Friday, September 28, 2007

Review: The Looming Tower (Al-Qaeda and The Road to 9/11)

This book won the Pulitzer prize award last year, and covers the origins and creation of Al-Qaeda, the fumbling of the ball by America's intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the people involved in it.

The first part of the book chronicles the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia and the life of Osama Bin Laden. This part of the book is extremely well researched, getting details like his initial forays into Afghanistan, his marriages, as well as certain other important characters in Al-Qaeda, such as Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who joined forces with Bin Laden later.

It is amazing how good Bin Laden was at taking credit for things he didn't do, and creating a myth around himself. Lawrence Wright, when he visited Google, said that the Muslim countries have in general created a place that is difficult for young men to live without boredom: there is no music, no dating, no movies, hence the attraction of matyrdom and becoming a freedom fighter.

The second half of the book covers the CIA and the FBI's investigation of major cases, including the bombing of the USS Cole, the initial failed bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as the failed attempt at the Los Angeles airport. With the benefit of hindsight, you can't help but wince at every missed opportunity, that perhaps with a more competent administration, would have foiled the ultimate tragedy that followed.

There are several colorful characters here as well, including John O'Neill, the FBI operative who was obssessed with hunting Al-Qaeda, only to be foiled by diplomats, the CIA, and his own appetites (he had 3 girlfriends in different cities and a wife, and was juggling all of them, and lived life well beyond his means). Though it made for a great story, I wish Wright could have spent more time on other parts of this narrative.

All in all, a very deserving Pulitzer prize, and required reading for anyone who's life was touched by the tragedies 6 years ago. Ultimately, however, I suspect that the war against terrorism is a cultural war, not one that can be won by counter-terrorism, law enforcement, or military action. Whether we can win over entire cultures into enlightenment and liberalism (or in fact, even our own culture) will ultimately decide how history plays out in the Middle East.
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