HH: If you’ve been listening to my radio show, you know that since 2007, I’ve asked almost every serious guest who’s been on the program, including most recently Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp this past Thursday, if the guest had read the book, The Looming Tower. I ask, because this book, which was the Pulitzer Prize winner in 2007, is a deep dive into the origins of not just al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but also the worldview which brought both the movement and the man into America’s history on that terrible day in 9/11. Now, that book has become a television series on Hulu. And the author of the book, and thus the creator of the television series which he co-wrote, is Lawrence Wright. Wright’s the author of many books, most recently the soon-to-be published, God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State. And he joins me now to talk about The Looming Tower. Lawrence Wright, welcome. It’s good to talk to you on television instead of just the radio finally.
LW: Well, I wish I could see you, Hugh, but it’s good to talk to you in this form as well.
HH: Well, congratulations on the series. It’s excellent. I watched the first three episodes, not episode 4, yet, and I’ve got to ask you, though. I’m going to start, you know, I love the book, so I can start with a complaint.
HH: Episode 1, the amazing Jeff Daniels playing John O’Neill, the FBI agent who’s at the center of your book and the drama around events of 9/11, says after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, now it begins. But Lawrence, you began your book in Greeley, Colorado. What happened to that part?
LW: Hugh, there’s some possibility that if we are able to extend this series, we might go back to that time. You’re not the only one to signal that, and of course, it’s important to understand the rise of radical Islam. You have to understand Sayyid Qutb and his journey to America. And so much came out of that, and I would very much like to revisit that.
HH: Yeah, Sayyid Qutb writes two books – Milestones and Under the Shade of the Quran, which deeply influenced Zawahiri, who in turn deeply influences Osama bin Laden. So when we walk in, they capture their fanaticism. But Lawrence, do you think that fanaticism is growing more intense as the years roll by or less?
LW: I don’t know about the intensity, but the spread of it is really alarming to me. You know, when al Qaeda struck America on 9/11, there are only about 400 members in al Qaeda at the time. And now, there are thousands not just in al Qaeda, but in its progeny and its chapters around the world. So it’s still a considerable problem, I would say far larger than it was on 9/11.
HH: One of the things The Looming Tower television series does perhaps even better than the book is communicate the depth of division between the FBI and the CIA prior to 9/11. Were you happy with how it was portrayed, Lawrence Wright? And do you believe that that division has been healed now?
LW: You know, I think that the actors, Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard have done a wonderful job of portraying the institutional and persona rivalries between the CIA and the FBI, which was so damaging. I mean, it really, I believe, caused, allowed the 9/11 plot to proceed. Had those two agencies cooperated with each other, I think we’d be living in a different America. Now yes, the intelligence communities have healed that rift to some extent, to a large extent. We created the National Counterterrorism Center, for instance, where intelligence that, where agents from different bureaus and agencies sit together and have to share information. And our relations with intelligence agencies in other countries is dramatically better, which is one of the reasons that we’ve been able to do a really superb job of protecting America since 9/11.
HH: You know, my law students, I’ve got them reading The Looming Tower for a 1st Amendment seminar. And they asked me to ask you this. Do we need the perspective that we’ve been allowed to have in the 17 years since 9/11 in order to really understand what happened? Did we overreact, in other words, Lawrence Wright, after 9/11?
LW: I think there’s no question that we acted out of fear and paranoia, and did some things that were mistakes. The diversion from Afghanistan to Iraq was a terrible mistake. We had al Qaeda on the run. And had we sealed the borders in Afghanistan and trapped bin Laden right after that, and simply gotten out, I think that we would have, the world would have been on our side and we would have not been in these prolonged wars that we’ve been in ever since. That was a terrible error. And I don’t think, we haven’t gotten to the point where we’re seeing the end of the consequences.
HH: Now Lawrence, one of the great things about the Hulu series is how it depicts the bombings at the embassies. They’ve been much overlooked and forgotten because of the massacre and the terror of 9/11.
HH: …and the horror of those bombings. Now, we’ve got al Qaeda and its affiliates spreading around the world. Do they have greater or lesser capacity now? And in terms of our defense, do you think it’s greater or lesser around the world, not here in the U.S, we’re obviously better defensed, but at these remote places like Kenya and Tanzania?
LW: I think in both cases that the potency of the al Qaeda offense and our defense has increased. What concerns me is the, this spread of technology, drone technology in particular, and then the access to certain kinds of chemical and biological weapons, which I think in the future are going, will pose a real problem not just for America, but for so many countries around the world. And we have to keep our defense up. We have to keep on top of it. But be aware that this is a different era. You know, the theme of this season is divided, we fail, and we see the consequences of the division within the intelligence agencies and what that led to. But the extreme partisanship and the discredit that’s thrown at the intelligence agencies, I think, is very damaging and distracting to us right now when we should be concentrated on these threats.
HH: Let me close, Lawrence Wright, by talking about in the book, The Looming Tower, the character of Zawahiri comes through – his family, its accomplishments in Egypt, his fanaticism. It comes through in the Hulu series as well. And here we are 18 years later, who would have thought that Zawahiri would still be out there, still be guiding al Qaeda? When you consider that, what do you conclude about this man?
LW: Well, he’s proven himself to be a far more supple leader than I thought he would be. Up to 9/11, he had not been a good leader. He had, you know, his Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which he had run into the ground, he was not charismatic. He was sort of the opposite. But he has proved to be elusive. And he’s also managed to keep the organization together in its amazingly dispersed period after 9/11. He was able to bring it back into coherence, and then to begin to propagate different chapters around the world. So I have to give him some credit for keeping that organization not only alive, but bringing it back to health.
HH: And very quickly, Lawrence, is there going to be a second season of, it’s terrific television. Jeff Daniels is just an incredible actor, and he’s playing a larger than life personality in John O’Neill. I hope it keeps coming back, and I hope you go back to the beginning. Are there conversations to that end?
LW: There are conversations to that end, and you know, I myself as I sit here don’t know the answer to your question.
HH: Well, I hope it’s yes eventually. Thank you, Lawrence Wright, for a great and wonderful book, and now a television series.
End of interview.