In the Oct. 19 number of the New York Review of Books, Robert Worth reviews Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006), an "account of both collaboration among terrorists and rivalry between the CIA and the FBI."[1]  --  Worth largely accepts Wright's view of al-Qaeda as not an inevitability but rather as the peculiar consequence of an alliance between figures who happened to complement each other to a high degree: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.  --  By this account, al-Qaeda loses much of its significance.  --  "There have been radical splinter groups in Islam ever since the Kharijites assassinated Ali, the fourth caliph, in Iraq during the seventh century," Worth notes, "and they take the same general form: messianic leaders inspire young men to give up their lives in the name of a more authentic faith."  --  It follows that the real problem is "a broad and diverse movement of radical Islamic militancy."  --  But this nothing-new-under-the-sun analysis is much too pat, and is only a hop, skip, and a jump from the absurdly essentialist Bush administration line that "They hate our freedoms."  --  As a resolutely uncritical New York Times reporter, Worth works from within the official narrative. -- Thus we hear a lot about "the threat the U.S. faces today," but not a word about U.S. foreign policy. -- Worth writes as though the U.S. were a nation like any other and not a globe-bestriding hyperpower responsible for half the world's military spending bent on controlling energy resources on the other side of the globe....


By Robert F. Worth

New York Review of Books
October 19, 2006
Pages 12 & 14-16

[Review of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 2006), 469pp., $27.95.]


Five years after the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden is a diminished figure. President Bush has started mentioning him again in recent speeches, but mainly to highlight American success in crippling and isolating al-Qaeda's leaders. Last year, the CIA disbanded Alec Station, the unit assigned to hunt down bin Laden and his top lieutenants. The U.S. government appears to consider the world's most famous terrorist a faded star, elusive in a mountain hideaway but largely irrelevant. The greater emphasis now -- at least in public -- is on a new generation of jihadists in Europe, Asia, and North America whose names no one knows. Al-Qaeda is seen as threatening not so much because of its famous leaders but as an ideological virus -- a spore that floats invisibly across borders and replicates itself anywhere there are discontented young men and Internet connections.

Still, on the fifth anniversary of the attacks in September, al-Qaeda was able to release a new video showing bin Laden and other jihadists planning the 2001 attacks; and another in which Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's bespectacled second-in-command, warns of new attacks against Israel and the Arab Gulf nations. In early July, Zawahiri had also appeared on another videotape claiming that the British-born men who carried out the London subway and bus bombings last year were not homegrown terrorists after all. Instead, he said, they were veterans of an old-fashioned al-Qaeda training camp, presumably in Pakistan or Afghanistan. If he was not lying -- and al-Qaeda's leaders rarely make such claims -- Zawahiri's videotape would appear to suggest that the old guard retains some power. At least one of the British men arrested in August in a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic is also believed to have links with al-Qaeda, according to a number of news reports.

This is far from being convincing evidence that al-Qaeda was responsible for the conspiracy. But it would be unwise to assume that the subway and bus attacks or the foiled planes plot were entirely the work of self-taught novices. For all the talk of al-Qaeda having entered a new phase based on anonymous networks, terrorist groups are often cult-like organizations, where charismatic leaders hold sway. This has been true of bin Laden, and of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq; it is likely to be true of future terror groups, no matter how far-flung their followers.

In order to write The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright spent nearly five years tracking down former associates and friends of bin Laden and Zawahiri in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Sudan, some of whom -- as far as I know -- had never before spoken to journalists.[1] He also drew on much documentary research and tried to reconcile contradictory versions of events. The result is a fascinating account of what life was like inside the al-Qaeda inner circle. For example, Wright reports that Umm Abdullah, "the first in the rank" of bin Laden's four wives, liked to run around the inner courtyard of their compound in Afghanistan in Western-style jogging suits and had a taste for expensive American cosmetics and lingerie. Wright shows that bin Laden, whether in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Afghanistan, did not entirely cut himself off from his origins as the son of one of the richest businessmen in Saudi Arabia.

Some writers have suggested that what happened on September 11 was virtually inevitable, the expression of a broader jihadist movement whose individual players hardly matter. Some have accused the Bush administration of exaggerating bin Laden's importance, whether for political reasons or through ignorance. The al-Qaeda leaders captured since September 11 may have helped spread the myth in efforts to minimize their own roles in the organization and obtain clemency. According to Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East commentator and scholar of radical Islam, the influential report of the 9/11 Commission inflates bin Laden's stature because it relies too heavily on the testimony of such prisoners, some of whose testimony was elicited after waterboarding and other coercive practices.[2] No such accusation can be made against Wright, whose account is based in large measure on interviews with former jihadists. His book includes a postscript explaining his sources and a list of the people he interviewed, information that is welcome in a field in which sources are often unreliable and scholarship has often been shoddy.

