The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Anglais) Relié – Séquence inédite, 8 août 2006
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In a first-class stateroom on a cruise ship bound for New York from Alexandria, Egypt, a frail, middle-aged writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb experienced a crisis of faith. “Should I go to America as any normal student on a scholarship, who only eats and sleeps, or should I be special?” he wondered. “Should I hold on to my Islamic beliefs, facing the many sinful temptations, or should I indulge those temptations all around me?” It was November 1948. The new world loomed over the horizon, victorious, rich, and free. Behind him was Egypt, in rags and tears. The traveler had never been out of his native country. Nor had he willingly left now.
The stern bachelor was slight and dark, with a high, sloping forehead and a paintbrush moustache somewhat narrower than the width of his nose. His eyes betrayed an imperious and easily slighted nature. He always evoked an air of formality, favoring dark three-piece suits despite the searing Egyptian sun. For a man who held his dignity so close, the prospect of returning to the classroom at the age of forty-two may have seemed demeaning. And yet, as a child from a mud-walled village in Upper Egypt, he had already surpassed the modest goal he had set for himself of becoming a respectable member of the civil service. His literary and social criticism had made him one of his country’s most popular writers. It had also earned the fury of King Farouk, Egypt’s dissolute monarch, who had signed an order for his arrest. Powerful and sympathetic friends hastily arranged his departure.
At the time, Qutb (his name is pronounced kuh-tub) held a comfortable post as a supervisor in the Ministry of Education. Politically, he was a fervent Egyptian nationalist and anti-communist, a stance that placed him in the mainstream of the vast bureaucratic middle class. The ideas that would give birth to what would be called Islamic fundamentalism were not yet completely formed in his mind; indeed, he would later say that he was not even a very religious man before he began this journey, although he had memorized the Quran by the age of ten, and his writing had recently taken a turn toward more conservative themes. Like many of his compatriots, he was radicalized by the British occupation and contemptuous of the jaded King Farouk’s complicity. Egypt was racked by anti-British protests and seditious political factions bent on running the foreign troops out of the country—and perhaps the king as well. What made this unimposing, midlevel government clerk particularly dangerous was his blunt and potent commentary. He had never gotten to the front rank of the contemporary Arab literary scene, a fact that galled him throughout his career; and yet from the government’s point of view, he was becoming an annoyingly important enemy.
He was Western in so many ways—his dress, his love of classical music and Hollywood movies. He had read, in translation, the works of Darwin and Einstein, Byron and Shelley, and had immersed himself in French literature, especially Victor Hugo. Even before his journey, however, he worried about the advance of an all-engulfing Western civilization. Despite his erudition, he saw the West as a single cultural entity. The distinctions between capitalism and Marxism, Christianity and Judaism, fascism and democracy were insignificant by comparison with the single great divide in Qutb’s mind: Islam and the East on the one side, and the Christian West on the other.
America, however, stood apart from the colonialist adventures that had characterized Europe’s relations with the Arab world. America, at the end of the Second World War, straddled the political chasm between the colonizers and the colonized. Indeed, it was tempting to imagine America as the anticolonial paragon: a subjugated nation that had broken free and triumphantly outstripped its former masters. America’s power seemed to lie in its values, not in European notions of cultural superiority or privileged races and classes. And because America advertised itself as an immigrant nation, it had a permeable relationship with the rest of the world. Arabs, like most other peoples, had established their own colonies inside America, and the ropes of kinship drew them closer to the ideals that the country claimed to stand for.
And so, Qutb, like many Arabs, felt shocked and betrayed by the support that the U.S. government had given to the Zionist cause after the war. Even as Qutb was sailing out of Alexandria’s harbor, Egypt, along with five other Arab armies, was in the final stages of losing the war that established Israel as a Jewish state within the Arab world. The Arabs were stunned, not only by the determination and skill of the Israeli fighters but by the incompetence of their own troops and the disastrous decisions of their leaders. The shame of that experience would shape the Arab intellectual universe more profoundly than any other event in modern history. “I hate those Westerners and despise them!” Qutb wrote after President Harry Truman endorsed the transfer of a hundred thousand Jewish refugees into Palestine. “All of them, without any exception: the English, the French, the Dutch, and finally the Americans, who have been trusted by many.”
