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Al-Qaeda’s Inner Circle


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.1 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 of their compound in Afghanistan in Western-style jogging suits and had a taste for expensive American cosmetics and lingerie. Wright shows that bin Laden, whether in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Afghanistan, did not entirely cut himself off from his origins as the son of one of the richest businessmen in Saudi Arabia.

Some writers have suggested that what happened on September 11 was virtually inevitable, the expression of a broader jihadist movement whose individual players hardly matter. Some have accused the Bush administration of exaggerating bin Laden’s importance, whether for political reasons or through ignorance. The al-Qaeda leaders captured since September 11 may have helped spread the myth in efforts to minimize their own roles in the organization and obtain clemency. According to Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East commentator and scholar of radical Islam, the influential report of the 9/11 Commission inflates bin Laden’s stature because it relies too heavily on the testimony of such prisoners, some of whose testimony was elicited after waterboarding and other coercive practices.2 No such accusation can be made against Wright, whose account is based in large measure on interviews with former jihadists. His book includes a postscript explaining his sources and a list of the people he interviewed, information that is welcome in a field in which sources are often unreliable and scholarship has often been shoddy.

Wright’s conclusion is a somewhat controversial one. One can ask, he writes,

whether 9/11 or some similar tragedy would have happened without bin Laden to steer it. The answer is certainly not. Indeed, the tectonic plates of history were shifting, promoting a period of conflict between the West and the Arab Muslim world; however, the charisma and vision of a few individuals shaped the nature of this contest.

Wright proposes a parallel explanation for the American failure to stop the September 11 plot. It was not, he writes, just a matter of institutional failures of cooperation between the CIA and FBI. Instead, the personal vendettas between leading officials such as John O’Neill, the chief of counterterrorism at the FBI, and Michael Scheuer, his CIA counterpart, prevented the two agencies from sharing information as they should have.

At times, Wright seems to go too far, seeing bin Laden and his associates as representing the entire jihadist movement, and he has little to say about political divisions among Islamists as well as about the different goals of such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But he has given a finely judged account of both collaboration among terrorists and rivalry between the CIA and the FBI.


Most accounts of al-Qaeda’s origins begin with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That event and its repercussions have been described so often in the past five years that they have taken on the quality of a grim morality tale, usually invoked to illustrate America’s fatal ignorance about the anti-Communist Muslim group it was supporting. It was in Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden, the son of a Saudi construction magnate, first tested his ideas about jihad, alongside Afghan warriors financed by the CIA. The decade-long conflict with Soviet Communists and their Afghan protégés aroused the Muslim world, and fostered the idea that a band of zealots could take on a superpower. Its veterans quickly formed a pool of recruits for the international jihadist movement. And it was to Afghanistan that bin Laden returned in 1996 after four years in Sudan, relying on the Taliban for protection and slowly building his organization into the global terrorist front that would strike at the US.

The other frequently mentioned point of departure is Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s homeland, and the country most responsible for exporting and financing the extremely conservative strain of Islam known as Wahhabism. Not only bin Laden but fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the World Trade Center attacks were from Saudi Arabia. Wright makes much of bin Laden’s hostility to the Saudi royal family during and after the Gulf War—when the regime invited infidel American soldiers into the country—and the support he and some of his associates received from powerful Saudis, such as Prince Turki, who was Saudi Arabia’s chief of intelligence from 1977 to 2001 and is now the Saudi ambassador to the US.

Wright sees al-Qaeda’s Egyptian origins as equally important. The Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), with whom Wright starts his book, is the patron saint of the modern jihadist movement, and the source of some of its central principles. It was Qutb who introduced to modern Arabs the concept, now known as takfir, whereby Islamists can circumvent the Koranic prohibition against killing other Muslims by declaring their enemies to be apostates. The idea dates back to the earliest days of Islam. But Qutb revived it, along with the notion that jihad—the struggle, as he saw it, to reshape contemporary society according to Islamic law—is one of the central ideas of Islam. Since 2003, Sunni terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda have invoked the principle of takfir so often that Shiites in Iraq now refer to them habitually as takfiris.

Qutb’s powerful influence on the broader jihadist movement has often been noted since 2001, including by Wright himself in The New Yorker. But Wright expands his account with fresh material, chiefly concerning Qutb’s two-year stay in the United States between 1948 and 1950. He writes, for instance, that Greeley, Colorado—where Qutb spent six months studying at the Colorado State College of Education—was anything but the wild metropolis one imagines from Qutb’s angry fulminations about American sexual freedom and lack of piety. It was founded as a temperance colony, and remained at that time a place where local people were active churchgoers, had much respect for family values, and were unusually well educated. Much that Qutb saw in the US might have appealed to a stern Islamist; and the people who knew him, Wright observes, recall him as polite, never critical. But the college itself was progressive, with high female enrollment. According to Wright, Qutb was deeply disturbed by encounters with young women with forthright liberal views about their own place in society and their relations with men. Like his ideological descendants in al-Qaeda, he came to hate the United States because it stood for the modern way of life that was drawing people from his native country toward secularism and away from the kind of theocratic state he envisioned, in which conservative Islamic values would be imposed on all aspects of life.

After his return to Egypt Qutb became a radical intellectual in the Muslim Brotherhood; he came into frequent conflict with the secular Nasser regime, which he wanted to overthrow. He wrote his two most important works while in prison in the late 1950s, and in 1966, he was executed for allegedly plotting a coup. Because of his influential writings he was immediately celebrated as a martyr to the Islamist cause. Qutb’s most direct heir, and the most fully realized and powerful character in Wright’s book, is Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although he came from a well-to-do family, Zawahiri grew up hearing worshipful stories about Qutb’s martyrdom from an uncle who had been Qutb’s protégé.

Unlike bin Laden, Wright shows, Zawahiri was an excellent student as a child, and was capable of strict self-discipline. At the age of fifteen, the year Qutb was executed, he helped form an underground cell devoted to overthrowing the secular Egyptian government and imposing Islamic law on Egypt by restoring the caliphate, the rule by appointed Islamic clerics, which had been abolished in 1924. Later, in the 1970s, while studying medicine at Cairo University, Zawahiri merged his cell with several other Egyptian Islamist cells to form a group called al-Jihad. After other members of al-Jihad assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Zawahiri—by now a practicing physician—was arrested and spent three years in an Egyptian prison. Like many of his fellow militants, he was tortured, an experience that Wright suggests profoundly affected him and accelerated his transformation into a violent extremist.

  1. 1

    Wright has said his interest in writing this book grew in part from his having co-written the script for the 1998 movie The Siege, in which terrorists blow up the Federal Building in Manhattan, setting off a crackdown on terror suspects and civil liberties. At one point in The Looming Tower, Wright describes how bin Laden’s lieutenants watched Hollywood movies on videotape in their Afghan compound as they struggled to refine the plot that would eventually result in the September 11 attacks. In the notes to this passage he writes: “In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s own movie The Siege was also viewed by al Qaeda members.”

  2. 2

    See Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global(Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 16–21. Gerges’s discussion of the importance of charismatic personalities in jihad-ist groups (pp. 34–42) seems to me persuasive.

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