Wright's conclusion is a somewhat controversial one. One can ask, he writes, "whether 9/11 or some similar tragedy would have happened without bin Laden to steer it. The answer is certainly not. Indeed, the tectonic plates of history were 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 this contest."

Wright proposes a parallel explanation for the American failure to stop the September 11 plot. It was not, he writes, just a matter of institutional failures of cooperation between the CIA and FBI. Instead, the personal vendettas between leading officials such as John O'Neill, the chief of counterterrorism at the FBI, and Michael Scheuer, his CIA counterpart, prevented the two agencies from sharing information as they should have.

At times, Wright seems to go too far, seeing bin Laden and his associates as representing the entire jihadist movement, and he has little to say about political divisions among Islamists as well as about the different goals of such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But he has given a finely judged account of both collaboration among terrorists and rivalry between the CIA and the FBI.


Most accounts of al-Qaeda's origins begin with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That event and its repercussions have been described so often in the past five years that they have taken on the quality of a grim morality tale, usually invoked to illustrate America's fatal ignorance about the anti-Communist Muslim group it was supporting. It was in Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden, the son of a Saudi construction magnate, first tested his ideas about jihad, alongside Afghan warriors financed by the CIA. The decade-long conflict with Soviet Communists and their Afghan protégés aroused the Muslim world, and fostered the idea that a band of zealots could take on a superpower. Its veterans quickly formed a pool of recruits for the international jihadist movement. And it was to Afghanistan that bin Laden returned in 1996 after four years in Sudan, relying on the Taliban for protection and slowly building his organization into the global terrorist front that would strike at the U.S.

The other frequently mentioned point of departure is Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's homeland, and the country most responsible for exporting and financing the extremely conservative strain of Islam known as Wahhabism. Not only bin Laden but fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the World Trade Center attacks were from Saudi Arabia. Wright makes much of bin Laden's hostility to the Saudi royal family during and after the Gulf War -- when the regime invited infidel American soldiers into the country -- and the support he and some of his associates received from powerful Saudis, such as Prince Turki, who was Saudi Arabia's chief of intelligence from 1977 to 2001 and is now the Saudi ambassador to the US.

Wright sees al-Qaeda's Egyptian origins as equally important. The Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), with whom Wright starts his book, is the patron saint of the modern jihadist movement, and the source of some of its central principles. It was Qutb who introduced to modern Arabs the concept, now known as takfir, whereby Islamists can circumvent the Koranic prohibition against killing other Muslims by declaring their enemies to be apostates. The idea dates back to the earliest days of Islam. But Qutb revived it, along with the notion that jihad -- the struggle, as he saw it, to reshape contemporary society according to Islamic law -- is one of the central ideas of Islam. Since 2003, Sunni terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda have invoked the principle of takfir so often that Shiites in Iraq now refer to them habitually as takfiris.

Qutb's powerful influence on the broader jihadist movement has often been noted since 2001, including by Wright himself in the New Yorker. But Wright expands his account with fresh material, chiefly concerning Qutb's two-year stay in the United States between 1948 and 1950. He writes, for instance, that Greeley, Colorado -- where Qutb spent six months studying at the Colorado State College of Education -- was anything but the wild metropolis one imagines from Qutb's angry fulminations about American sexual freedom and lack of piety. It was founded as a temperance colony, and remained at that time a place where local people were active churchgoers, had much respect for family values, and were unusually well educated. Much that Qutb saw in the U.S. might have appealed to a stern Islamist; and the people who knew him, Wright observes, recall him as polite, never critical. But the college itself was progressive, with high female enrollment. According to Wright, Qutb was deeply disturbed by encounters with young women with forthright liberal views about their own place in society and their relations with men. Like his ideological descendants in al-Qaeda, he came to hate the United States because it stood for the modern way of life that was drawing people from his native country toward secularism and away from the kind of theocratic state he envisioned, in which conservative Islamic values would be imposed on all aspects of life.

