Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Review: The Looming Tower

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright [Audiobook]

This book is fascinating. Anyone even remotely interested in US foreign policy, or failing that, just looking for a riveting crime thriller, should find it well worth their time. I listened to the audiobook over the past couple weeks and finished it on my drive home from C&O.

The book starts off with Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian scholar and American student whose writings from the 1950's inspired Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current al Qaeda leader, then brings in Osama bin Laden and other major players, and describes their entire lives, from childhood to construction company, to Afghanistan the first time, to Sudan, to Afghanistan the second time, to the embassy bombings, the Cole, and 9/11.

The first half of the book, which discusses Qutb's writings on religion, his dealings with the state of Egypt, and all of Zawahiri's terrorism there, revived all my negative feelings about religion in general. I strongly dislike anything that encourages belief in the supernatural. Let's just leave that there.

As far as the secular stuff goes, this book is still fascinating. Here's what I took away, in no particular order:
  1. The top private security official at the World Trade Center, John O'Neill, started his job there only 19 days prior to the attacks, after being forced out of the FBI and the position of being the top cop working on getting Osama. He was clearly a flawed person with a strong person some disagreed with, but he was acutely aware of the threat al Qaeda posed. This guy's story is enthralling.
  2. Dealing with terrorism like what it is (a crime) is absolutely more difficult than dealing with "regular" crimes. It's tough to get Pakistan/Yemen/Egypt/whomever to not beat up suspects, and then to get them to let FBI people be in the room while suspects are being questioned so that evidence will stand up in a US court, and even to get them to not blow up the hotel all the FBI people are staying in, but it's not impossible. The original Trade Center truck bomb and the embassy bombings prove that, despite our endless Guantanamo detention and/or waterboarding of Cole and 9/11 perpetrators.
  3. Bombing raids are not accurate. Wright thinks that after the embassy bombings, Sudan wanted to get on good terms with the US, and they would have even turned Osama over to us a few years prior. But instead, in response to the embassy bombings, we blew up the factory making half the country's medicine, and also,  instead of killing Osama in Afghanistan, we gave him some dud tomahawk missiles he sold to China for $10 million. Obviously, I am making extrapolations to drone strikes in my head right now.
  4. More so than I ever realized before, the Taliban really were responsible for sheltering Osama, and deserved to be taken out as a result. Wright makes the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship sound like it culminated in a quid pro quo: al Qaeda takes out Ahmad Shah Massoud so that the Taliban can rule the whole country, and Osama is then free to pull off his big attack.
  5. Call this Monday morning quarterbacking if you wish, but despite all this, 9/11 was really close to being stopped. I've always thought of "19 guys with box-cutters" (when box-cutters were allowed on planes), and that seemed basically unstoppable to me, since so few people can do so much damage with so little money. But that's really not the case. There was a lot of chatter going on, and were it not for the bureaucratic wall preventing the CIA and the FBI from sharing information, 9/11 would have been prevented. The CIA knew about a planning meeting in Malaysia, and they knew that al Qaeda members had US visas, but they didn't tell the FBI. Not just did they not volunteer the information, they actively withheld it. The FBI reciprocated in kind. Evidence for trials couldn't get mixed up with intelligence for operations. The NSA also didn't share information. Thankfully, one small part of the Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act was supposed to adress this. 
To summarize: go read this book.

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