The Looming Tower author Lawrence Wright on al Qaeda six years after the 9/11 attacks.
HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt on a special edition, an anniversary of 9/11 edition with Lawrence Wright as my guest. Lawrence Wright, of course, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Looming Tower: al Qaeda And The Road To 9/11, perhaps the single most important book for any interested observer of al Qaeda to begin with and read. Lawrence Wright, welcome back to the program, great to have you.
LW: Thank you, it’s good to be back on.
HH: Well, now it’s out in paperback, and we’re talking on the 6th anniversary of 9/11. In the six years since they launched the successful attack on America, Lawrence Wright, how is al Qaeda faring in the world?
LW: Well, it’s a mixed report. You know, al Qaeda central has been, to some extent, reduced, isolated. It’s been unable to accomplish many of its major goals, especially capturing a Muslim country, and restoring the caliphate, and creating a kind of theocratic law. That it’s failed to do. But on the other hand, essentially after November, December, 2001, after the Tora Bora battle, al Qaeda was pretty much a zombie. It was over. The war on terror was at an end, and it’s been amazing to see how that organization has been able to reconstitute itself. It’s now deeply rooted in a lot of countries where it wasn’t present before. The banner of al Qaeda has been taken up by a lot of disaffected young Muslims around the world who hadn’t been interested in it before. So on balance, I think it’s as dangerous as it was before 9/11, but in different ways.
HH: What does the new bin Laden transcript tell you, the videotape that he released last week?
LW: Well, it’s a peculiar document. For one thing, I’m always amused by his kind of commentary on American politics, and you know, averting to the Kyoto treaty and stuff like that, that you know, where he does this kind of second-rate commentary on the American political scene. I think that the message that he wants to get out is that he’s still a threat, he’s still relevant, and he wants…I think he’s probably not capable of carrying out the high-scale attacks that he has accomplished in the past, but he wants us to think that. And so by rattling the cages periodically, he accomplishes at least keeping us unnerved.
HH: There is some concern always that he signals awakening of sleeper cells with this. Does that still concern intelligence agencies that you stay in touch with, Lawrence Wright?
LW: Well, it concerns me in that I know…the title of my book, for instance, The Looming Tower, was a quotation that bin Laden used three times in a speech that was found on the hijacker’s computer, and I suspect that that was a go-ahead signal. So I am concerned that he may use, and Zawahiri as well, the number two man, use the public media as a way of communicating with his followers.
HH: Now Lawrence Wright, in the Looming Tower, which I listened to to prepare for this. I’d read it twice before, but it’s a very different experience listening to it. I think it may force someone to slow down and absorb a lot that just flows out of this book. He has a theory of American character that posited we would run away as soon as we took a series of blows.
HH: Is the anger towards Bush in this most recent document the fact that the one thing he thought he knew best about the West has just proven not to be the case?
LW: No, I think that he is frustrated that we’re still in Iraq. And honestly, Hugh, there’s a…I think al Qaeda’s a little frustrated in Iraq as well, you know, they’re still in Iraq. That’s where al Qaeda’s preoccupied, and where it’s been pouring all of its resources in, and it doesn’t have much to show for it, either. It’s been frankly a draw. Al Qaeda’s in a great public relations situation, whereas if we withdraw, then they can say that they won, and that they defeated the other superpower. And if we stay, then Iraq is still a beacon for disaffected jihadis who want to go join the war. So they are in an enviable position, but really, they haven’t accomplished what they hope to do in Iraq.
HH: Now in yesterday’s testimony, General Petraeus, in response to a question, affirmed that the largest number of jihadis in Iraq that are coming from outside of Iraq are still coming from the Kingdom, from Saudi Arabia.
HH: What does that tell you about what has and has not happened since 9/11 in the Kingdom?
LW: Well, the Kingdom ran into problems with this in Afghanistan. There’s a precedent for this. And you know, they funded it, they supported…and we did, too, they supported the Mujahideen, but there was a blowback in the Kingdom in the form of al Qaeda, and bin Laden’s legacy. I am afraid that the Saudis are in the crosshairs of the next step of jihad. And you know, there’s a reason why young Saudis leave the Kingdom to go fight the jihad, because they would rather fight it in their own country. And that’s the goal of al Qaeda. They want to train these young men, and then turn them against the regimes in their own countries. It’s a mistake for the Saudis to not clamp down much stronger on these young men who are leaving the Kingdom and then joining the jihad. But they’re in a fix. They want to show their support for the Sunnis, and the Sunnis are under attack in Iraq. And so it’s a real paradox for the Saudis.