After his return to Egypt Qutb became a radical intellectual in the Muslim Brotherhood; he came into frequent conflict with the secular Nasser regime, which he wanted to overthrow. He wrote his two most important works while in prison in the late 1950s, and in 1966, he was executed for allegedly plotting a coup. Because of his influential writings he was immediately celebrated as a martyr to the Islamist cause. Qutb's most direct heir, and the most fully realized and powerful character in Wright's book, is Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although he came from a well-to-do family, Zawahiri grew up hearing worshipful stories about Qutb's martyrdom from an uncle who had been Qutb's protégé.

Unlike bin Laden, Wright shows, Zawahiri was an excellent student as a child, and was capable of strict self-discipline. At the age of fifteen, the year Qutb was executed, he helped form an underground cell devoted to overthrowing the secular Egyptian government and imposing Islamic law on Egypt by restoring the caliphate, the rule by appointed Islamic clerics, which had been abolished in 1924. Later, in the 1970s, while studying medicine at Cairo University, Zawahiri merged his cell with several other Egyptian Islamist cells to form a group called al-Jihad. After other members of al-Jihad assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Zawahiri -- by now a practicing physician -- was arrested and spent three years in an Egyptian prison. Like many of his fellow militants, he was tortured, an experience that Wright suggests profoundly affected him and accelerated his transformation into a violent extremist.

Still, like most jihadists, Zawahiri was strictly local in his ambitions. Islamist movements, for the most part, have been concerned with bringing down governments in the Muslim world they consider decadent and irreligious and replacing them with theocracies. As late as 1995, Zawahiri published an article titled "The Way to Jerusalem Passes Through Cairo." Even the war against Israel was secondary to the one at home.

Al-Qaeda itself had limited goals when it was formed in Pakistan in 1988. At the time, bin Laden and other founders wanted an international jihad corps, mainly to fight Communists in Afghanistan and other Muslim Asian countries. Hence the new group's name, which means the "solid base" or "military base" for the hoped-for Islamic society. New members took an oath of loyalty to bin Laden by filling out forms in triplicate, and they swore themselves to secrecy. In return, they received $1,000 a month in salary, a round-trip ticket home each year for a month of vacation, and a health care plan. The group had a constitution, bylaws, and training camps. Still, for years its aims were loosely defined. Some of its members wanted to overthrow Arab governments, but there was little thought of striking at the West until the mid-1990s.

Why, then, did al-Qaeda decide to attack America? According to some accounts, ever since Sayyid Qutb's American visit, many Islamists had seen the Christian West -- and the United States in particular -- as the cultural and philosophical source of everything they hated most, and the backer of their secular enemies at home. American support for Israel sharpened their animus, as did the American-led invasion of Iraq in 1991 and the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which was seen as a violation of the holy places.

By the mid-1990s, local jihadist movements across the Middle East were in disarray. It is true that an Islamist revolutionary movement succeeded in Sudan after 1989 and that the Taliban government came to power in Afghanistan in 1996. But aside from these successes on the periphery of the region, the jihadists had failed to install a single Islamist revolutionary group in power despite years of effort. The governments of Egypt and Algeria were cracking down brutally on veterans of the Afghan jihad, and many became inactive. Apart from anything else, al-Qaeda's leaders may have felt a need to impose a unifying purpose and program on the quarreling, multinational holy warriors that made up its base. "With the near enemy unbeatable on its own turf, the only solution was to wage jihad against the far enemy," write Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in The Age of Sacred Terror,[3] a conclusion many others have accepted.

Wright disagrees. Al-Qaeda's decision to attack the United States, he suggests, arose in large part from the mutual influence and collaboration of its two leaders, Zawahiri and bin Laden, in the mid-1990s. Zawahiri, for all his technical and organizational skill, was odd-looking and bespectacled, reserved and arrogant; in a movement led mostly by charismatic ex-officers no one could stand him. According to Wright, one of Zawahiri's fellow cell members in Egypt noted soon after he met him that there was "something missing" in him. He told Zawahiri, "If you are a member of any group, you cannot be the leader." Those words were prophetic. Zawahiri's Egyptian organization, al-Jihad, suffered constant reversals. By the time he teamed up with bin Laden in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, al-Jihad was splintered, widely hated, and broke.

