Seeing the Despair of Jihad

Lawrence Wright
Lawrence Wright; drawing by James Ferguson

Lawrence Wright is one of the most lucid writers on the subject of Islamic extremism. His articles for The New Yorker have done a great deal to educate Americans who likely knew little about terrorism in the Middle East before September 11 and still are confused by it. His much-admired book The Looming Tower (2006) showed how al-Qaeda managed to carry out what is still the most audacious and powerful act of terrorism in history.

In his new book, The Terror Years, a collection of essays, Wright again helps us understand Islamic extremism and the West’s reaction to it. From al-Qaeda, formed in 1988, to the Taliban, which came into being in 1994, to the more recent Islamic State (IsiS), which announced its existence in 2013, and Boko Haram in Africa, Wright records the spread and evolution of the jihadist movement.

From the start, Wright plainly acknowledges America’s own contributions to the dire situation in the Middle East:

America’s involvement in the Middle East since 9/11 has been a long series of failures. Our own actions have been responsible for much of the unfolding catastrophe. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by US and coalition partners stands as one of the greatest blunders in American history.

Still, Wright maintains a studious balance in all his essays, attributing responsibility for the current situation both to unwise American decisions and to ambitions and disputes within the jihadist movement.

The first chapter, “The Man Behind bin Laden,” is a telling portrait of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamist terrorist group al-Jihad, who wrote, together with Osama bin Laden, the fatwa that in 1998 officially announced the formation of the International Islamic Front for Jihad on the Jews and Crusaders, an alliance of international jihadist groups, and that called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies anywhere in the world. In June 2001, the two men formally merged al-Qaeda and al-Jihad, with bin Laden serving as the new organization’s public face, and Zawahiri doing much of the plotting and decision-making; he planned, for instance, the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Wright describes Zawahiri’s upper-middle-class professional background in Cairo, his career as a surgeon for the Egyptian army, his bitter years in prison, and his eventual rise to al-Jihad’s leadership. In the years since the essay’s original publication, bin Laden has been killed and Zawahiri has been recognized as the head of al-Qaeda. Although his movements are secret, he remains in charge today.

Describing video footage from the opening day of Zawahiri’s 1982 trial for conspiring in the killing of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Wright recalls one of the most important moments in the history of Islamic extremism:

Finally, the camera settles on Zawahiri, who stands apart from the chaos with a look of solemn, focused intensity…. At a signal, the other prisoners fall silent, and Zawahiri cries…

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