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 US 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. 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 …