Book Review: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Author:Major Jeffrey S. Thurnher

2008] BOOK REVIEWS 203



If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.3

In many respects, America knew neither its enemy nor itself on the morning of 11 September 2001 (9/11).4 The United States had enjoyed a false sense of security that was shattered in an instant. In his groundbreaking narrative, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright gives unprecedented insight into the background, motivation, and deadly plans of the al-Qaeda leaders who organized the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He also uncovers critical mistakes and missteps of this country's intelligence and law enforcement agencies which left America vulnerable. Americans have come to realize that they must recognize the warning signs of terrorism.5 The public now has a general idea of what terrorism is; Wright's main objective is to explain how terrorism came to be.6

I wholeheartedly recommend Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning work.7

The Looming Tower provides a true "education"8 for the reader on the beginnings of modern terrorism and what we could have done to prevent

it. This education serves as an important resource for Judge Advocates who continue to support the fight against a determined al-Qaeda enemy. Today's leaders must not only examine the essence of the enemy they are fighting but also reflect upon the errors that put America at risk for being attacked.9 Wright distinguishes his work from other 9/11 accounts with four main strengths: an engaging writing style, clever organization, an unparalleled commitment to research, and uncompromising objectivity.

Wright's Engaging Writing Style Draws the Reader into the Story

What truly elevates Wright's work is his ability to pull the reader into his story. Wright was already well regarded by many as a "superb literary stylist,"10 and he advances that reputation in The Looming Tower. Principally, Wright's book is a detailed narrative of the years preceding the 9/11 attacks, but in reality, it is much more. Instead of simply stringing together cold, hard facts, the author uses extraordinary detail to breathe life into the people, places, and events that he describes. Wright also delivers his tale in an exciting, fast-paced, storytelling style that leaves the reader on the edge of her seat.

Wright takes a masterful approach to describing his main characters and events. One example is Wright's introduction of FBI Agent Dan Coleman, one of the first government agents to track Osama bin Laden as a threat. Wright describes Coleman as "overweight and disheveled, with a brushy moustache and hair that refused to stay combed. He was as cantankerous as a porcupine (his FBI colleagues called him 'Grumpy Santa' behind his back) . . . ."11 Wright's vivid words immediately call to mind a vital image of a rather ill-tempered man.

In other chapters, Wright introduces the reader to another FBI agent, the larger-than-life John O'Neill. O'Neill, who would "become the man most identified with the pursuit of Osama bin Laden,"12 is described

wearing "Burberry pinstripes and . . . Bruno Magli loafers"13 and being "fascinated by gadgetry and always [having] the latest electronic organizer or mobile phone in his pocket . . . ."14 While the colorful descriptions are important, it is the depth to which Wright explores these characters that is his true genius. For instance, Wright exposes not only O'Neill's actions in the FBI workplace, but also dives headfirst into many of his personal shortcomings, such as secretly dating three women -despite being a married father-and incurring heavy debts in order to cover his extravagant lifestyle.15 By providing a richly-detailed look into the foibles and quirks of these key figures, Wright "introduces" them to the reader in such a tangible manner, it feels like a real-life introduction.

In particular, Wright excels in personalizing the major figures of the modern Islamic movement: Sayyid Qutb, the influential Egyptian writer who advocated the "complete rejection of rationalism and Western values"16 to save Islam; Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who helped direct al-Qaeda "to put Qutb's vision into action";17 and Osama bin Laden, the Saudi from a wealthy family who used his influence and money to create al-Qaeda in part to serve as "an Arab legion that could wage war anywhere."18 Wright focuses heavily on providing as complete a description as possible of these individuals' lives and backgrounds.19 Whether it was learning that bin Laden's favorite childhood television show was Bonanza,20 or that bin Laden felt betrayed when his fourth wife asked for a divorce and some...

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