Bin Laden, by contrast, was gracefully handsome and tall (though Wright insists he is six feet, not the 6'5" others have reported). A scion of Saudi Arabia's richest family, he had the money and contacts Zawahiri lacked. His intense piety seems to have kindled respect in other men from an early age. Moreover, his experience in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Sudan and his deep hatred of the United States had given him more international ambitions for the jihadi movement. Where Zawahiri was disciplined and focused, bin Laden was impractical and sometimes seemed lacking in direction. But bin Laden had a natural charisma and public appeal that was to serve al-Qaeda well.

Zawahiri and bin Laden were more than just a good team. They shaped each other. When they first met in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, bin Laden, in Wright's account, was more relief worker than terrorist, a rich young Saudi who handed out cashews and chocolates to wounded Arab fighters in the Pakistani hospitals across the border in Peshawar. It was Zawahiri who urged him to think of himself as a warrior. Zawahiri also introduced the tactics of suicide attacks to al-Qaeda, persuading its leaders that the practice was acceptable according to Islamic law. For his part, bin Laden had an unformed longing to punish the West, exacerbated by his anger about the Saudi government's decision to allow American military bases on the Arabian peninsula in 1991. He brought Zawahiri back to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, and their organizations, al-Jihad and al-Qaeda, formally merged in June 2001.

By that time, al-Qaeda's campaign against the West was well underway. The first forays began in 1993, when bin Laden apparently sent a small number of men to fight American troops in Somalia. He may also have helped finance the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, masterminded by Ramzi Yousef (whose uncle, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, would be a principal architect of the September 11 attacks). According to Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence minister, al-Qaeda's first real terrorist strike was the November 1995 bombing of a Saudi National Guard compound in Riyadh, in which five Americans were killed.

A year later the group went public, when bin Laden released his "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places." In 1998, a few months before the devastating attacks on two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he amplified that message, calling for the murder of "Americans and their allies, civilian and military," around the world. Zawahiri, who helped draft the document, was sitting by his side.

The two men can be seen, Wright suggests, as the prickly ideologue and the charismatic dreamer whose combined sensibilities and skills produced something new. As Wright puts it: "The dynamic of the two men's relationship made Zawahiri and bin Laden into people they would never have been individually; moreover, the organization they would create, al-Qaeda, would be a vector of these two forces, one Egyptian and one Saudi. Each would have to compromise in order to accommodate the goals of the other; as a result, al-Qaeda would take a unique path, that of global jihad."

Wright's thesis is not wholly original. Both Fawaz Gerges and the Egyptian lawyer Montasser al-Zayyat have written about the mutual influence of bin Laden and Zawahiri in explaining the shift to American targets. But they mention it as one factor among many others. More convincingly than any other writer I know of, Wright has been able to reconstruct full portraits of the two men and the effects of their friendship on the broader goals of the jihadist movement.


Bin Laden and Zawahiri are now so familiar from their appearances on al-Jazeera that it is hard to imagine how they could have turned out differently. But as recently as the early 1990s, bin Laden nearly drifted away from terrorism altogether. Most Western writers, concerned mainly with the September 11 plot, devote little attention to this period. Wright, however, tracked down many of the people bin Laden lived and worked with during his years in Sudan, before al-Qaeda made the decision to attack America. Wright's account reveals an unexpectedly ambivalent side of bin Laden's character, and describes a time when his newly formed group might almost have dissolved, or chosen another road than global jihad.

Bin Laden moved to Sudan in 1992, angry not only at the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia but also at the worsening civil war among warlords and Mujahideen groups following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. He brought with him his four wives, seventeen children, and a fledgling jihadist organization. The Islamist Sudanese government had offered him a safe haven and the opportunity to follow in his billionaire father's footsteps by becoming a road-builder and businessman. He invested millions in these ventures, setting up a holding company in downtown Khartoum. But it was farming that captured his imagination. He soon became one of the country's largest landholders, with a virtual monopoly on its farm exports. Although some training for terrorist action still went on, by this time "al-Qaeda had become largely an agricultural organization," according to Wright, and bin Laden himself "said he resolved to quit al-Qaeda altogether and become a farmer."

This period soon came to an end. For all his reputation as a financier of terrorists, bin Laden had none of his father's extraordinary talent for business. His investments in Sudan were a boon to the new Islamist government there, which was fighting a civil war against Christian and animist groups in the south. But he got little in return. Relying on interviews with the Syrian jihadist Abu Rida al-Suri, who served as bin Laden's chief business adviser at the time (a man no other writer, to my knowledge, has spoken to), Wright gives an astonishing account of bin Laden's improvidence. He threw money into farming, horse breeding, a company that tanned leather for export to Italy, and other projects he knew little about and left others to manage, spending his time driving around the country or entertaining dignitaries. Wright describes him hanging around the dusty racetrack in Khartoum, plugging his ears with his fingers so as not to hear the band. By 1995, he was virtually broke. A year later the Sudanese government, under pressure from the Clinton administration, forced him to leave the country. Some say he left with the equivalent of $50,000. Others say he left with nothing.

