The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Written and Narrated by Lawrence Wright
Random House Audio 2006
16 Hours & 31 Minutes
Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a book that political science professors will be assigning to freshmen for the next twenty years or more. When discussing my interest in counter-terrorism with a professor, my callow sophomore self off-handedly said “I’d like to write a book about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.” His response was “That’s already been covered pretty thoroughly.”
Undoubtedly, my professor was referring to Wright’s comprehensive work, which is the closest you can come to reading the 9/11 Commission Report as a narrative.
The counterterrorism studies section of my bookshelf. Sassy refused to appear in this photo for obvious reasons.
This is a book I meant to get to for some time, listening to it in fits and starts since. I was finally spurred on by the release of a Hulu miniseries to finish the audiobook during my commute over the last month.
The enormous breadth and depth of The Looming Tower–spanning seventy years and covering everything from the nuances of Medieval Islamic philosophy to the geography of tiny Egyptian villages–becomes something of a liability when translated to an audio format. Read by the author, the text is read exactly as intended in an even, yet never boring, voice.
However, as the text covers dozens upon dozens of names, many with variable English spelling, I found myself wishing I had bought the physical book for future reference. Jumping from topic to topic and time to time, there is a disjointed, but not disorderly, quality to the book. Perhaps this is just a fault of perception in my visually-focused brain.
In a book this detailed, it is difficult to draw out favorite or most important moments, but I will try.
First: the importance of diversity, or even just an understanding of the world, in national security.
Before 9/11, the FBI had less than ten Arabic speakers. A particularly affecting moment is when Ali Soufan, then a young FBI agent, cracks the lone survivor of the Nairobi embassy bombers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon, Soufan debates the failed suicide bomber in Arabic on the Quran and Islamic law, eventually forcing the bomber to admit he has murdered innocents, many of them fellow Muslims going about their daily lives.
The bomber then tells everything he knows about the structure and membership of Al Qaeda.
Second: if there was ever a title of deep meaning, it is this one.
On a cursory glance, the tower of the title refers to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Indeed it does. However, it is also a reference to a Quranic verse and Bin Laden’s perversion of it. In a video message to the nineteen hijackers, Bin Laden quoted this verse as an oblique reference to the specifics of the plot, ignoring its actual meaning.
The verse (4:78) reads, in Ahman Zaki Hammad’s wording, as:
Wherever you may be, death will overtake you at the pre-ordained time–even if you are in lofty towers.
And continues with:
Yet if any good comes to them, they say in their wavering hearts: This is from God!
But if any harm strikes them, they say: This is from you, O Muhammad!
Say to them: All things are decreed from God.
In the larger context of the passage, it is clear this refers to the limits of mortal life and God’s sovereignty over the universe. Jewish and Christian readers will find a similar sentiment expressed by Job, who acknowledges God’s control over all things even in adversity:
Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD!
The verse from Surah Al-Nisa’ ends with an admonishment that could well be turned against fundamentalists of all faiths:
What is with these people that they can hardly understand any discourse?
Putting aside my very amateurish exegesis, the conclusion of The Looming Tower singles out one personal tragedy from all the horrors of the 9/11. It is the eerie coincidence of this one tragedy that sticks with me even more than Wright’s detailed research and strong prose. He seems to have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that there is a Providence to the world.
If not a benevolent Providence, at least, then, Fate with a bitter sense of irony.
3.5/5 stars: A very strong book in research and storytelling, but maybe not the best fit for an audio format.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: You know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, much like the law enforcement officials profiled in the book.
2/5 ick-factor: Despicable human beings of many flavors.
Conspiracy theorists, raving Islamophobes, and ISIS trolls will be summarily banned and digitally keelhauled.