HH: Lawrence Wright, earlier this week, I talked with Robert Kaplan, who’s got a new book out on the American military. He spent some time in Algeria. Algeria succeeded in suppressing its Salafist insurgency. Why do they accomplish that and the Sauds can’t?
LW: Well, Algeria’s now having new problems with what is now called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been able to pull off several very devastating bombings. So I wouldn’t say that the story’s finished in Algeria. And the Saudis have waged a very bloody war against their own Qaedistas in the Kingdom. Hundreds of Saudis have been killed at the hands of al Qaeda, and ex-pat workers as well. And I think that the Saudi authorities are a little surprised at how resilient the local al Qaedas are.
HH: Where is the money coming from? One of the compelling narratives in The Looming Tower is how bin Laden was stunned when the King arranged for him to be cut off and disappropriated of his family’s fortune, and how broke he was.
HH: Where’s their money coming from now?
LW: To start with, they don’t need very much. Let’s go back to the Embassy bombings in 1998, two simultaneous bombings in East Africa, operated by a sleeper cell in Nairobi, which maintained itself on a fishing boat they ran. They were pretty much a self-supporting outfit. Then you have 9/11, which was, you know, it cost half a million dollars or less. So they were not talking about a lot of money, and one of, and Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi, who was the head of al Qaeda in Iraq at one point a couple of years ago before Zarqawi was killed. And he asked for a hundred thousand dollars. Well, doesn’t that figure strike you as being rather small?
LW: And it’s kind of pathetic. You know, we’re stuck here, wherever we are, and we need the gift of a hundred thousand dollars. That’s all he’s asking for.
HH: Does it mean, then, that no matter how much pressure we put on the financial system, they will continue to be able to survive as long as they’re alive, because it doesn’t take much to go to a cave and eat tuna?
LW: Listen, when they went from Sudan, the whole movement essentially emigrated from Khartoum to Afghanistan in 1996, when we forced the Sudanese to expel al Qaeda and its followers. And they were really destitute. They were living on well water, and they were eating green pomegranates. They were really close to penniless. And yet it was during that period that bin Laden was able to organize al Qaeda, pull them together, and pull off 9/11. I don’t think that they need a lot of money to be very damaging.
HH: Let me conclude this first segment with you, Lawrence Wright, by asking about the incineration holocaust talk in bin Laden’s latest missive. What is that all about?
LW: I think he’s playing to the fears of many Westerners about weapons of mass destruction. And you know, he may have access to that, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think that the most damaging weapons system that al Qaeda has explored is anthrax. And if they could make a step forward in weaponizing anthrax, as they were trying to do in Afghanistan, then that would be really a serious note.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, before we go to the franchises of bin Laden’s original organization, I want to just spend a couple more minutes on this latest message from him. As you recount in The Looming Tower, there came a moment when Zawahiri and bin Laden turned their organization from its focus on a coup in Egypt and Zawahiri’s vision and hostility to America, to a really anti-Christian worldview.
HH: This latest missive is back to being anti-capitalist, and warning about global warming. Have they morphed? Or is it just any straw that they can grab?
LW: Well, that might be an interesting way of looking at it. You know, the truth is, they’re commenting on the American or Western political scene, and they have absolutely no politics of their own. If you look through all those Harmony documents, which are the documents that American and Coalition troops captured after the battles of Tora Bora, there are thousands of pages of internal al Qaeda documents. They haven’t got a single page in there about their own political agenda, because they don’t really have one. They’re not interested in politics. They’re only interested in purification. The Taliban are a perfect example of what al Qaeda would do. I mean, they leave government to others. They’re mainly interested in excoriating Muslims. So it’s so weird and hypocritical when bin Laden talks about the Kyoto treaty, when no one has ever asked him to produce his own environmental policy. He’s never thought about it.
HH: When you’re reading through The Looming Tower, I am, I realize that Zarqawi might have been this brute killer, and that bin Laden might be this clueless person, but the sinister guy is Dr. Zawahiri. And has he grown more or less sinister in all these years?