At the same time, he suffered another setback. In March 1994, King Fahd personally canceled bin Laden's Saudi citizenship. Fahd had come under pressure from the leaders of Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria, who believed bin Laden was responsible for organizing a string of jihadist attacks in their countries. It was a terrible blow for a man whose father had helped build the Saudi state, and who saw himself as the true defender of Saudi Islam. Bin Laden blamed America for his double expulsion, both from Sudan, where he had briefly found happiness, and from the land of his birth.

Wright's chapter titles about the Sudan years ("Paradise" and "Paradise Lost") convey a theological sense of exile, casting bin Laden as a Miltonic Satan who would ultimately strike back at those who dared to judge him. Bin Laden, according to Wright, had always seen his life in the pattern of Muhammad. Now, like Islam's prophet, he would take on his most powerful enemies.

Still, for all its air of tragic inevitability, this story is full of tantalizing possibilities. What if bin Laden had in fact given up on al-Qaeda and managed to build a more successful business career? What if he had accepted the Saudi government's offer, in 1995, to renew his citizenship and let him return home as long as he renounced his criticisms of the King?


Such questions have often been asked about al-Qaeda, but usually from an American perspective. Starting in the mid-1990s, the CIA's bin Laden unit, called Alec Station, began tracking bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qaeda with the aim of capturing or killing them. The CIA had several clear opportunities to do so, and missed them all, inhibited by American diplomacy, the fear of civilian casualties, and the complexities of America's troubled relationship with Pakistan, whose intelligence services had their own connections with bin Laden. The story of those failures has been amply told in Steve Coll's Ghost Wars (2004) and in the 9/11 Commission Report, and Wright touches on them only briefly. Instead, he offers his own idea of what might have happened differently, in a narrative that gives much more emphasis to the leadership of the FBI than to that of the CIA.

In October 2000, the FBI's John O'Neill flew to Yemen to lead the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. The head of counterterrorism in the FBI's New York office, O'Neill was a brash, hard-driving figure, one of a few people within the American government who seemed to understand the seriousness of the al-Qaeda threat. Wright casts him as a kind of American counterforce to bin Laden and Zawahiri, a fighter desperate to head off the bigger attack he knew was coming.

What happened next has been told, in part, in the 9/11 Commission Report, and has figured prominently in congressional investigations of intelligence failures. Wright, however, turns that dry account -- in which the agents' names are often referred to anonymously as John and Jane -- for the first time into a tense and fascinating story of how close the U.S. came to preventing the attacks. He also proposes new motives for the failures that do not seem to have occurred to the authors of the report.

O'Neill's lead investigator, a young Arabic-speaking agent named Ali Soufan, persuaded the Sudanese authorities to let him speak to an arrested al-Qaeda member, Fahd al-Quso, who had been given the mission of filming the Cole bombing for propaganda purposes, but had overslept. He told Soufan that just before the bombing, he had flown to Bangkok with one of the Cole bombers to deliver $36,000 to an al-Qaeda operative named Khallad, who had taken part in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Checking phone records, Soufan found calls to a telephone number in Malaysia. He then asked CIA officials if they knew anything about Khallad or the Malaysia connection. It seemed odd, after all, that money would be flowing away from Yemen just before the bombing there. Was another operation underway?

The CIA, as it happened, knew all about Khallad. He had met in Malaysia in late 1999 with Khaled al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two men known at that time to be al-Qaeda members who would later be part of the hijacking team on September 11. More than that, the CIA knew that Hazmi had entered the United States with a valid visa on January 15, 2000. (Mihdhar was traveling with him.) Had the CIA passed this information on to the FBI, an investigation would have begun immediately, and the September 11 attacks might have been averted. Instead, the CIA told Soufan nothing. Why?

