Just in time for 9/11’s fifth anniversary, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright has a new book out on the events that led up to that terrible day: The Looming Towers – Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11. The NYT’s Dexter Filkins reviewed it.
In its simplest terms, this is the story of how a small group of men, with a frightening mix of delusion and calculation, rose from a tormented civilization to mount a catastrophic assault on the world’s mightiest power, and how another group of men and women, convinced that such an attack was on the way, tried desperately to stop it.
What a story it is. And 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, and carried along by villains and heroes that only a crime novelist could dream up. It’s an education, too — though you’d never know it — 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. …
In one of the most remarkable scenes in the book, Ali Soufan, an F.B.I. agent assigned to Al Qaeda, was taken aside on Sept. 12 and finally shown the names and photos of the men the C.I.A. had known for more than a year and a half were in America. The planes had already struck. Soufan ran to the bathroom and retched.
Great stuff. I just wish Wright had given us something, even a chapter, on the hijackings themselves; as it is, he takes us right up to the moment, and then straight to the burning towers. Perhaps he felt that ground was too well-trodden. My other complaint is more substantive. Through the enormous amount of legwork he has done, tracking down people who worked with bin Laden and Zawahiri over the years, Wright has drawn up verbatim reconstructions of entire conversations, some of which took place more than a decade ago. Many of these conversations are riveting. Still, in some cases, it’s hard to believe that memories are that good.
“The Looming Tower” ends near the Pakistani border, where Zawahiri, or someone who looked like him, rode through a village on horseback and then disappeared into the mountains. It’s not a definitive ending; there is no closure. And that’s the point. For as amazing as the story of Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11 is, it’s not over yet.