The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright is a multi-award winning account of the people and events behind the September 11, 2001 hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The book lives up to its publicity and deserves the awards. It’s one of the best pieces of recent history I’ve read.

While thoroughly researched, The Looming Tower is written in straightforward prose that reads almost like a spy thriller–if only it were simply that. Mr. Wright has interviewed just about everyone with any connection to the terrorists and the government agents who hunted them and he has read all there is to read about them as well. The result of his research is a fascinating, page turning, in-depth account that will add to the understanding of all but the most expert readers. Take, for instance, this paragraph explaining why so many young Muslim men were willing to become martyrs:

The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation. From Iraq to Morrocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth at the very time when democracy and personal income were sharply climbing in virtually all other parts of the globe. Saudi Arabia, the richest of the lot, was such a notoriously unproductive country that the extraordinary abundance of petroleum had failed to generate any other significant source of income; indeed, if one subtract the oil revenue of the Gulf countries, 260 million Arabs exported less than the 5 million Finns. Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectation and declining opportunities. This is especaily true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment–movies, theatre, music–is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.

This situation led many young people to actively seek the “glorious death” martyrdom promised. This desire only increased after the crack-downs which followed early attacks in Egypt, such as the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The men charged and imprisoned for this crime were severely tortured by the Egyptian government which only served to radicalise them and their followers even further and led to increased growth of fundamentalist terror movements in Egypt. One of these men was Dr. Ayman alZawahiri the leader of al-Jihad movement in Egypt and later the ideological leader of alQueda. At one point the Egyptian government forced two young boys, both sons of members of the al-Jihad movement, to turn against their fathers and attempt to plant a bomb in the home of Dr. Zawahiri. (That this was done by photographing the boys while raping them and then threatening to show the photographs to their fathers indicts both the government of Egypt and fundamentalist Islam which would subject the boys to the death penalty for their “crime.”) The plot failed and the boys were executed but Zawahiri’s movement was left in shambles.

Zawahiri had few resources remaining other than bin Laden’s backing. He was determined to strike back quickly against the Egyptian authorities in order to redeem his reputation and keep the remnants of his organization intact. His views had undergone a powerful shift from those of the young man who spurned revolution because it was too bloody. He now believed that only violence changed history. In striking the enemy, he would create a new reality. His strategy was to force the Egyptian regime to become even more repressive, to make the people hate it. In this he succeeded. But the Egyptian people did not turn to him or to his movement. They only became more miserable, more disenchanted, frightened, and despairing. In the game Zawahiri had begun, however, revenge was essential, it was the
game itself.

And the focus of the attacks shifted from the government to people in general. The goal soon became to kills as many as possible with no real regard to who the victems were. It is no coincidence that many of the 9/11 hijackers came from Egypt. Mr. Wright does an excellent job of clearly explaining the roots of alQaeda, beginning with revolutionary intellectual movements in Egypt in the 1950’s.

Mr. Wright presents a comprehensive biography of the key players in alQaeda, namely Zawahiri and bin Laden. Whle Mr. Wright makes no effort to paint these men as monsters, as the book progresses they become them, at least as far as I’m concerned. The form of Islam that they embrace is so extreme one wonders how anyone could be attracted to it. Then they themselves begin to make it even more extreme by finding in it the justification for killing innocent people including families and children, even fellow Muslims. I was reminded of the justifications Christians came up with during the 4th crusade to make it acceptable for them to attack and kill other Christians. There is, unfortunately, nothing new under the sun.

While most of The Looming Tower is about the development of alQaeda and bin Laden, Mr. Wright does present the law enforcement side of the story. The F.B.I and the C.I.A. were both very late to the party. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorists didn’t make it onto the radar screens of either group until rather late in the game and not enough people at either agency took alQaeda seriously enough until September 12, 2001. One man who did was John O’Neill at the F.B.I. Mr. O’Neill and a handful of other agents doggedly pursued anti-terror investigations only to be thwarted by the C.I.A. which withheld information they wanted kept secret as a means of gaining further intelligence. Mr. Wright lays out the details here and makes a good case for the argument that had these two agencies cooperated, namely had the C.I.A. given the F.B.I. the information they requested, the 9/11 attacks could very likely have been prevented. Mr. O’Neill retired in early September 2001 and began a new job with security at the World Trade Center. He was killed when the towers collapsed.

The Looming Tower ends with the September 11 attacks which makes for an oddly unsatisfactory finish. I wanted to know more. Mr. Wright explains how al-Qaeda and bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan under the Taliban but he does not develop this material enough to explain why the United States felt justified invading that country. These events happened afterwards, true, and are therefore material for another day, but it remained a nagging question in a book that provided so many answers. I do not know if Mr. Wright is planning a second volume. If he is, it will certainly find a place on my TBR shelf.


While it has been six years since I first published this reveiw on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., it’sdifficult for me to judge just how much the situation has changed.  I fear we may be gearing up for a third invasion of Iraq, third one in my lifetime.  The Looming Tower still provides a look into just how we got here.  Mr. Wright has not written a second book yet, but I think we could use one.  A final volume would be nice.  

One thought on “The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

  1. I’m commenting on one of your book reviews as well as your book review post comments rant – in the spirit of the thing.

    This looks fascinating. Having been a child during tail end of the cold war and a teen when the Berlin wall came down and all our troubles seemed over (very Eurocentric!) this new state of affairs seems to have taken us all by surprise and most of us know too little about it beyond the headlines. I hope I can get a copy easily over here.

    John O’Neill has a fascinating Wikipedia page, as does Rick Rescorla who seems to have similarly had a heightened anticipation and also lost his life that day.

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