The official answer is that the Justice Department had in 1995 instituted a policy known as "the Wall," which was intended to regulate the exchange of foreign intelligence information between CIA agents and the department's criminal investigators. That policy, apparently aimed at preventing disclosure of CIA secrets during trials, was quickly misinterpreted as calling for a near-total ban on sharing information. Summarizing the failure to catch Hazmi and Mihdhar, the 9/11 Commission failed to assign clear responsibility: "It is now clear that everyone involved was confused about the rules governing the sharing and use of information gathered in intelligence channels." If the information had been shared, "a combination of the CIA's zone defense and the FBI's man-to-man approach might have been productive." In other words, both teams dropped the ball.

Wright disagrees. He suggests instead that the failure may derive from an intensely personal struggle between the two agencies over who would lead the fight against al-Qaeda. On one side was John O'Neill, and on the other, the CIA agents loyal to Michael Scheuer, an equally driven man who had helped found Alec Station but had been assigned to other work in 1999 after he proposed a cruise missile strike at bin Laden in Afghanistan and was turned down. "There were many in the agency -- not just the sidelined Scheuer -- who hated O'Neill and feared that the FBI was too blundering and indiscriminate to be trusted with sensitive intelligence," Wright comments. "And so the CIA may have decided to hide the information in order to keep O'Neill off the case." This interpretation recalls Wright's approach to al-Qaeda itself. For him, power struggles at the top -- not just ideology or bureaucratic failures -- are often the deciding factor, whether among the jihadis or in the U.S. government.


Wright's book is bound to raise the question: What relevance does all this have to the threat the U.S. faces today? Whatever one's views about how al-Qaeda developed and chose to attack America, the next wave of jihadists may pose greater dangers. There have been radical splinter groups in Islam ever since the Kharijites assassinated Ali, the fourth caliph, in Iraq during the seventh century; and they take the same general form: messianic leaders inspire young men to give up their lives in the name of a more authentic faith. During the last half-century there has been no lack of examples of this tendency, whether in the Muslim Brotherhood's clandestine cells or among the armed zealots who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca by force in 1979. Al-Qaeda, by some accounts, was just one such group, and it has been followed by many more. It has killed only a few thousand people worldwide (unless one includes Iraqis killed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group, which became affiliated with al-Qaeda in late 2004). The British journalist Jason Burke, among others, has argued that al-Qaeda's allegedly dominant power within the world of jihad was always something of a myth. Now the organization is gone, Burke writes, and we are faced with what we had before al-Qaeda's brief heyday: "a broad and diverse movement of radical Islamic militancy."

The war in Iraq appears to have contributed to the growth of this diverse movement in two ways. It has been a valuable military training ground for jihadists; and images of occupying American soldiers have become a potent recruiting tool for extremists around the world. Opposition to the American war in Iraq appears to have been one of the motives of the terrorists who carried out the London and Madrid suicide bombings, and a source of intense anger for some of the twenty-four British men arrested in the plot to bomb airliners in August. In a New Yorker article published in September, Wright cites two al-Qaeda ideologues whose plans for the future of global jihad often read, he suggests, "like a playbook that U.S. policymakers have been slavishly, if inadvertently, following." The growing use of the Internet among jihadists has also greatly enhanced the movement's ability to spread.

But it is worth recalling that most of these dangers have been speculative. Many of the "homegrown" terrorists apprehended in the West appear to be less serious and capable than Mohamed Atta and his Afghan-trained cohorts. Moreover, many jihadists around the world remain focused on fighting the "near enemy" in their home countries, and some have denounced the September 11 attacks, which often made their own struggles more difficult.

It may be sheer good luck that al-Qaeda and its ideological heirs have not killed a single person on American soil in the past five years. Then again, it may be, as Wright's revealing book suggests, that bin Laden and Zawahiri's achievement in creating al-Qaeda and holding it together was both more remarkable, and more fragile, than anyone expected.


[1] Wright has said his interest in writing this book grew in part from his having co-written the script for the 1998 movie "The Siege," in which terrorists blow up the Federal Building in Manhattan, setting off a crackdown on terror suspects and civil liberties. At one point in The Looming Tower, Wright describes how bin Laden's lieutenants watched Hollywood movies on videotape in their Afghan compound as they struggled to refine the plot that would eventually result in the September 11 attacks. In the notes to this passage he writes: "In the interest of full disclosure, the author's own movie "The Siege" was also viewed by al Qaeda members."

[2] See Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 16–21. Gerges's discussion of the importance of charismatic personalities in jihad-ist groups (pp. 34–42) seems to me persuasive.

[3] Random House, 2002, p. 120.