“The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book for general nonfiction by American author Lawrence Wright. The book was published in the year 2006, five years after the disastrous 9/11 attacks of 2001. Amongst all of Wright’s publications, this book has been the most captivating and the quick seller of its time. It provides a historical and a detailed insight into the back ground of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, founded by Osama Bin Laden and his companions. What was the background of these people, how they have spent their childhood and more importantly how do they get motivated towards forming such an organization that is entirely anti-US and anti-West is the main theme of this book. Also, the book takes a look upon the hard work of intelligence personals, mainly about the heroic attempts of F.B.I. counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, who tried his best to track Al-Qaeda’s activities pre-9/11, but eventually died in the attacks. At the same times, Wright explains intelligence failures to exchange significant information at the required times, which if appropriately done, may have saved the incident.
The book actually extracts information from the interviews conducted by the author in different countries, mainly in Egypt, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, as these were the key areas where these terrorists gathered finances, get trained and finally collected an army of extremely sincere and devoted people, who rendered their lives for their organization. Along with the interviews, Wright has made a thorough research upon these people for five years before writing the book, and thus produced a well-written, well-researched piece of historical background of Al-Qaeda. However, as the book is limited to history and background of the concerning people; it does not contain the preview of exact planning and execution of the 9/11 incident, as it was not one of writer’s objectives of course. What he wanted to write was about how come the leading personnel of Al-Qaeda get to this extent, and he successfully achieved his aim for this book. He starts well from as early as 1940s, and gradually unfolds those entire scenarios that eventually led to the 9/11 attacks. In his approach, Wright is clear and concise and there is no element of racial or religious bias anywhere in the book. The book comprises of eighteen chapters, starting from the time period when Egypt national Sayyid Qutab motivated his people against the colonialism; to the structure, formation and boom of Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization. Aimen Al-Zawahiri was one of the founding leaders who is declared as the official leader of entire Al-Qaeda, after the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Since then, Al-Qaeda has suffered a major sit back and the circumstances are no more in their favor now. US invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq has recorded many incidents of capturing and killing of Al-Qaeda leadership; and now it is almost impossible for them to make a fool out of intelligence agencies again and conduct some mis-happening. In next section, summary of the book is provided, followed by critical assessment and personal reviews about the book.
The book is divided into eighteen chapters; the first chapter is about the religious movement in Egypt against colonialism in late 1940’s, led by Sayyid Qutab. Qutab defined Quran as the ultimate teacher of great moral lessons and rest of the word as illiterates and immoral. Because of his controversial writings and Muslim provoking against White people, he was sentenced to death in 1966, but what he founded provided the legacy to his followers, like Aiman Al-Zawahiri. The second chapter discusses Zawahiri’s background and his initial organizational formations, involvement in Anwar Sadaat’s assassination, and finally his imprisonment and self-exile to Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan. The third chapter discusses Osama Bin Laden in detail; about his family background, education and friendships. Like Zawahiri, Osama was also a great supporter of Qutab, but was much indulged in family and business during that time. Chapter four, five and six discuss events that formed the basis of Al-Qaeda, particularly Soviet Union’s invasion in Afghanistan, in which the locals were greatly supported by the Muslims all over the world. Osama being a rich man initially provided finances and moral support to local fighters, later joined them personally and collected them under one name, Al-Qaeda. Zawahiri, who was residing in Pakistan during that time, also joined the organization. Rest of the chapters describes the extension of organization and joining of other extremists Muslim leaders from countries like Nigeria, Sudan and Egypt. The rise and fall of Osama in his homeland and then exile in different countries is discussed. Finally, his long term stay in Afghanistan is described from where he conducted most of anti-US planning and operations. The efforts of intelligence agencies and their sense of lack of cooperation are also discussed, as one of the core weaknesses whose advantage was taken by Al-Qaeda and Osama, who called the entire West as immoral criminals who must be crushed at any cost. Although intelligence agencies and people like John O’Neill tried hard, Osama and his companions were never captured, and with the great support of Afghan extremist Muslims called Taliban, they executed several attacks against US and West; finally 9/11.