LW: Oh, he’s really unchanged. The thing that a study of Dr. Zawahiri’s life will lead you conclude is that there was only one important…maybe I should say there were two important events in Dr. Zawahiri’s life. One was that in 1966, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the president of Egypt, who had taken over in a revolutionary coup, hanged Sayyid Qutb, who was the philosopher behind this whole radical Islamist movement. He wrote a book called Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq, which means milestones. And he was close to Zawahiri’s family. That was in 1966. And in that year, Zawahiri started a cell to overthrow the Egyptian government. He was fifteen years old. The other signal event in his life was that in 1981, he was arrested following the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, Nasser’s successor. And he didn’t have much of a role in the assassination, but he was placed in prison for three years, brutally tortured, as many of these guys were, and I think that the appetite for carnage that is so characteristic of al Qaeda, and which separates it, really, from any other terrorist group in history, I think that comes from the torture that these guys, the Egyptians, endured in those prisons. And al Qaeda is fundamentally an Egyptian organization with a Saudi head.
HH: You know, I repeat to people all the time that although our allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia may be waging war on terror, they may be doing the hydra head thing, given your remarkable account of Zawahiri’s torture, and those with him. Back up for a second to Sayyid Qutb. Again, I often talk to audiences, and I recommend your book, and I say you’ll be surprised to learn that al Qaeda got a big lift out of its years in Greeley, Colorado. Would Qutb recognize al Qaeda today?
LW: You know, I had the opportunity to talk to his brother, Mohammed Qutb, who lives in Mecca. And he came out of Mecca to talk to me, and he’s in his 90’s, he’s a very interesting man. And he strongly feels that his brother’s work has been misrepresented, although when I read it, it’s a little hard for me to see in what way, because he really was calling for a purification of Islam, a return to the fundamentals, to the life of the prophet. And he felt that Islam could not be lived in a modern-day Islamic country, because they weren’t living under Sharia, and the pure Islamic way. And he called for a new generation to spring up and overthrow these governments and institute Sharia and so on. That is the beacon that drew bin Laden and all these other young jihadis.
HH: But did he intend to launch Takfiri? Did he intend to have his…the fiction writers who he mentored in Egypt end up being the targets of al Qaeda, as you describe here.
LW: Yeah, yes, that’s interesting. The word Takfir that you just used is very key to understanding this. It means excommunicating another Muslim. In other words, it’s not enough to say I am a Muslim. You have to prove to me that you are a Muslim in my view. And it first in modern times came up when Sayyid Qutb was in prison in Egypt. And he was in the Muslim Brothers. And a group of Muslim Brothers were held in a solitary cell by themselves, and the guards went in and mowed them down, because they were on a hunger strike. And Qutb was in the prison hospital when some of the wounded were brought in, and he said to himself, what kind of Muslim would do this to another Muslim? And his answer was, they are not Muslims. In other words, he declared them, he declared Takfir on them. It was up to him to decide who was a Muslim or not. And that seems justifiable in that instance, but it expanded to the point that when, for instance, al Qaeda was in Afghanistan, Zawahiri declared the entire country of Afghanistan to be Takfir. They were Suffis, for the most part, so they weren’t true Muslims, the people they were ostensibly there to defend.
HH: Well then, it becomes a kind of rolling independent association of inquisitors without portfolio. They can…who declares that, and has that spread? Has this doctrine spread into other people declaring them Takfir?
LW: Yeah, it is an ancient heresy that goes back to the moment when the prophet died. And there were always Muslims who were declaring that others were not a part of the faith. And you know, the schism that exists today between Sunni and Shia goes back to that date. It’s been a problem for that faith since its inception. And modern day Takfiris, like bin Laden, like Zawahiri, really believe in their hearts that they are saving Islam, and they are saving humanity by purifying it, by killing all the heretics. And you know, it’s a religious cult that has attracted the attention of a lot of disaffected young people who want to have a way to express themselves. But essentially, that’s what it is.
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HH: I went to break, Lawrence Wright, by wondering whether or not in the six years that they’ve been on full display for the world, the Saudis knew about bin Laden before 9/11. Has the rest of Islam braced itself to deal with the Takfir heresy and with the al Qaeda menace?
LW: I think Islam is in a period of deep introspection, and it’s unclear to me how it’s going to be resolved. I think, however, that the answers will come in Europe, which that’s where Islam is most at play, with the conflicts with the modern world and the West. It’s, as I say, I’m not sure how this is going to work out, because there’s a lot of turbulence right now in Europe, and I’m worried about what actions might occur there in the next few years. But Muslims in Europe are a lot freer than they typically are in their countries of origin to discuss matters of their faith, but they are also freer to be more radical. So it’s a double-edged sword. That’s why it’s on such a high boil right now in Europe.
HH: Have the Saudis rethought their support for the Salafist and the Wahhabist approach to this, which as you point out in The Looming Tower, 90% of the missionary work is funded and conducted by Saudi mullahs who are not in the traditional mainstream of Islam?
