Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book Review: The Looming Tower

Last night we had the first Commentarama Book Club. We read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, a book about the creation of Al Qaeda. You should read this book. It’s truly eye-opening.

Written by Lawrence Wright, a journalist who spent years teaching in Egypt, The Looming Tower tells the story of the birth of Al Qaeda up through the events of 9/11. To write the book, Wright conducted hundreds of interviews in the United States, Europe and throughout the Middle East. . . and it shows. The Looming Tower contains a wealth of information, much of which you have never heard before. Indeed, this is a gripping story with amazing revelations.

The book begins with the story of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian educator and the intellectual founder of what we consider militant Islam. And right out of the gate, the book smacks you with some fascinating information. Qutb, who would lay the foundations for the struggles that followed, wasn’t radical when he lived in Egypt. . . he became radical when he came to Fort Collins, Colorado to study. Much of Qutb’s motivation, by the way, appears to be a twisted response to an inability to relate to women -- a hang-up that has driven many of history’s crackpots and serial killers.

From there, the book takes you through Nasser’s rule in Egypt and how he and the Muslim Brotherhood became enemies. Interestingly, this introduces a repeating theme throughout the book as various governments try to exploit the radical fundamentalists, only to find that they ultimately lose control of these movements. Indeed, if there is one lesson to be taken from this book, it is that these radical movements would be nothing more than minor nuisances if it weren’t for regional governments trying to exploit them.

From Egypt, we move to the Afghan war. The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan became a holy war, with the faithful pouring into Afghanistan to defeat the atheist Soviets. Critically, most of these fighters came to Afghanistan because they were encouraged to go by their governments. Regional governments used the Afghan war as a way to dump their troublemakers, hoping they would all get themselves killed. But they weren’t killed, and this left an army of malcontents, with combat experience, who would soon find themselves without a home. They were a ripe for recruiting by the terrorists.

This is where we meet Osama Bin Laden. He spent several years in Afghanistan and became a hero with many followers. After the war, he returned to Saudi Arabia, where his family is quite wealthy. Interestingly, he is not. He was worth only about seven million dollars at the time and he relied on a stipend from his family to pay his bills.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden went to the Saudis and promised to bring his Afghan followers to the peninsula to defend the Kingdom. They turned him down and instead called the Americans. Indeed, the Saudis viewed Bin Laden as insane for thinking that 70,000 Afghan could stand up to Saddam’s million man modern Army. Bin Laden viewed this as an insult and become incensed about the presence of American troops. Soon, he and the Saudi royal family were at war. . . though the Saudis refused to put an end to him.

Bin Laden moved to Sudan, where he and Al Qaeda turned themselves into a terrorist organization. At this point, we learn some fascinating facts that you will not have heard before. Bin Laden is not a very good businessman. He goes broke. He’s a bit of a moron. His deep religious convictions simply mirror what other people have written, and he doesn’t seem to really believe them or follow them.

We also learn that many of the acts attributed to Al Qaeda weren’t really theirs. They just took credit for them. There are surprises about how small Al Qaeda is as an organization, and how ineffective. They are also not very good terrorists. In Egypt and Algeria, Bin Laden's advice for the terrorist to kill indiscriminately turns the public against them and leads to security service crack downs that all but wiped out those radical movements. One terrorist forgets his gun in the car, another falls asleep and misses the attack. Their first attempt to attack an American ship fails when they overload their boat and it sinks. And so on. Not to mention that these guys sing like songbirds when they get caught, and that’s not even counting the several who get upset at Bin Laden and head straight to American embassies to sell their knowledge.

The book also explains how Bin Laden’s people overcame the Islamic prohibition on suicide by drawing a false distinction between dying in the killing of infidels and dying in any other fashion. This leads to some very disturbing discussions of various Al Qaeda attacks. Wright is not particularly graphic, but he gives enough of a picture that you will be angered and repulsed by what these bastards have done.

The book, by the way, doesn’t sugar coat anything. Take for example, the discussion of the Taliban who murder and rape their way through the country, who sodomize little boys because there aren’t any women around, who take sledge hammers to priceless works of art, and who mutilate and torture zoo animals.

The book soon turns incredibly frustrating, as Wright discusses the American efforts to catch Bin Laden. Several times, he was offered to us, and we blew it:

• Bin Laden wore out his welcome in Sudan and the Sudanese offered him to the Americans. The Americans didn’t want him. Despite the fact that the Egyptian security services knew all about him, and the Americans had been warned about his intentions, the Americans simply saw him as a minor nuisance. So they told Sudan to throw him out of the country (the Sudanese robbed him on the way out).

• When Bin Laden got to Afghanistan, the Taliban didn’t want him. They viewed him as too much trouble. But the Taliban were being financed by the Saudis and the Pakistani security services, in the hopes of ending the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal and of offsetting Iran’s influence. The Saudis had been unwilling to eliminate him or take him back, so they told the Taliban to keep him quiet.

But when Osama didn’t stay quiet, the Saudis finally decided to rid themselves of Bin Laden, and the Taliban agreed. But then Clinton fired the cruise missiles at Bin Laden and at Sudan, despite warnings that this would only make the situation worse. The effect was (1) to blow up a harmless civilian pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, (2) to miss every single Al Qaeda leader, (3) to give Bin Laden some dud cruise missiles that he could sell to the Chinese to replenish his fortune, and (4) to make Bin Laden an Islamic hero. After that, the Taliban changed their minds and decided not to give him up. 9/11 followed.
It is also amazing how much information “the government” had, which they could not put together because the agencies wouldn’t share it. Wright makes an excellent case that the government had more than enough information to stop 9/11, but couldn’t stop infighting long enough to do it. This part alone is well worth the read.

