>Non-fiction – "The Looming Tower"

>This book, written by Lawrence Wright, is about the history of islamic extremism and the rise Al-Qaeda in particular. The author also devotes a large sections of the book to the FBI’s and CIA’s efforts to find and stop the terrorists.

The intellectual father of the extreme islamic movement was an Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb. He spent time in the USA in the late 40s (after WW II). Although he appeared as a westerner while living in the US, he was repulsed by the US culture of materialism and freely expressed sexuality. Even in the early 50s he found the sexual lives of American’s repulsive. When he returned to Egypt he wrote a lot about Muslim identity and he blamed the failures of Arabs on the lack of purity of their religion.

In Egypt, he was involved in the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood and went from being an employee of the state to being a jailed dissident. Eventually he was hanged for his views. Many in Egypt were inspired by his writing to try and overthrow the secular goverment, to replace is with an Islamic state.

One of the future Al-Qaeda leaders, who was influenced by Sayyad Qutb early on was Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri was an Egyptian who was mostly interested in overthrowing Egyptian goverment. He spent several years in Egyptian jails, where he was tortured. He became a more determined radical after his time in jail.

An interesting comment, attributed in the book to Zawahiri, is that it is nearly impossible to have an insurgency in Egypt because of its geography. Egypt is basically a valley around the Nile surrounded by desert, there are no places for insurgents to hide. Compare this with Afganistan or the Balkans, which have mountains and plenty of hard to reach terrain where fighters can hide.

Finally the book discusses Osama bin Laden’s rise to radicalism. He came from a very rich family – the family became rich because of his father’s work. His father was in construction business at the time when oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. He became a favorite of the Saud royal family, at times even lending the king money to keep the goverment afloat. Osama himself worked for some of his father’s businesses – he learned some of his management skills there.

Bin Laden was already radicalized by the movements to Islamic purity and the defining momement in his career came when the Soviet Union invaded Afganistan. He saw this conflict at the start of the war between Islam and the western world. He became invloved in recruiting and financing Arab fighters (mostly young unemployed Saudi men) to go and fight against the infidels in Afganistan. Eventually he also wound up in Afganistan figthing the Soviets.

Although the role of the Arab figthers in the Afganistan war was fairly minor, bin Laden was ecstatic when the Soviets finally left. He attributed the fall of the Soviet Union to its defeat in Afganistan. From this he jumped to conclusion that similar “method” could be used to bring down the only other secular power left – the United States.

His animosity against the US increased after the fist Gulf War. When Iraq invaded Kuwaitt, there was only desert sand stading between Saddam’ tanks and the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden offered his “army” of fighters from Afganistan to the Saudi goverment. He claimed they could win because God was on their side. The Saudi goverment rejected bin Laden’s offer and asked for help from the US. Mind you, this was not an easy decision to the Saudi’s to bring “infidels” into the land that’s holliest to Islam (Mecca and Medina are both in Saudi Arabia). However, the Americans promised to leave once the danger was over.

There is a parallel thread in the book discussion FBI’s terrorist fighting unit. The leader and the main champion of this unit was a man named John O’Neil. To me O’Neil seemed a very “James Bond” type character – he was married, but had several permanent girlfriends, he always dressed sharp and he was extremely dedicated to his work. He was one the first few Americans to realize the danger posed by bin Laden and AL-Qaeda.

The book explains some of the differences between FBI and CIA. Where as CIA’s role is to gather intelligence outside the USA, FBI’s task is to investigate crimes against American citizens anywhere in the world. For example, FBI agents investigated the attacks on American embassy in Africa and the bombing of the destroyed Cole in Yemen.

Because there is a law from the Watergate era, which puts up a vitural wall between intelligence and criminal investigations, a lot of information that could have been useful to the FBI anti-terrorism unit was not supplied by CIA, even when the FBI explicitely asked for the information. According to the author part of the problem was not just the specific law, by the strict interpration of it by the people in charge. People who were bit too much concerned with organizational politics and internal turf wars.

Another agent who is portrayed extensively in the book is a Lebanese-American agent named Ali Soufan. He was one of the main agents investigating the Cole bombing and he was the first one to firnly establish the connection between Al-Qaeda and this crime. Ali Soufan has been tracing out the Al-Queda network, though some contacts in Yemen. Al-Queda was using a phone in Yemen as a kind of switch board. When the 9/11 attacks occured Ali Soufan was given all the information that CIA had about several of the people FBI was tracking:

(…) Inside were three surveillance photos and complete report about the Malaysia meeting – the very material Soufan had been asking for, which CIA had denied him until now. The wall had come down. When Soufan realized that the agency and some people in bureau had known for more than a year and half that two of the highjackers were in the country, he ran into the bathroom and retched.

John O’Neil resigned from FBI in June 2001. He left, because through the constant agitation he created a number of powerful enemies. His new job was to be a directoror of security at World Trade Center in New York. He was in his office on 9/11 and was killed in the attack.