The man in the stateroom had known romantic love, but mainly the pain of it. He had written a thinly disguised account of a failed relationship in a novel; after that, he turned his back on marriage. He said that he had been unable to find a suitable bride from the “dishonorable” women who allowed themselves to be seen in public, a stance that left him alone and unconsoled in middle age. He still enjoyed women—he was close to his three sisters—but sexuality threatened him, and he had withdrawn into a shell of disapproval, seeing sex as the main enemy of salvation.
The dearest relationship he had ever enjoyed was that with his mother, Fatima, an illiterate but pious woman, who had sent her precocious son to Cairo to study. His father died in 1933, when Qutb was twenty-seven. For the next three years he taught in various provincial posts until he was transferred to Helwan, a prosperous suburb of Cairo, and he brought the rest of his family to live with him there. His intensely conservative mother never entirely settled in; she was always on guard against the creeping foreign influences that were far more apparent in Helwan than in the little village she came from. These influences must have been evident in her sophisticated son as well.
As he prayed in his stateroom, Sayyid Qutb was still uncertain of his own identity. Should he be “normal” or “special”? Should he resist temptations or indulge them? Should he hang on tightly to his Islamic beliefs or cast them aside for the materialism and sinfulness of the West? Like all pilgrims, he was making two journeys: one outward, into the larger world, and another inward, into his own soul. “I have decided to be a true Muslim!” he resolved. But almost immediately he second-guessed himself. “Am I being truthful or was that just a whim?”
His deliberations were interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing outside his stateroom was a young girl, whom he described as thin and tall and “half-naked.” She asked him in English, “Is it okay for me to be your guest tonight?”
Qutb responded that his room was equipped with only one bed.
“A single bed can hold two people,” she said.
Appalled, he closed the door in her face. “I heard her fall on the wooden floor outside and realized that she was drunk,” he recalled. “I instantly thanked God for defeating my temptation and allowing me to stick to my morals.”
This is the man, then—decent, proud, tormented, self-righteous, and resentful—whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad.
Qutb arrived in New York Harbor in the middle of the most prosperous holiday season the country had ever known. In the postwar boom, everybody was making money—Idaho potato farmers, Detroit automakers, Wall Street bankers—and all this wealth spurred confidence in the capitalist model, which had been so brutally tested during the recent Depression. Unemployment seemed practically un-American; officially, the rate of joblessness was under 4 percent, and practically speaking, anyone who wanted a job could get one. Half of the world’s total wealth was now in American hands.
The contrast with Cairo must have been especially bitter as Qutb wandered through the New York City streets, festively lit with holiday lights, the luxurious shop windows laden with appliances that he had only heard about—television sets, washing machines—technological miracles spilling out of every department store in stupefying abundance. Brand-new office towers and apartments were shouldering into the gaps in the Manhattan skyline between the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Downtown and in the outer boroughs, vast projects were under way to house the immigrant masses.
It was fitting, in such a buoyant and confident environment, unprecedented in its mix of cultures, that the visible symbol of a changed world order was arising: the new United Nations complex overlooking the East River. The United Nations was the most powerful expression of the determined internationalism that was the legacy of the war, and yet the city itself already embodied the dreams of universal harmony far more powerfully than did any single idea or institution. The world was pouring into New York because that was where the power was, and the money, and the transforming cultural energy. Nearly a million Russians were in the city, half a million Irish, and an equal number of Germans—not to mention the Puerto Ricans, the Dominicans, the Poles, and the largely uncounted and often illegal Chinese laborers who had also found refuge in the welcoming city. The black population of the city had grown by 50 percent in only eight years, to 700,000, and they were refugees as well, from the racism of the American South. Fully a fourth of the 8 million New Yorkers were Jewish, many of whom had fled the latest European catastrophe. Hebrew letters covered the signs for the shops and factories on the Lower East Side, and Yiddish was commonly heard on the streets. That would have been a challenge for the middle-aged Egyptian who hated the Jews but, until he left his country, had never met one. For many New Yorkers, perhaps for most of them, political and economic oppression was a part of their heritage, and the city had given them sanctuary, a place to earn a living, to raise a family, to begin again. Because of that, the great emotion that fueled the exuberant city was hopefulness, whereas Cairo was one of the capitals of despair.
