Friday, August 11, 2006

Book Review: The Looming Tower

The Plot Against America

The New York Times
Published: August 6, 2006

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
By Lawrence Wright.
Illustrated. 469 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.

First Chapter: ‘The Looming Tower’ (August 6, 2006)

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When Mohamed Atta and his four Saudi confederates commandeered a Boeing 767 and steered it into the north tower of the World Trade Center, they began a story that still consumes us nearly five years on, and one that seems, on bad days, to promise war without end.

But the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were in many ways less the start of a tale than the end of one, or at least the climax of one, begun many years before in many different precincts: in the middle-class suburbs of Cairo, in the mosques of Hamburg, in Jidda, in Islamabad, in the quiet university town of Greeley, Colo.

In its simplest terms, this is the story of how a small group of men, with a frightening mix of delusion and calculation, rose from a tormented civilization to mount a catastrophic assault on the world’s mightiest power, and how another group of men and women, convinced that such an attack was on the way, tried desperately to stop it.

What a story it is. And what a riveting tale Lawrence Wright fashions in this marvelous book. “The Looming Tower” is not just a detailed, heart-stopping account of the events leading up to 9/11, written with style and verve, and carried along by villains and heroes that only a crime novelist could dream up. It’s an education, too — though you’d never know it — a thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11, and of their progeny who bedevil us today. The portrait of John O’Neill, the driven, demon-ridden F.B.I. agent who worked so frantically to stop Osama bin Laden, only to perish in the attack on the World Trade Center, is worth the price of the book alone. “The Looming Tower” is a thriller. And it’s a tragedy, too.

In the nearly five years since the attacks, we’ve heard oceans of commentary on the whys and how-comes and what-it-means and what’s nexts. Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker — where portions of this book have appeared — has put his boots on the ground in the hard places, conducted the interviews and done the sleuthing. Others talked, he listened. And so he has unearthed an astonishing amount of detail about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Muhammad Omar and all the rest of them. They come alive.

Who knew, for instance, that bin Laden, far from being a warrior-stoic fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, was actually a pathetic stick-in-the-mud who would fall ill before battle? That the combat-hardened Afghans, so tired of bin Laden’s behavior, declared him and his Arab associates “useless”? Or that he was a permissive father and indulgent husband? Or that he is only six feet tall?

More important, who knew — I sure didn’t — that bin Laden had left behind such a long trail of words? Wright has found them in books, on film, in audio recordings, in people’s notebooks and memories. This has allowed him to draw an in-depth portrait of bin Laden, and to chart his evolution from a self-conscious step-child growing up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to the visionary cave-dwelling madman who mimics the Holy Prophet in his most humdrum daily habits.

Wright takes the title of his book from the fourth sura of the Koran, which bin Laden repeated three times in a speech videotaped just as the hijackers were preparing to fly. The video was found later, on a computer in Hamburg.

“Wherever you are, death will find you, Even in the looming tower.”

There is poetry, too. Here is a particularly chilling bit, found on another videotape, which bin Laden had read aloud at the wedding of his 17-year-old son, Mohammed. The celebration took place not long after a pair of Qaeda suicide bombers, riding in a tiny boat filled with explosives, nearly sank the billion-dollar guided missile destroyer Cole. At least with regard to his abilities as an author, bin Laden was unusually modest: he let someone else write the words. “I am not, as most of our brothers know, a warrior of the word,” he said.

A destroyer, even the brave might fear,
She inspires horror in the harbor and the open sea,
She goes into the waves flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and fake might,
To her doom she progresses slowly, clothed in a huge illusion,
Awaiting her is a dinghy, bobbing in the waves.

“The Looming Tower” is full of such surprising detail. Al Qaeda’s leaders had all but shelved the 9/11 plot when they realized they lacked foot soldiers who could pass convincingly as westernized Muslims in the United States. At just the right moment Atta appeared in Afghanistan, along with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ziad al-Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi, all Western-educated transplants, offering themselves up for slaughter. The game was on.

Just as dramatic as the portraits of bin Laden and Zawahiri is Wright’s account of the roots of Islamic militancy — the intellectual, spiritual and material world from which the plotters came. Wright draws a fascinating picture of Sayyid Qutb, the font of modern Islamic fundamentalism, a frail, middle-aged writer who found himself, as a visitor to the United States and a student at Colorado State College of Education in Greeley in the 1940’s, overwhelmed by the unbridled splendor and godlessness of modern America. And by the sex: like so many others who followed him, Qutb seemed simultaneously drawn to and repelled by American women, so free and unselfconscious in their sexuality. The result is a kind of delirium:

“A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid,” Qutb wrote, “but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume, but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless.”

It wasn’t much later that Qutb began writing elaborate rationalizations for killing non-Muslims and waging war against the West. Years later, Atta expressed a similar mix of obsession and disgust for women. Indeed, anyone who has spent time in the Middle East will recognize such tortured emotions.