LW: Saudi Arabia is going through some changes. They have moderated their textbooks, for instance. They’ve bridled some of the more outspoken imams. Bear in mind the clergy in Saudi Arabia, they’re government employees. So to a large extent, I think, the government does bear responsibility for what is said in the Mosques on Friday. And I think one of the things that would help the most in terms of empowering the diversity within Islam, and the moderates, would be for Saudi Arabia to allow other forms of Islam to be practiced inside that country, especially in Mecca, where it used to be that the four great legal schools of Islam were freely allowed to teach and to practice. That’s not true any longer. If Saudi Arabia would begin to open up Mecca to other forms of Islamic thought, then I think there would be a long…it would go a long way towards making Islam and Wahhabism itself more tolerant.
HH: Any sign of that happening?
LW: No, not yet.
HH: In The Looming Tower, you talk about how at his farm and his offices in the Sudan years, bin Laden would welcome Shia, and would discuss with them how to cooperate. And then Zarqawi launched the attack on the Mosque in Samarra, and this terrible civil war. Has that operational cooperation shattered now in the civil war within Iraq? Or does it still go on around the world?
LW: You know, there’s some puzzling aspects to this. First of all, al Qaeda is an entirely Sunni organization. And of course, the Iranians are largely Shiites, and Iraq is largely a Shiite country. And it was never, Iraq was never really on bin Laden’s list, at least, of likely countries for jihad, because he knew, you know, he’d be struggling against the Shiites. And it was Zarqawi who forced the issue, created this civil war with the goal of…although Shias are the majority in Iraq, they’re a minority in Islam. And he wanted to create an Islamic civil war. Well, bin Laden had real reservations about that, and you see in some of the letters from Zawahiri to Zarqawi, he’s saying you know, are you going to try to kill all the Shiites? Has such a thing ever been thought of? You know, he was incredulous. So they didn’t want to precipitate the Islamic civil war that Zarqawi brought on. But now that it’s engaged, I think that bin Laden has essentially endorsed it when he allowed Zarqawi to join al Qaeda.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, on the day of the attacks six years ago, there were only a handful of Americans who really understood what this threat was. One of them, unfortunately, died with the Towers, John O’Neill.
HH: What’s the situation six years later? If you’re grading American counterintelligence, and American intelligence agencies, do they know what they’re doing yet?
LW: There have been some improvements. You know, the 2004 reform act has made some important changes, I think. The National Counterterrorism Center is an example of that, where CIA and FBI are made to work together. You know, they have to be there, along with NSA and other members of our intelligence community. But has there been measurable progress? Well, if you measure progress by capturing or shutting down al Qaeda leaders, no. If you measure progress by stopping any attacks inside America, yes. So it’s a mixed picture right now, and I think it’ll be easier to see in the next few years whether these reforms have really made a change. I do think that the intelligence community has been traumatized by what happened on 9/11, and also by the faulty information that led us into Iraq. And one member of the intelligence community said you know, we feel like the returning Vietnam soldiers, you know, that we’ve been ostracized by our society. And they’re very conscious of the pressure to change and make changes in the way we gather intelligence. I don’t think that we have come far enough, and I think you know, we’ve got a lot of changes left to make before we can really feel that we’ve adjusted properly to this challenge.
HH: You’ve alluded a couple of times to a concern that Europe may be the site of the next spectacular attack.
HH: And I’ve seen the MI5 leadership say in Great Britain there are 5,000 active jihadis over there, and they’ve tried a few times. What’s the certainty, if you have to bet probabilities here, Lawrence Wright, in your view, studying it as closely as you do, of another spectacular attack where the casualties are in the hundreds or the thousands, not the tens and the twenties?
LW: I think that’s you know, very likely. It’s easy to imagine, even using very low-tech weapons, how to create mass casualties. And certainly, that’s been the goal of many of these foiled attacks. Had any one of several of these attacks that have been stopped in the last several months been able to be carried off, then we would have been talking about thousands of casualties. So it seems unlikely that we’ll be blessed with a continued period of relative tranquility with all the activity that’s going on right now.
HH: And when it comes to American counterterrorism, especially, have we developed the sort of skill sets when it comes to translation and monitoring that?
LW: No, no. This is a critical point. You know, one of the heroes in my book, Ali Sufan, was one of eight Arabic-speaking agents on 9/11. There are six now.
HH: There are six?
