In The Looming Tower (which won the Pulitzer), Lawrence Wright sets out to examine the history of al-Qaeda, the pre-9/11 efforts by the U.S. government to track Al-Qaeda, and how both sides acted in the build-up to 9/11. In so doing, he's written an incredibly comprehensive account that is also reader-friendly; while you'll learn a lot from reading this book, you don't need any kind of background in terrorism or the Middle East or international relations in order to understand it. Wright skillfully combines discussions of 'big-picture' topics (such as the rise of militant Islam) with profiles of individuals to keep the book interesting; he also has included several appendixes. These provide a ten-page list of principal characters (so that if you're not sure who one of the people is, you can easily flip to the back and find out), a little more than fifty pages of notes, a bibliography (especially helpful if the reader decides to pursue the topic in more depth), an impressive list of author interviews (which is followed by a brief note discussing all of these sources), and a comprehensive index. Obviously, this is a heavy-hitting, extensively researched book. There are also pictures of all of the important people Wright profiles to help the reader put a face with each name, because this is also an intensely human book. Throughout the story Wright tells, the reader can see very different people coming up with very different answers to that age-old question: why are we here?
The book can be roughly divided into two parts. The first part focuses on providing the reader with a solid bachground in the origins of militant Islam and al-Qaeda. In fact, the first three chapters are biographies of three key men: Qutb, an Egyptian who became a jihadist and later a martyr in the 1960s; Zawahiri, an Egyptian who co-founded al-Qaeda; and bin Laden. Within these chapters, the reader also learns about the internal politics of two of the most important Middle Eastern countries as far as al-Qaeda is concerned: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Wright helps explain how policies of both governments may have contributed to the radical Islam movement, which is helpful for American readers trying to get a handle on why al-Qaeda is so violently opposed to the West. Also, the chapters bring life in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to vivid life. Wright travelled often in the course of his research, and through his descriptions the reader can also visit the various cities and towns where these men grew up. In a different life, Wright could have been a travel writer.
After these biographies, Wright shifts gears and looks at the larger picture, with two chapters on Saudi Arabia (one in which we meet the spymaster, Turki, who will eventually work against bin Laden, the other focusing on the political and social structure within the Kingdom), the Afghanistan-Soviet Union conflict, the jihadist movement that was based at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the later spread of jihadism throughout the world. At this point, Wright is building up a strong foundation so that when he begins discussing the al-Qaeda attacks, the reader can place them in context. Throughout the chapters, the reader is treated to the same vivid, travel writing-esque descriptions of place, everyday life (we hear about the concerns of several wives of jihadists), and political analysis. Finally, two hundred pages into a four hundred-page book, Wright turns to America and spends a chapter discussing American intelligence agencies - primarily the CIA and FBI - and their early efforts to respond to jihadists. This first part ends with a chapter on bin Laden's life in Sudan.
The second part looks at al-Qaeda's international attacks. This begins in Saudi Arabia in 1995, when al-Qaeda opertives bombed a building housing Americans living in Riyadh. The chapters in this part of the book are less focused: they jump around looking at various players and combine little-picture and big-picture focuses. The in-depth information of the first part allows the reader to follow along with Wright as he tracks al-Qaeda's growing strength and lofty goals. After the Riyadh attacks, the reader learns about the gruesome slaughter at Queen Hatchupset's temple in Egypt, when the militant Islamist Group led by Zawahiri took over the site and murdered every tourist they found; the al-Qaeda-directed bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Addis Ababa in 1998; and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000. Meanwhile, Wright looks at the growing evolution of al-Qaeda itself - how it recruits members, its arrival at a key strategy of suicide bombers, bin Laden's personal life, etc. - and the attempts by the CIA, FBI, and Saudi government to stop it all. While looking at American actions, Wright condemns the policy of the CIA especially ( to a lesser extent the FBI) to withhold crucial information from fellow govenrment agencies. For example, the CIA knew that some members of al-Qaeda, who were later some of the hijackers on 9/11, were in America but failed to tell the FBI. Since the CIA is forbidden to operate on American soil, this essentially meant that al-Qaeda operatives were left alone to carry out their plans without any interference. Wright is not shy about making strong claims: he believes that if the various agencies had fully cooperated, they would have discovered the 9/11 plot and been able to foil it. The last two chapters of the book look at the actual events on September 11, 2001, and their aftermath. They are the most difficult to read as Wright describes in heart-wrenching detail the fear and despair of that day, but once again the reader will admire Wright's skill at bringing images to life.
And so, this is a book with lofty ambitions: to make the reader understand al-Qaeda, the key men behind it, the failures of the American intelligence system, and even the domestic atmosphere of key Middle Eastern countries. Wright lives up to each of these ambitions and surpasses them by making his book consistently compelling and emotional. Highly recommended for every Westerner trying to get a handle on the post-9/11 world.