WRIGHT shows, correctly, that at the root of Islamic militancy — its anger, its antimodernity, its justifications for murder — lies a feeling of intense humiliation. Islam plays a role in this, with its straitjacketed and all-encompassing worldview. But whether the militant hails from a middle-class family or an impoverished one, is intensely religious or a “theological amateur,” as Wright calls bin Laden and his cohort, he springs almost invariably from an ossified society with an autocratic government that is unable to provide any reason to believe in the future. Islam offers dignity, even in — especially in — death. Living in the West, Atta and the others felt these things more acutely, not less. As Wright notes:

“Their motivations varied, but they had in common a belief that Islam — pure and primitive, unmitigated by modernity and uncompromised by politics — would cure the wounds that socialism or Arab nationalism had failed to heal. They were angry but powerless in their own countries. They did not see themselves as terrorists but as revolutionaries who, like all such men throughout history, had been pushed into action by the simple human need for justice. Some had experienced brutal repression; some were simply drawn to bloody chaos. From the beginning of Al Qaeda, there were reformers and there were nihilists. The dynamic between them was irreconcilable and self-destructive, but events were moving so quickly that it was almost impossible to tell the philosophers from the sociopaths. They were glued together by the charismatic personality of Osama bin Laden, which contained both strands, idealism and nihilism, in a potent mix.”

In John O’Neill, bin Laden almost met his match. The supervisor of the F.B.I.’s New York office and of the team assigned to track Al Qaeda in the United States, O’Neill felt, as strongly as anyone in the government, that Al Qaeda was coming to America. He was a relentless investigator, a volcanic personality and sometimes his own worst enemy. In the end he broke himself on a government bureaucracy that could not — and would not — move as quickly as he did. O’Neill and others like him were in a race with Al Qaeda, and although we know how the race ended, it’s astonishing — and heartbreaking — to learn how close it was.

Some of the F.B.I.’s field agents, as we now know, had premonitions of what was coming. When the supervisor of the Minneapolis field office was admonished, in August 2001, for expressing fears that an Islamic radical attending flight school might be planning a suicide attack, he shot back defiantly that he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” Amazing.

The most gut-wrenching scenes are the ones that show F.B.I. agents trying, as 9/11 approached, to pry information from their rivals inside the United States government. The C.I.A., Wright says, knew that high-level Qaeda operatives had held a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000, and, later, that two of them had entered the United States. Both men turned out to be part of the team that hijacked the planes on Sept. 11. The C.I.A. failed to inform agencies like the F.B.I. — which might have been able to locate the men and break up the plot — until late in the summer of 2001.

The fateful struggle between the C.I.A. and F.B.I. in the months leading up to the attacks has been outlined before, but never in such detail. At meetings, C.I.A. analysts dangled photos of two of the eventual hijackers in front of F.B.I. agents, but wouldn’t tell them who they were. The F.B.I. agents could sense that the C.I.A. possessed crucial pieces of evidence about Islamic radicals they were investigating, but couldn’t tell what they were. The tension came to a head at a meeting in New York on June 11, exactly three months before the catastrophe, which ended with F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents shouting at each other across the room.

In one of the most remarkable scenes in the book, Ali Soufan, an F.B.I. agent assigned to Al Qaeda, was taken aside on Sept. 12 and finally shown the names and photos of the men the C.I.A. had known for more than a year and a half were in America. The planes had already struck. Soufan ran to the bathroom and retched.

Great stuff. I just wish Wright had given us something, even a chapter, on the hijackings themselves; as it is, he takes us right up to the moment, and then straight to the burning towers. Perhaps he felt that ground was too well-trodden. My other complaint is more substantive.
Through the enormous amount of legwork he has done, tracking down people who worked with bin Laden and Zawahiri over the years, Wright has drawn up verbatim reconstructions of entire conversations, some of which took place more than a decade ago. Many of these conversations are riveting. Still, in some cases, it’s hard to believe that memories are that good.

“The Looming Tower” ends near the Pakistani border, where Zawahiri, or someone who looked like him, rode through a village on horseback and then disappeared into the mountains. It’s not a definitive ending; there is no closure. And that’s the point. For as amazing as the story of Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11 is, it’s not over yet.

Dexter Filkins is a Baghdad correspondent for The Times.

Stephen Schwartz: The Problem of British Islam

Don't LET Up
The transatlantic air plot and the problem of British Islam.
08/10/2006 3:15:00 PM

BRITISH AUTHORITIES have been slow to acknowledge openly the Pakistani-Muslim background of the suspects arrested in the mass terror conspiracy that brought chaos to British and American airports Thursday. At first, official sources in the United Kingdom would confirm only that they were working with "the South Asian community" on the case; then it was disclosed that the Pakistani government was involved in the investigation.

