Lawrence Wright Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11: Conversation with Lawrence Wright, Staff Writer, The New Yorker; November 13, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Book: The Looming Tower

Let's show the book and talk about it. The book is, as I said, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, published by Knopf. I would like to begin with a quote, and this is the source of your title. You quote Osama bin Laden at a wedding before the 9/11 attack was launched. He quoted from the fourth Sura of the Koran and he repeated it three times. And the line is: "Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower." So, what was your goal here in writing and how did you set about doing it?

I wanted to understand who these people were and why they had attacked us -- the most elemental question that we were all asking after 9/11. The level of our cultural ignorance is hard to overstate, even my own. Even though I had spent time in the Middle East and had written this movie, I still was left with many riddles that I needed to unscramble. Originally my first goal was how am I going to write about it, where do I start, and what kind of book would it be? I felt instinctively that it had to be about individuals, had to have certain stories that would personalize this massive tragedy and help us understand it through their lives.

I was in Austin and the planes were all grounded, I couldn't get to the scene of the crime. I was stuck. So, I started scanning obituaries that were streaming online at the time. On the Washington Post site I ran across an obit for John O'Neill, who had been the head of FBI's counter-terrorism division in New York and had gotten fired because he'd taken some classified information out of the office. The obituary made it sound like he was something of a disgrace. Paradoxically, he had gotten a job as the head of security at the World Trade Center, and so he died that day. I didn't know if he was a hero or a villain, but here was our chief bin Laden hunter and instead of getting bin Laden, bin Laden got him. So I thought, that's a story, whether good or ill. He can take the reader into a world as a part of the 9/11 journey. So, I wrote about him.

I was all this time trying to get into Saudi Arabia and the Saudis wouldn't let me in. So, I went to Egypt where I used to live and I decided I'd write about the number two man, Iman al Zawahiri, the physician that's always at bin Laden's side. I had a lot of good bad luck. The fact that the Saudis wouldn't let me in allowed me to understand al Qaeda in a completely different way, as a predominantly Egyptian organization, that it was Zawahiri, the ideologue, the man with the actual organization and the skills who surrounded bin Laden with his Egyptians and created what is al Qaeda, really a vector of these two forces. So, I wrote about him next. And then finally, after a year and four months of pleading with the Saudis, I realized they weren't going to let me in as a journalist, and so I took a job, once again, a really good piece of bad luck, because instead of being a reporter in a hotel making calls I had an apartment, I had a car, I had to go to work every day, I had these young reporters -- I was mentoring young reporters in Jeddah.

Saudis?

Yes, in bin Laden's hometown. And I was able to get much more deeply engaged with Saudi society than I could possibly have otherwise. So, bin Laden was the third life I was chronicling, and while I was there I had the opportunity to meet Prince Turki al-Faisal who had been the head of Saudi intelligence, had worked with bin Laden and is now the ambassador to the U.S. I realized that he could take the reader into yet another part of this story. So, with these four main characters I realized that their interweaving biographies would make the story of 9/11 for me.

Of the leaders of a terrorist movement, you come back again and again in your research to this Muslim writer who essentially was the DNA for them all. Tell us about him, who he is.

Sayyid Qutb. A fascinating guy -- always interesting how all these movements always go back to a book, whether it's Marxism or animal rights, there's always some book at the bottom of it. The book that is at the bottom of radical Islam is titled Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq which means "signposts along the way," or "milestones," as it's usually translated, written by Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian educator and philosopher who came to America in 1948. He's sort of the template for the Islamists who discover themselves as radicals in the West. He hated America, and it was a time when America's standing in the world had never been higher.

This would be the late forties when he came here.

1948, just after the war, in the moment when Israel was being created. He spent most of his time in Greeley, Colorado, a little northern Colorado town that had an education college. It was predominantly female, it was a temperance colony. You would think that this middle-aged, tee-totaling Egyptian virgin would find this an ideal environment, because there's church on every corner, no bars, and yet he saw in America that in fact we weren't ready to see ourselves.

He was a dark Egyptian, for instance, and one of his roommates from Greeley said that they had gone to the theater one time, and he loved theater and movies, but the theater owner said, "You can't come in 'cause you're Negroes." And one of the group said, "No, we're Egyptians." And the theater owner said, "Oh, well, very well, come on in." And Qutb drew himself up and said, "Well, if you will not let a black American in, this black Egyptian refuses to enter." So, he saw that dark side, the racial stain on America, at a time when we didn't acknowledge it.

But the sex was also really, really threatening to him. Women were very -- these rather liberated farm and ranch girls that came to school, they really posed a dilemma.

His work is a compelling statement of the irreconcilability between modernity and Islam, leading him to conclude that the two could never be reconciled and that we were at war.

Yes. In Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq his main thesis is that there is no such thing as Islam because in order to practice Islam you have to live in an Islamic society and such a thing doesn't exist. In order to create pure Islam we have to return to the seventh century when the prophet and his immediate successors ruled. It's not that they were turning against technology, but the social norms and the conventions of the invasion of the West, all of those things that we call modernity, he was very opposed to. He called for a vanguard of Muslim youths to rise up and overthrow these repressive regimes that were controlling the Arab societies and create a true Islamic society. It was that clarion call that awakened Iman al Zawahiri, and then thousands, maybe millions, of young Muslims.

Zawahiri, let's get to him. He was a doctor, he comes from two distinguished family lines, both on his mother's side and his father's side. Qutb came back to Egypt and was killed in prison by ...

He was hanged. Nasser hanged him.

Hanged by the Egyptian authorities. At that time, Zawahiri was fifteen and started his first -- I don't know if it was actually a terrorist cell but ...

No, it was. [A secret] cell to overthrow the Egyptian government. I guess they weren't really practicing terror but they were plotting a coup. He had a family connection to Sayyid Qutb. Zawahiri's uncle, Mahfouz Azzam, a very distinguished labor lawyer in Cairo, was Qutb's lawyer and was the last man to see him alive. And so, he was very, very close to Sayyid Qutb, and in 1966, the year that Nasser hanged Sayyid Qutb, is the same year that Zawahiri started his cell to overthrow the Egyptian government.

He came to be driven by the ideas that Qutb had defined, as is the case with most of the senior leaders of what was to become al Qaeda.

Right. Sayyid Qutb's work is still very much alive, and when I worked in Saudi Arabia every Friday, the holy day, there would be passages from one of Sayyid Qutb's commentaries on the Koran. He's still quite revered.

Now Zawahiri was an Egyptian nationalist, as I understand it from reading your book, and what he sought was through a coup to change the government which was then a military government, both under Nasser and under Sadat, and to change it and to bring into this ideal that Qutb had talked about.

I would change the term "Egyptian nationalist" to "Egyptian chauvinist." It's a distinction that may not mean a lot but Zawahiri doesn't want to create just an Islamic state in Egypt, he wants to create an Islamic theocracy with a caliph at the head of it in which there are no real national boundaries. He believes as an Egyptian that Egypt is the most important country in the Arab world, the intellectual capitol, and that that's where the caliphate should have its seat.

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