At the same time, New York was miserable—overfull, grouchy, competitive, frivolous, picketed with No Vacancy signs. Snoring alcoholics blocked the doorways. Pimps and pickpockets prowled the midtown squares in the ghoulish neon glow of burlesque houses. In the Bowery, flophouses offered cots for twenty cents a night. The gloomy side streets were crisscrossed with clotheslines. Gangs of snarling delinquents roamed the margins like wild dogs. For a man whose English was rudimentary, the city posed unfamiliar hazards, and Qutb’s natural reticence made communication all the more difficult. He was desperately homesick. “Here in this strange place, this huge workshop they call ‘the new world,’ I feel as though my spirit, thoughts, and body live in loneliness,” he wrote to a friend in Cairo. “What I need most here is someone to talk to,” he wrote another friend, “to talk about topics other than dollars, movie stars, brands of cars—a real conversation on the issues of man, philosophy, and soul.” Two days after Qutb arrived in America, he and an Egyptian acquaintance checked into a hotel. “The black elevator operator liked us because we were closer to his color,” Qutb reported. The operator offered to help the travelers find “entertainment.” “He mentioned examples of this ‘entertainment,’ which included perversions. He also told us what happens in some of these rooms, which may have pairs of boys or girls. They asked him to bring them some bottles of Coca-Cola, and didn’t even change their positions when he entered! ‘Don’t they feel ashamed?’ we asked. He was surprised. ‘Why? They are just enjoying themselves, satisfying their particular desires.’ ”
This experience, among many others, confirmed Qutb’s view that sexual mixing led inevitably to perversion. America itself had just been shaken by a lengthy scholarly report titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, by Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues at the University of Indiana. Their eight-hundred-page treatise, filled with startling statistics and droll commentary, shattered the country’s leftover Victorian prudishness like a brick through a stained-glass window. Kinsey reported that 37 percent of the American men he sampled had experienced homosexual activity to the point of orgasm, nearly half had engaged in extramarital sex, and 69 percent had paid for sex with prostitutes. The mirror that Kinsey held up to America showed a country that was frantically lustful but also confused, ashamed, incompetent, and astoundingly ignorant. Despite the evidence of the diversity and frequency of sexual activity, this was a time in America when sexual matters were practically never discussed, not even by doctors. One Kinsey researcher interviewed a thousand childless American couples who had no idea why they failed to conceive, even though the wives were virgins.
Qutb was familiar with the Kinsey Report, and referenced it in his later writings to illustrate his view of Americans as little different from beasts—“a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money.” A staggering rate of divorce was to be expected in such a society, since “Every time a husband or wife notices a new sparkling personality, they lunge for it as if it were a new fashion in the world of desires.” The turbulent overtones of his own internal struggles can be heard in his diatribe: “A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless.”
The end of the world war had brought America victory but not security. Many Americans felt that they had defeated one totalitarian enemy only to encounter another far stronger and more insidious than European fascism. “Communism is creeping inexorably into these destitute lands,” the young evangelist Billy Graham warned, “into war-torn China, into restless South America, and unless the Christian religion rescues these nations from the clutch of the unbelieving, America will stand alone and isolated in the world.”
Revue de presse
“Don’t read The Looming Tower in bed. This book requires a straight spine and full attention . . . The reporting is so good that it will matter in 100 years. Wright’s determined, disciplined work has made his book indispensable. “ —Karen Long, The Plain Dealer
“A page-turner . . . encompassing religion, politics, economics and more. If you’ve been meaning to sharpen your understanding of what all led up to September 11, 2001, then Wright may have written just what you’ve been waiting for.” —Tom Gallagher, San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliant . . . describes the contorted intellectual journey that has taken place among some Muslims which allows a holy book that appears to condemn suicide and the killing on innocents to be used to justify catastrophic terrorism.” —Stephen Fidler, Financial Times
“A magisterial, beautifully crafted narrative . . . This focus on character, along with Wright’s five years of fierce on-the-ground reporting (he lists 560 interviewees), pays off.”
—Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Los Angeles Times
“Deeply researched . . . immaculately crafted.”
—Peter Bergen, The Wall Street Journal
“What a riveting tale Lawrence Wright fashions in this marvelous book. ‘The Looming Tower’ is not just a detailed, heart-stopping account of the events leading up to 9/11, written with style and verve. [It’s] a thoughtful examination of the world that produced the men who brought us 9/11, and of their progeny who bedevil us today. 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. ‘The Looming Tower’ is a thriller. And it’s a tragedy, too.”