This reticence in naming the focus of so significant a terrorism inquiry is a symptom of the larger problems of Islam in Britain, and of "Euro-Islam" more generally. Put plainly, Pakistani Sunnis in Britain--more than a million strong--are the most radical Muslims in Europe. British Islam is dominated by Pakistan-born clerics. It is saturated with extremist preaching, media, and charity efforts which support the recruitment of terrorists.

News from Pakistan itself indicates the main trail from there to Heathrow. British and Pakistani sources linked the plan to the Pakistani government's house arrest of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, founder of the armed paramilitary movement Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET, or Army of the Righteous). LET, which is designated a terrorist organization by the State Department, is an ally of al Qaeda and is present wherever Pakistani Sunnis congregate and violence is hatched.
In America, LET was behind the Northern Virginia jihad network, whose members were jailed beginning in 2003 and sentenced to varying federal prison terms for terrorism-related acts. LET was also accused in the Bombay train bombings in India last month. It has significant resources in Pakistan, Britain, and elsewhere.

Yet notwithstanding the courage of Tony Blair, the British government appears paralyzed in dealing with this radical influence over British-Asian Muslims. Instead of confronting Pakistani-born extremist imams on British territory, the Brits organized a roadshow in their Muslim communities under the rubric of "the radical middle way"--an extraordinarily inept promotional conceit--in which young Muslims are called to renounce extremism.

The British and other media are referring to the arrested suspects in the airline conspiracy--as they did when bombs exploded in the London Underground last year--as "homegrown." If history is any guide, politicians will soon wring their hands and ask why people brought up in the West turned so violently against it. Leftists and isolationists will blame the war against terror for terror.

But the force that drives mosque congregants and their children to build bombs in Britain does not originate in social conditions experienced by Muslims in Europe. Rather, it represents a doctrine brought from the Arab world, via Pakistan and well-funded groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, to communities from Birmingham, England, to Fairfax, Virginia.

Britain must take off the blinders of political correctness when examining Islam in its Pakistani population and should insist on British training for Muslim clerics officiating on its soil.
Otherwise, London's 7/7 bombs and the latest transatlantic travel conspiracy could mark the emergence of Britain as the main theater of jihadist violence in Western Europe.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

Peter Schweizer: Gore's Green Hypocrisy

Peter Schweizer
USA Today
August 11, 2006

Al Gore has spoken: The world must embrace a "carbon-neutral lifestyle." To do otherwise, he says, will result in a cataclysmic catastrophe. "Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb," warns the website for his film, An Inconvenient Truth. "We have just 10 years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tailspin."

Graciously, Gore tells consumers how to change their lives to curb their carbon-gobbling ways: Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, use a clothesline, drive a hybrid, use renewable energy, dramatically cut back on consumption. Better still, responsible global citizens can follow Gore's example, because, as he readily points out in his speeches, he lives a "carbon-neutral lifestyle." But if Al Gore is the world's role model for ecology, the planet is doomed.

For someone who says the sky is falling, he does very little. He says he recycles and drives a hybrid. And he claims he uses renewable energy credits to offset the pollution he produces when using a private jet to promote his film. (In reality, Paramount Classics, the film's distributor, pays this.)

Public records reveal that as Gore lectures Americans on excessive consumption, he and his wife Tipper live in two properties: a 10,000-square-foot, 20-room, eight-bathroom home in Nashville, and a 4,000-square-foot home in Arlington, Va. (He also has a third home in Carthage, Tenn.) For someone rallying the planet to pursue a path of extreme personal sacrifice, Gore requires little from himself.

Then there is the troubling matter of his energy use. In the Washington, D.C., area, utility companies offer wind energy as an alternative to traditional energy. In Nashville, similar programs exist. Utility customers must simply pay a few extra pennies per kilowatt hour, and they can continue living their carbon-neutral lifestyles knowing that they are supporting wind energy. Plenty of businesses and institutions have signed up. Even the Bush administration is using green energy for some federal office buildings, as are thousands of area residents.

But according to public records, there is no evidence that Gore has signed up to use green energy in either of his large residences. When contacted Wednesday, Gore's office confirmed as much but said the Gores were looking into making the switch at both homes. Talk about inconvenient truths.

Gore is not alone. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has said, "Global warming is happening, and it threatens our very existence." The DNC website applauds the fact that Gore has "tried to move people to act." Yet, astoundingly, Gore's persuasive powers have failed to convince his own party: The DNC has not signed up to pay an additional two pennies a kilowatt hour to go green. For that matter, neither has the Republican National Committee.

Maybe our very existence isn't threatened.

Gore has held these apocalyptic views about the environment for some time. So why, then, didn't Gore dump his family's large stock holdings in Occidental (Oxy) Petroleum? As executor of his family's trust, over the years Gore has controlled hundreds of thousands of dollars in Oxy stock. Oxy has been mired in controversy over oil drilling in ecologically sensitive areas.