LW: But I want to interject right away that the intelligence community has awakened to the fact that this is idiotic, that you have to have people who natively understand Arabic, and Pashtu, and Dari and Urdu, and all the languages that they’re struggling to manage. You have to have people who understand the languages and the cultures, and we’re really handicapped. I talked to the head of the army translation corps, and he said you know, after 9/11, many Arab and Muslim Americans came forward and offered their services to American intelligence, and they were spurned. But the Army picked up many of those, and of course, what happened? They became interpreters in Iraq, the most dangerous possible assignment. He said after four years of serving their country, they can’t get a job in American intelligence, because they’re considered a security risk. Well, I want to ask, what other declaration of loyalty to they need to make?
HH: Well asked. Let me ask you about the American public generally. I know you lecture on this a lot. Do they understand the war that we’re involved in? Or has, have we gone back to our holiday from history?
LW: Honestly, I was reading in the Times yesterday that 33%, I think, of Americans think Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. It makes me wonder. There’s ample amount of information out there about 9/11, about al Qaeda. I don’t know why Americans aren’t more informed about the nature of this menace, and who they are, what they’re up to, and what they hope to accomplish, and therefore how we should treat them. It’s a little mystifying to me.
HH: Did you see the ABC mini-movie, television movie, The Path To 9/11?
LW: No, I was lecturing both nights, so I missed that.
HH: Well, it’s being held at Disney. They’re not putting that out there. What does that tell you about the seriousness when obviously, it would sell a lot of copies, but Disney doesn’t want to put it out there?
LW: I don’t know. I have been doing this one-man play called My Trip To Al Qaeda, and I’m going to be doing it at the Kennedy Center in Washington at the end of the month. And the thing that always surprises me when I talk to audience members afterwards is they often say nobody ever told us this. And I can see that people feel misguided, misled, ill-informed. But I think American people have some responsibility to educate themselves on this subject.
HH: Oh, it’s very frustrating, especially when it’s been made easy, and I’m not shining you on here by your book. I’ve not heard of this play before, My Trip To Al Qaeda. How long have you been performing it for?
LW: Well, I did it at the New Yorker Festival last year, and then I did a six-week run in New York, and I’m going to do it here in Washington at the end of the month at the Kennedy Center. And that’s probably it, though. I’m not an actor, and I can prove that. But I really have enjoyed doing it, and it’s been a very rewarding experience for me.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, you’ve probably spent more time than any American journalist studying bin Laden, Zawahiri, their organization. Do you have a clue yet on whether or not they’ll ever give up?
LW: Well, the people you’re talking about will never give up. The question is can we persuade the people that would be their followers not to turn to them. And in my opinion, this is a long, long term effort. I think of al Qaeda being really a function of the despair of a lot of young Muslims around the world. You know, the Muslim world is one-fifth of the world’s population, but half the world’s poor, and typified by repressive regimes. It’s a world in which there’s a lot of frustration, and their economies are very barren, and they have very little to offer their young people. Until those things are changed, then we’re going to see radicalism in one form or another. Al Qaeda is one form of it. We may see other, I expect we will, other forms of radicalism in the future. So it’s a matter of providing jobs and literacy and hope to regions which have very little of those items.
HH: Now you’re sounding a lot like a Bush doctrine aficionado at this point. I don’t want to debate Iraq on this, but I do worry, after reading The Looming Tower now, or listening to it once and reading it twice, that Egypt is the source of many of these problems, and Saudi Arabia, those two, and that nothing is happening in these countries to change it.
LW: Yeah, you know, and let me separate these two countries, because they’re very different. I am a great believer in democracy, and that it is an inherently moderating force, and that this is the ultimate answer to the radicalism and the challenge that al Qaeda poses. But Saudi Arabia is not ready for a democracy. It doesn’t have anything like a civil society. I mean, they don’t even have movie theaters or night clubs or there’s no political life at all.
HH: Women driving, as you describe…
HH: …led to immediate suppression of those women.
LW: Exactly. So it’s a very stark civil society, almost absent entirely. And so imposing democracy suddenly on that country would be a mistake. That’s not true of Egypt. Egypt is ready. Egypt has an almost eternal sense of itself as a nation, unlike Iraq, which you know, Churchill drew up on a napkin after lunch. That was cobbled together. That’s not true of Egypt. It has a tradition of politics. It has a tradition of parliamentary democracy. It is ready to return to a democratic state, and we should push hard for that.
HH: And that’s the takeaway of this interview. I hope again, as always, to have you back, Lawrence Wright. It is always just very, very informative. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda And The Road To 9/11 in paperback now. You’ve got to read it. Lawrence Wright, thank you for being back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
End of interview.