–Dexter Filkins, The New York Times Book Review cover
“Dozens of intricately reported books about 9/11 are already available; I had read perhaps half of them [before] starting The Looming Tower. But Lawrence Wright’s book is my new touchstone. None of the previous books led me to say ‘Aha, now I think I understand’ as frequently.”
—Steve Weinberg, The Boston Globe
“A magisterial, beautifully crafted narrative . . . This focus on character, along with Wright’s five years of fierce on-the-ground reporting (he lists 560 interviewees), pays off.” —Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Los Angeles Times
“Deeply researched . . . immaculately crafted.” —Peter Bergen, The Wall Street Journal
“A searing view of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, a view that is at once wrenchingly intimate and boldly sweeping in its historical perspective . . . 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.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Important, gripping . . . One of the best books yet on the history of terrorism.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Lawrence Wright provides a graceful and remarkably intimate set of portraits of the people who brought us 9/11. It is a tale of extravagant zealotry and incessant bumbling that would be merely absurd if the consequences were not so grisly.”
"Lawrence Wright's integrity and diligence as a reporter shine through every page of this riveting narrative."
—Robert A. Caro
“A towering achievement. One of the best and more important books of recent years. Lawrence Wright has dug deep into and written well a story every American should know. A masterful combination of reporting and writing.”
“Comprehensive and compelling…Wright has written what must be considered a definitive work on the antecedents to 9/11…Essential for an understanding of that dreadful day.”
--starred Kirkus review
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Reading these things was deeply painful for me, who watched the Trade Towers collapse as I sped across Queens trying to get home to my family in Brooklyn Heights. I can only imagine how distressing this experience might be to those who lost friends and loved ones in the attacks that day. Yet Wright has handled this difficult material in a way that makes it bearable to read, and his pacing of the story is masterful. The Looming Tower reads like a suspense novel at times and the writing is lyrical.
The book is also chock full of pertinent facts and background material that help make sense, insofar as that is even possible, of the motivations of the terrorists. I have never seen logic in the tactics of al Qaeda and similar groups, but this book has helped me understand that logic is not the driving force. Rather it seems to be history, the pursuit of a tribal conception of "honor" and a desire to recreate past glory that is far more important than logic. Wright connects those dots to paint a picture of the "terrorist" that is far more three-dimensional than the one that Bush Administration officials and the media have given us.
There are also a number of oddball facts and anecdotes that enliven The Looming Tower and add to its interest. For example, Wright relates a tidbit that highlights the so-called "clash of cultures" better than anything I've read to date: "[Jamal al-Fadl] would become al-Qaeda's first traitor. He offered to sell his story to various intelligence agencies in the Middle East, including the Israelis. He eventually found a buyer when he walked into the American Embassy in Eritrea in June 1996. In return for nearly $1 million, he became a government witness. While in protective custody, he won the New Jersey Lottery."
There are lots of other gems in this book, including some nearly unbelievable tales about John O'Neill, who would be the hero (or perhaps anti-hero) of Wright's book, if it had a hero, which it doesn't. You should really buy The Looming Tower right away and read it for yourself.
A complex, nuanced intelligent book, The Looming Tower does not demonize Islam. To the contrary, it shows that mainstream Islam has struggled against extremists spawned by the post World War II writings of militant Islam jihadist founder Sayyid Qutb.
What is most amazing about this book is that Wright's ability to get inside the head of a terrorist with the narrative speed of thriller novel allows us to comprehend the terrorist's motivations and to wake up from a deep sleep that has imperiled us.
Some of the main points of what he said:
- The Arabic world is incredibly insular. He said, if you take away oil, the entire Arab world, from Morocco to Pakistan, produces less economically than the Finnish company Nokia (Nokia has less than 8,000 employees). He said, there have been 10,000 books ever translated into Arabic. If you think about that in terms of how many rows of book stacks that would be at a bookstore, it is shocking (I calculate that to be a few stacks of books !). One single Borders in the U.S. thus contains far more books than have ever been translated by Arabic translators (Spain alone translates about 10,000 books a year). Thus, most Arabs are, for our standards, incredibly lacking in resources, to understand our world. Not only that, but their countries censor books and all media. Freedom to assemble basically does not exist in the Arab world, and thus, basic freedoms are lacking.
- There is "gender apartheid" in [most of] the Arab world (particularly Saudi Arabia). Women are mostly not seen in public in Saudi Arabia. Men know very little about women as a result (how to meet them ?). It is pathetic, how little young men know about women. (he said, in Saudi Arabia, the women secretaries at his reporting agency worked in a room below a stairwell, and were basically never seen. he said, you would see Saudi women so covered by a burka, that you could not tell which direction their face was pointing !).