Living carbon-neutral apparently doesn't mean living oil-stock free. Nor does it necessarily mean giving up a mining royalty either.

Humanity might be "sitting on a ticking time bomb," but Gore's home in Carthage is sitting on a zinc mine. Gore receives $20,000 a year in royalties from Pasminco Zinc, which operates a zinc concession on his property. Tennessee has cited the company for adding large quantities of barium, iron and zinc to the nearby Caney Fork River.

The issue here is not simply Gore's hypocrisy; it's a question of credibility. If he genuinely believes the apocalyptic vision he has put forth and calls for radical changes in the way other people live, why hasn't he made any radical change in his life? Giving up the zinc mine or one of his homes is not asking much, given that he wants the rest of us to radically change our lives.

Peter Schweizer is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Paul Sperry: Rehabbing Islamic Extremists

Paul Sperry
August 7, 2006

Could you imagine the New York Times running a saintly profile of a skinhead who said he hoped the U.S. would be a Nazi country ruled by the Fourth Reich? Of course not. It would never happen. Nor should it.

So why did the paper recently run a glowing feature of a Muslim cleric who said he hopes the U.S. would be a Muslim country ruled by Islamic law? The Times even ran it -- in the middle of a war on Islamic terror -- on its front page.

"Every Muslim who is honest would say, I would like to see America become a Muslim country," imam Zaid Shakir admitted in the last paragraph of a long story that spent the preceding 2,862 words trying to convince us how progressive and moderate Shakir is.

Talk about burying the lead. If this is the new voice of moderate Muslims in America, God help us (and I don't mean Allah).

Ironically, the story was titled, "American Muslim Clerics Seek a Modern Middle Ground."
Modern? Islamic law is based on 1,400-year-old Bedouin justice that metes out beheadings, amputations and stonings. It also sanctions polygamy, denies women basic rights and merges mosque and state.

The Times also profiled Shakir's California partner, Sheik Hamza Yusuf, also described as "hip" and popular with Americanized Muslim students and converts. The pair tours college campuses speaking to packed auditoriums.

These aren't your father's imams, the Times says. They are "a new generation of imams who can reconcile Islam and American culture" -- even as at least one of them hopes for the Islamization of American culture.

"They say that Islam must be rescued from extremists," the story said. "The two are challenging the influence of Islam's more reactionary sects, like Wahhabism and Salafism, which has been spread to American mosques and schools by clerics trained in Saudi Arabia."

Hmm. A check of Yusuf's bio reveals he himself studied Islam in Medina, Saudi Arabia, a fact not mentioned in the piece.That's not all that was left out.

Yusuf just two days before 9-11 made an ominous prediction in a California speech that triggered an FBI investigation, according to the Washington Post.
"This country is facing a terrible fate" for occupying Muslim lands, Yusuf warned. "The reason for that is that this country stands condemned like Europe stood condemned because of what it did."

And lest people forget that Europe suffered two world wars after conquering the Muslim lands, Europe's countries were devastated, they were completely destroyed," he added. "Their young people were killed."

FBI agents paid the imam a visit to question him about the incendiary remarks, according to the Post's account. When they knocked on his door, his wife answered and told them he wasn't home. "He's with the president" in Washington, she said.

The agents thought she was joking, but she wasn't. Yusuf was one of many Muslim leaders invited by the White House to meet and pray with President Bush in the weeks after 9-11. (He's the cleric who convinced Bush to ditch "Infinite Justice" as the name for the Afghan war since it might offendMuslims.)
The rehabilitation of Yusuf's image was already in progress, thanks to his Muslim friends in the administration such as Suhail Khan. Now the Times is taking it to the next level, no doubt pleased with Yusuf's political activism, which has included taking vanloads of Arabs to antiwar protests outside the Republican National Convention. The paper is willing to apologize for even Yusuf's past anti-Semitic remarks. In 1995, for example, he called Judaism "a most racist religion."

"Both Mr. Shakir and Mr. Yusuf have a history of anti-American rhetoric," the Times allowed, "but with age, they have tempered their views."

The Times wants us to believe that these leopards have matured and lost their radical spots. But are they really gone? Or did they temporarily disappear as 9-11 brought more scrutiny?Shakir, who still hopes to replace the U.S. Constitution with the Quran, once praised the effectiveness of "armed struggle" such as the one that brought the Taliban to power. A copy of the pamphlet he wrote was found in the apartment of a suspect in the first World Trade Center bombing.

Never mind all that, the Times says. The imams are now just a couple of tweedy, goatee'd moderates "encouraging tolerance." Uh-huh, that's certainly what they'd have us believe anyway.

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Paul Sperry is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington." He can be conacted at