Book Review: The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright

September 03, 2006
Mayank Austen Soofi

On September 11, Mahatma Gandhi asked around three thousand Indian expatriates gathered in the Empire Theatre building in Johannesburg, South Africa, to take an oath to resist their white colonial masters without striking a single blow.

Many years later, an Afghan war veteran named Osama bin Laden, addressing the evening worshippers in the bin Laden family mosque in Jeddah, invoked Gandhi. He described Mahatma as a man who brought down British Empire 'by boycotting its products and wearing non-western clothes'. In a sleepy monotone, Mr bin Laden gently exhorted his listeners to convey to Americans, where ever encountered, the essence of their complaints and even suggested writing letters to the American embassies.

However, 95 years after Gandhi's call for a 'without a single blow' attack, the death commandoes of bin Laden's army, the Al Qaeda, stuck such a blow to America's ego, self-esteem, prestige and mainland innocence that it is yet to recover.

9/11 changed America and consequently the entire world.

How did 9/11 happen? How did Osama bin Laden manage to convince hundreds of fellow Muslims to give up their lives in the battle against America? What convinced Mr bin Laden to launch and lead such a battle? When did he start hating America? What were his origins? What was his upbringing like that made him such a fearful and hated man? Who are his wives? What kind of a father is he to his children? What stuff was his father made of? Was he "normal" at some point in his life?

What is the story of the bin Laden legend? How Osama became an Osama?

All these mysteries could be sorted out, to some extent, in The Looming Tower - Al Qaeda And The Road To 9/11, a fantastic book by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright. The book is ostensibly concerned with the events leading to that clear blue fateful Manhattan morning of September, but it is actually a most gripping account of the life and times of Mr bin Laden. The rest is merely about filling in the blanks.

It would be unreasonable to expect that a more enchanting and gripping personal portrait of Osama could be written. Mr Wright's narration would remain the standard reference unless Mr bin Laden himself decides to write a memoir.

While tracing the trajectory of Osama's life, Mr Wright had to jettison his reporter tag and agreed to take the job of 'mentoring' a couple of young Saudi journalists so that he could get a Saudi visa and a chance to live in Jeddah, Osama's home town - all in order to have a first-person experience of a closet society that gave the world its most notorious terrorist.

Mr Wright interviewed 550 people - jehadis, politicians, secret service agents, journalists, professors - and researched numerous books, pamphlets, testimonies and mujahideen magazines in writing this book. Fortunately, the efforts don't show. The Looming Tower is so thrillingly written, with a pace so pulsating, and with anecdotes dotting every page, so fascinating that the reader is left hooked, breathless and panting for more.

A reading of this exciting real-life story could not fail to stir a thought at the supreme irony that this terrorist who has so spoiled the name of Islam had to come from the loins of a self-made multi-billionaire businessman whose construction company built the buildings of Islam's three holiest shrines - grand mosques of Mecca, Medina and Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem - a jet-setting man who sometimes did his daily prayers at all the three shrines the same day!

The book is littered with tiny trivia about Mr bin Laden that helps in understanding the making of him into a religious fundamentalist the world prefers to fear. Consider his eating habits: Osama would fast on Mondays and Thursdays, like the prophet himself; during his pre-jehad days, he would make a humble point to eat along with the laborers of his construction company; if he had a feast at home, he would nibble leftovers from the plates of his guests, believing such manners to be noble and pious.

But it was not Islam alone that made this man a prophet of doom. America's role could not be ignored. Osama's evolution into a monster could not have been possible if USA had not brought its infidel troops - which had women too - in Saudi Arabia, the land of Mecca-Medina.

In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and was eyeing the borderline oil wells of Saudi Arabia. Apparently, the petro-dollar kingdom was invincible. In the 80s, it had built a $50 billion air-defense system. It had also spent billions of dollars in purchasing the most sophisticated weapons from all the major defense markets of the world, enabling its various princes, in the process, to make millions in lucrative kickbacks. By the time of Kuwaiti invasion, Saudi Arabia had all the weapons but, alas, it forgot to build an army that could operate these tanks and planes. Worse, Saddam knew it.

The White House, which was anxious about the petrol supply and nervous about the implications of Iraqi regime capturing Saudi Arabia, swiftly sent Dick Cheney, the then US Secretary of Defense, to Jeddah to persuade the king to accept American troops for the kingdom's defense assuring him that they would leave as soon as the threat was over.

But bin Laden was busy making his own presentations of imploring the royals not to accede to the Americans. He sounded out his own plans of 'preparing one hundred thousand Muslim fighters with good combat capability within three months'. He pleaded not to let non-Muslims into the country.

The king, sensibly, opted for the Americans.

And so Osama's crusade got its launching base even as American bases are still stationed in Islam's holiest land. It was the most important timeline in the making of Osama Bin Laden.

Since 9/11 there has been many good books on Al Qaeda's No. 1. The beginning of 2006 saw the publication of Peter Bergen's excellent The Osama Bin Laden I Know, but it is The Looming Towers which is the most satisfying. The saga of Osama - from his early days of fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan where he puzzlingly fell ill every time there was an attack, to his breakdown of relations with the Saudi royalty, to his exile in Sudan where he spent some of the most satisfying and sedentary years of his life, to his re-exile to Taliban Afghanistan where he plotted the fall of the looming towers, to his escape from Tora Bora - was never written more eloquently.

However the road to 9/11 does not pass only through the private quarters of Osama bin Laden. Mr Wright has given an equally detailed narration of the rest of the players, starting from the man who started it all - Sayyid Qutb - an executed American-educated Egyptian Islamic thinker who inspired a generation of militants, through his beautiful writing, giving them an ideology that would shake the world as nothing ever had.

There are in-depth and revealing accounts of the early life of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a trained surgeon, Osama's close confidante, and Al Qaeda's No.2. There are suggestions of the unwieldy influence of Egyptians extremists on Osama during the formation of Al Qaeda and its murderous ideology. There are details of interesting interpretations that Al Qaeda terrorists gave to Koranic verses to justify the killing of fellow Muslims. There are seductive accounts of the wild lifestyle of the Saudi kings. There are thrilling sketches of American officials who were monitoring Osama in the pre-9/11 era. There are shameful reminders of Bill Clinton making half-hearted attempts to decimate bin Laden while attempting to rejuvenate his lameduck presidency resulting from an affair. There are amusing anecdotes about the Taliban, like Mullah Omar advising the American state department, in all seriousness, that the best way to avoid terrorist strikes would be for President Clinton to resign!

The Looming Tower is the sort of book that comes rarely and which best chronicles the turning points in history. It must be read by everyone. The only regret is that it could not be described as entertaining, for it must not be forgotten that we are talking about a day that saw the death of more than two thousand people.

Mayank Austen Soofi owns a private library and four blogs: The Delhi Walla, Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos. Contact:
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September 4, 2006
12:15 AM

Well written review Mayank. Straightforward, simple and gets the point across with the minimum of fuss. Sounds like an interesting book.

Mayank Austen Soofi
September 4, 2006
12:39 AM

Yes Sujatha. It is a good book. Buy it.

March 25, 2007
02:00 PM

When did Osama Bin Laden quote the kafir Gandhi? I've never heard of that one. Neither has he, most likely. Are you telling this story for entertainment value, rather than factual value?

March 25, 2007
02:05 PM

Read the book

Mayank Austen Soofi
April 1, 2007
03:51 AM

My "stories", if not stated as "fiction", are always honest to facts. Entertainment can be a sideshow, though.

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