Bookmarks Issue: 

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

A-The Looming TowerCould 9/11 have happened without Osama bin Laden? New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright answers, "Certainly not. The tectonic plates of history were certainly shifting, promoting a period of conflict between the West and the Arab Muslim world; however, the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature of the contest." While Wright covers familiar events and shifts in ideologies pre-9/11, he focuses on the men involved in 9/11: alienated Sayid Qutb, an influential theorist on Islamic fundamentalism; bin Laden, a privileged, highly organized plotter; Ayman al-Zawahiri, a ruthless, militant Egyptian physician; Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence; and FBI counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, who understood the al-Qaeda threat perhaps more than anyone else—and perished in the World Trade towers.
Knopf. 480 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 037541486X

Baltimore Sun 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Wright’s magisterial, beautifully crafted narrative of the path to Sept. 11 traces this notion of global jihad through Egyptian student movements, Saudi mosques, and Afghan training camps, through the murderous fatwas of radical clerics and finally into the heads and hearts of a wealthy young Saudi named Osama bin Laden and the martyrdom-obsessed young men he recruited to al-Qaida’s ranks." Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The reader, knowing the end, supplies the dread as Wright clears away the murk, untangles the particulars, and tells a hapless, appalling and engrossing tale. … The reporting in The Looming Tower is so good that it will matter in 100 years." Karen Long

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"By focusing on the lives and careers of several key players on the ‘road to 9/11’ … he has succeeded in writing a narrative history that possesses all the immediacy and emotional power of a novel, an account that indelibly illustrates how the political and the personal, the public and the private were often inextricably intertwined. … His book provides an amazingly detailed look at daily life inside Al Qaeda, and the motivations, misgivings and political goals of individual members." Michiko Kakutani

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Dexter Filkins

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[John O’Neill’s] story is the most poignant, and frustrating, of many in this immaculately crafted, unsettling book." Peter Bergen

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"[Wright’s] often contradictory interviews with guerrillas and spies from 1980s Egypt to early 1990s Somalia to late 1990s Yemen weave the World Trade Center attacks into a fuller and more complex fabric than most previous reporting. If journalism is history’s first draft, The Looming Tower is a good but still flawed second draft." Andrew Giarelli

Critical Summary

The Looming Tower may be the most riveting, informative, and "heart-stopping account" yet of the men who shaped 9/11 (New York Times Book Review). The focus on individuals gives the book its emotional punch, but it is also a narrative bold in conception and historical sweep. Lawrence Wright conducted more than 500 interviews, from bin Laden’s best friend in college to Richard A. Clarke, Saudi royalty, Afghan mujahideen, and reporters for Al Jazeera. The result, while evenhanded in its analysis of the complex motives, ideals, and power plays that led to 9/11, leaves few nefarious details uncovered. An abrupt ending did little to sway critics that Looming Tower is nothing less than "indispensable" reading (Cleveland Plain Dealer).