- The author said, in discussion with Arab men, the opinions he expressed, they had never considered, and never heard of. He said, it was like if a martian came down and said things that no one had ever said before and that were new and shocking. And those are normal conversations in the West.
- The Islamists (Al Quida, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) have no plan. They simply want to destroy things and "take over". But when asked what their economic plan is, they have none. The only real goal of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is the hijab for women (headcovering). Other than that, the muslim brotherhood has no plan or goal for society. "It is like an empty vessle". Bin Ladin has no plan other than wanting the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia, and blind destruction of things western. How do you deal with unemployment (no answer). Hamas is now in power in "Palestine", and has found that ruling is very hard. It shows them that they now must have a program, but they don't have one.
- Pakistan was "the most mysterious country" the author visited. Far from being unstable, it is "very, very stable", "too stable" ("eerily stable"). He said, the military "owns" Pakistan, and it is run by military families. If you are not in the military, you are basically locked out of Pakistani society. He said, they play a game with the U.S. called "find Bin Ladin". They constantly get paid by the U.S., and they pretend to look for Bin Ladin. It is all a game to get money from the U.S. He said, there is now a "permanent Al Quida zone" along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is very worrying.
- Our U.S. intelligence is basically incapable of dealing with Al Quida. The FBI is staffed by Irish and Italian men, who know those cultures. The Arab applicants are shut out as a "security risk". Result: no one who really speaks Arabic. The FBI recently graduated 50 new recruits. Only one of them speaks any foreign language. Since the 1970s, U.S. intelligence has been hamstrung and hollowed out. There is no "human intelligence" anymore. There is basically zero hope that the CIA and FBI can deal with Al Quida. Everyone in government realizes that the Dept. of Homeland Security is a joke.
- Clinton really tried to kill Bin Ladin, and should have fired his CIA director after he gave the CIA the order to kill Bin Ladin, and two years later, he was still alive.
- One thing that motivated Wolfowitz and Cheney is that they really believed that Iraq had a hand in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
- Iraq is a mess. Either way, Al Quida wins. If the U.S. withdrew, it would get much worse.
- Al Quida has very long-term plans, involving "drawing the U.S. in" to the Arab world. They would love it if we attacked Iran, because that would draw Iran in, and their "resources", into a world-wide fight.
- The author asked Islamic experts in the Arab world, "how will this conflict end". They mostly said that it is likely that the following will occur: a major western city were to be attacked by nuclear or biological weapon. Wright said, because we live in democracies, the public outcry would be so exterme and harsh, that a counterstrike, "attacking and destroying Mecca, Medina, and various targets in Iran" would be very, very likely, if not a foretold conclusion (!). (the CIA has even gone to Hollywood script writers to ask them for "scenarios", because they think that those scriptwriters "have more imagination" than bureaucrats at the CIA.
- The way to deal with Bin Ladin, if he were caught: try him before "Sharia courts". Take him to Kenya and Tanzania and make him confront the 150 Muslims who he blinded by the 1998 bomb blasts. Take him around and try him by sharia law. Take him to Saudi Arabia and ask for his execution. Make him look like he violated his own standards. Don't kill him, because then you make him a martyr.
As the book flows, the reader travels through the life of Osama Bin-Laden (the central figure of the book) from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, the building of his criminal organization, and through an increasingly deadly series of terror acts. Meanwhile, US officials such as Richard Clarke and O'Neill are largely ignored by the Clinton and Bush administrations. Communication between CIA and FBI is hampered by bureaucracy. The attacks are carried out and the world is plunged into an age of terror.
"The Looming Tower" is well written and fast paced. The portrait of Bin-Laden is of a barbaric criminal who justifies his own depravity in hypocritical religious terms. The narrative about the bombing of the USS Cole places the matter in stark and understandable terms. This was a serious matter that was not addressed in the last three months of President Clinton's term nor in the first nine of Bush's. The flaw that I found with the book was the citing of flimsy sources late in the book that weren't backed up by more evidence, particularly the actions of Bin-Laden on 9-11 and in the days afterwards. There is a tabloid feel to the last few pages, which unfortunately, erodes the book's credibility. It's a good read. Take it with a grain of salt.