The Looming Tower was a pleasure to read; a book that contains as much information about the master minds of terrorist attacks happened round the globe as one wants to get, more importantly about their family background, their national circumstances and the scenarios that motivated them towards being an extremist Islamic militant. The thing which I liked most about this book is that it provides the basis and information about why people like Qutab, Zawahiri and Osama developed such a hatred for US and move to that extreme extent at which they cared for nothing except to attain their goals by taking the lives of innocent people. Not exclusively them, but a number of those who joined their organization from the countries like Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and finally Afghanistan have almost the same backgrounds, same national scenarios and same motivations therefore. The most crucial aspect which was common in all of them was that they wanted Islam as a sole and only religion to be implemented and practiced in their home countries. Although the countries were already Islamic states, there have been many governmental actions which do not fulfill the exact Islamic requirements of being good governance. For example, it is obligatory on an Islamic government to provide adequate food, living and employment opportunities to all of its citizens. If we take a look at the countries mentioned above, it will come to notice that the governments of these countries are promoting nothing amongst such issues; instead they are motivated to keep their people tormented so that they will not be able to question their governments. Also, Islam presents a model of government led by the most pious people amongst the nation, while the situation is kind of reverse in Saudi Arabia, where there is a hereditary Kingdom and the issue of piousness is out of question. The king and his family do all those things openly that are prohibited in Islam, and there is no one to argue them. Osama and his companions were fad up of this image of government; particularly that is too much friendly with US for making their own personal relationships, without bothering much about what their own people think of them. Similar is the situation in Egypt, and the economical conditions of Sodan and Yemen really need sympathies. In my view, the writer has made his point clear enough in this regard to portrait this group of people as those frustrated ones who tried their best to bring Islamic Revolutions into their homelands, but when find impossible, they used other countries as their basis and directly targeted West and US considering them the only root cause of their problems.
The writing style has also attracted me a lot. As mentioned earlier, Wright has used a series of interviews conducted with different people who were relevant with the desires subject, so that such information would be put forth which is significant and credible. They style is sometimes dialogic, when it is understood that two or more persons have been involved in the conversation, and sometimes it is like talking with one’s own self, when it comes to recalling the memories or taking with own self. That keeps the reader busy and the interest sustained in the book; unlike other books upon the topic that just provide information in a style that is typical with reports and which makes the reader bore at some occasions. For example, in the 1st chapter that describes about Qutab’s internal battle and his tour to US, Wright used the self talking style instead of just narrating what he gathered from sources about the motivational factors of Qutab. “I have decided to be a true Muslim”, that is what Qutab remind of himself, so that he may stay away from all the immoralities that exist in US society. Islam strictly prohibits unlawful sex activities in the society, and suggests brutal executions for them who perform it, so as to eradicate the immoral activity completely. That is why Qutab reminded himself to be a true Muslim and to follow the exact guidelines of Islam. In its own teachings, Islam is not an extreme religion; rather it condemns un-peaceful activities and causing harm to someone without any proper justification. But as these people cannot act upon the exact teachings of Islam, they modified it in their own way, which is very concisely presented in the book.
The only thing with which I disagree with the author is the title. According to Wright, he takes the title “The Looming Tower” from one of the quotations by Osama Bin Laden, when he was at a wedding prior to 9/11 attacks. Osama quoted from Quran that: “Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower”. The quotation is in the form of verse 78, Surah 4 in Quran and is not actually depicting any looming towers particularly; rather it is about those people who do not believe that Allah is the only one Who grants life and awards death. The actual verses are as: “Wherever you are, death will overtake you, though you are in lofty towers, and if a benefit comes to them, they say: This is from Allah; and if a misfortune befalls them, they say: This is from you. Say: All is from Allah, but what is the matter with these people that they do not make approach to understanding what is told (them)?” It is clear from the verses that the word “Lofty” or “Giant” is just used to describe the severity of death, not for those who will surely die in huge towers. If Osama really quote this, then it is not analyzed by the writer in its actual context and this refers to other misunderstandings too from the audio and video clips. It is usual to happen that words get changed in meanings when translated from one language to another, and for good analysis, the advice from experts of both languages must be taken. It will then become easier to understand and write according to the actual context. Although the entire book has an unbiased tone, the title seems to be somewhat religion biased, as if according to writer, the quotation is from Quran, then he should not make a title out of it. It makes an impression that writer is also somewhat extreme in his religious approach against Islam and Muslims, and try to sooth himself by making a title from the Holy book of Islam.
The book provides an in-depth insight into the historical background of those persons who were involved in the planning and executing of 9/11 attacks, mainly Al-Qaeda persons. As the book is highly knowledgeable, it is a must read for all those who are the students of American History, as well as those who relates with religious studies. The book is a good piece of writing and presentation as well, captivating and promising to provide exact details about the leaders of Al-Qaeda, their background and organizational movements with the passage of time. On the whole, the book is a must read!
Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al-qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.