The sections on the American government, by the way, are very consistent with my experience working for the federal government some years ago -- interagency squabbling, the right hand refusing to talk to the left hand, bureaucratic turf wars, vendettas against productive employees, bizarre rules that interfere with any sort of useful action, and general incompetence. This will be eye-opening to anyone who thinks our government consists of dedicated professionals.

You will also read about other insane decisions, like when the CIA hired a Muslim who they immediately discovered was a traitor. Despite this discovery, they brought him to the United States under CIA protection and let him join the Army. From there, and from his later job with a defense contractor, he provided secrets to Al Qaeda and he wrote the Al Qaeda manual on terrorism based on what our military taught him. He actually spent months in Afghanistan establishing terrorist training camps while he worked for our government. . . the government accepted his claim that his absences were because he was buying rugs in Pakistan.

Finally, it was interesting to read that Bin Laden’s intent with 9/11 was not just to kill civilians, but to draw the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires, where they could “bleed” us. Thus, it seems that we have played right into his hands. . . as we apparently have several times.

Do I recommend The Looming Tower? Absolutely. The writing style is good. It is easy to read and it flows. The names are difficult because we’re not accustomed to them, but Wright always gives you little reminders of who these guys are which makes it easy to follow -- though a chart would have been nice. Still, the information presented is invaluable for understanding what is going on in the Middle East and for understanding the shortcomings of our government and our policies.


Anonymous said...

"But when Obama didn’t stay quiet..." I assume you meant Osama. :-)

This will sound bad so I apologize in advance but when I read this: "Bin Laden is not a very good businessman. He goes broke. He’s a bit of a moron. His deep religious convictions simply mirror what other people have written, and he doesn’t seem to really believe them or follow them..."

I could imagine some on the far left saying, "Man, Bush and Bin Laden were made for each other!" (Again, that's just an observation and not my opinion.)

As for Qutb, I've heard that before. Wasn't he offended by the site of men and women dancing and jazz music? In any case, I have two words for him and the first begins with "F." :-)

If you want a cool non-fiction book about our current conflict (current being 2003 or so), I recommend Thieves of Baghdad by Col. Matthew Bogdanos which tells the true story of his quest to retrieve artifacts stolen from the Iraqi Museum after the invasion. It's sort of equal parts Indiana Jones, CSI, and heist thriller. I don't have much of an opinion about the war (a result of being too young at the time to really pay attention to it) but I would love to make this book into a movie one day. (It won't happen but one can dream.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Yeah, that should be Osama -- I'll fix that. Whoops.

Leftists could say that, but they would be missing the point -- as always. Islamic terror has nothing to do with left or right, to tell the truth. They hate the west, period -- left or right. They don't make a distinction between an Obama, a Bush or a Clinton. Also, this didn't start under Bush, it started under the British in the 1940s and has been getting worse ever since.

If any American President deserves blame, it's Clinton. His administration was the one that chose not to pick Bin Laden up when he was offered, his administration chose not to take him out when they could have, and his administration decided to lob missiles at him against the advice of those in the region -- this only made him into an Islamic superstar.

The blame Bush deserves is in falling into the Afghan trap and in not changing the horrible culture that keeps the intelligence agencies from sharing information.

Obama's failure is that he doesn't understand the nature of the fight, and he's compounding Bush's mistakes.

You're right about Qutb, but the book hints very strongly that he simply couldn't relate to women period, and his "shock" at the intermingling was just a cover for his own issues.

Writer X said...

Andrew, excellent review! And discussing it last night with those that read it made it all the more worthwhile.

A couple of other things I found interesting:

1) Bin Laden didn't mind American intervention in Afghanistan against the Soviets. In fact, he encouraged it! So much for being an unclean infidel.

2) Bin Laden was a bit of a wimp. Whenever there was fighting, he got sick.

If you lost someone on 9/11, this book may make you frustrated and angry because of all those missed signs and lost opportunities. Unfortunately, you'll also see parallels to today, where we seem to be returning to a pre-911 thinking. That is disturbing.

Interesting book! Incredibly thorough and well-researched.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Thanks -- and excellent points!

What you learn about Bin Laden is very different than what we've heard (and continue to hear) in the media. As you point out, not only did he encourage the Americans to help in Afghanistan, but he let his daughters listen to music, he kept dithering about terror (and seemed to disavow his own dumbest acts), he enjoyed a lot of the trappings of wealth until later, and he just didn't seem all the pious or bright. Very interesting.

You're also right that it is very frustrating to see how our government missed the signs, and that seems to be where we are again. I would say that it appears that our anti-terrorism efforts have relied largely on luck, on placebos, and on the hopes that somehow we can drop enough bombs on people we can't find to kill off their ideas. Not a good plan.

(P.S. Thanks for coming to the book club!)

Writer X said...

Andrew, that's another great reason to read the book: You'll never read about any of this in the newspapers or magazines. And yet journalists are the only ones who ever seem to interview anyone associated with Al-Qaeda.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Isn't that the truth. The government can't find him, but every journalist in the world can. Hmmm.

It will be interesting to see if the media ever stops repeating the fake image of Bin Laden, but I'm not holding my breath.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I had fun with the book club last night, even though the subject was horrific. And I agree on the intelligence failures which have not yet been remedied (and the Abdulmutallab affair certainly hasn't given me any confidence that it will in the near future). Scott, you and Writer X are all correct in that if someone wrote a fictional novel with this plot, nobody would believe it.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think it's important to understand what is really going on in places like this, and this book does an excellent job out explaining it. It's too bad that our policy makers apparently haven't read the book!

MegaTroll said...

Sorry I couldn't make it. This sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the information about Al Qeada and Bin Laden, I honestly did not know a lot of this.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, You're welcome! Read the book, you'll find it very interesting.

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