Angeles were also discussed, but bin Laden postponed them.

The management philosophy: "centralization of decision and decentralization of execution" (p.318)

While bin Laden was essentially broke after he was driven out of Sudan, after the USS Cole bombing, "suitcases filled with petrodollars" arrived in Afghanistan "from the Gulf states". (p.331)

No response for the Cole. "Bin Laden was angry and disappointed. He had hoped to lure America into the same trap the Soviets had fallen into: Afghanistan. His strategy was to continually attack until the U.S. forces invaded; then the mujahideen would swarm upon them and bleed them until the entire American empire fell from its wounds.... The declaration of war, the strike on the American embassies, and now the bombing of the Cole had been inadequate, however, to provoke a massive retaliation. He would have to create an irresistable outrage." (p.331)

"Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower" (p.350, passage from the Quran quoted three times by bin Laden in a videotaped speech recovered in Hamburg, seen as directed to the 9/11 hijackers)