The Looming Tower author Lawrence Wright on al Qaeda, ten years after 9/11 attacks
HH: If you listened yesterday to my extensive interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney, you heard me mention that I was hoping to catch up with my next guest today. Lawrence Wright is the author of The Looming Tower: al Qaeda And The Road To 9/11, the seminal work on what al Qaeda is, where it came from, Osama bin Laden and his motivation, and he joins me tonight from New York. Lawrence Wright, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Thank you for spending some time with us.
LW: Thank you, Hugh, it’s good to be back with you.
HH: There’s a new afterwards to The Looming Tower which I have read a couple of times. I want to talk about it with you in detail in the paperback edition, the Vintage edition of The Looming Tower. But I want to start by having the audience understand how you came to this project. First of all, where were you on 9/11, Lawrence Wright?
LW: Well, I live in Austin, and I was at a breakfast with a bunch of my friends who speak Spanish together for breakfast. And so that’s where I was. When I got finished with breakfast and got in the car, I heard the news about the first tower.
HH: And so how did you come to be so deeply involved with the history of al Qaeda? When did you decide I have to write this book, The Looming Tower?
LW: Almost immediately. There were several things, I mean, first of all, I am an American, and I was very upset. And I am a reporter, and I saw this as the most important story of my lifetime. And then also, I had taught for two years in Egypt when I was a young man, so I had some experience in the Arab world, and I spoke some Arabic. And then I had been the co-writer of this movie called The Seige, with Denzel Washington and Tony Shaloub, which in many ways prefigured the events of 9/11. So all of those things put together caused me to decide that I was going to have to write a book about what really happened.
HH: Now in the ten years since, The Looming Tower came out in 2006. It won the Pulitzer Prize. We’ve talked about it extensively on this program, and those interviews are transcribed and available on the web. But you now have the afterwards, which comes after the killing of bin Laden.
HH: As we look back ten years later, what is the status of al Qaeda, as best you can tell, from your continuing research into the organization?
LW: Well, you know, al Qaeda couldn’t die without having bin Laden disappear somehow. And that’s finally been accomplished. But that doesn’t mean that the organization itself is done with. You know, it’s spread out. It’s metastasized. There are affiliates. Many of these affiliates, actually though, Hugh, were nationalist in origin, you know, in their goals and aspirations, and without the charisma and power that al Qaeda had under bin Laden, some of those organizations will probably go back to their more nationalistic interests. But the idea of al Qaeda has taken root, and that’s what worries me. Long after al Qaeda is gone, other groups will arise that will use al Qaeda as a template. They have shown us how a small group can be super-empowered to change history. And I’m sure that we’ll be facing other groups with completely different agendas in the future.
HH: On Monday, I spoke with John Yoo, the very controversial former deputy assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice, who’s one of the authors of the Bybee memos. And he has a new book out in which he is critical of the Obama administration for in essence what he believes ordering the execution of bin Laden as opposed to the capture of bin Laden. What do you make of that argument, Lawrence Wright? Do you think they went in there with every intention of killing him as opposed to bringing him back alive?
LW: Absolutely. I had no question that they had no intention to capture him. Many years ago, I guess it was 2006, the CIA approached me to write a scenario about what would they do if they captured bin Laden. The reason they approached me was not because of my book, which hadn’t come out yet, but because I was a screenwriter. And sometimes, Hollywood seemed to do a better job of connecting the dots than the intelligence community. And I said I can’t, I’m a journalist. I can’t go writing screenplays for the CIA, but I proposed to write an op-ed for the New York Times, which would tell them more or less what I thought. And I had the idea that you had to deal with bin Laden’s legacy. He was the most famous man in the world. And he’s going to be one of the most famous men in history. And you have to deal with the legacy, not just with the man. And that’s why I wanted to put him on trial, not just in the United States. I wanted him to go to Kenya where on August 6th, he killed 211 people.
LW: …with a bomb outside the American embassy, blinded 150 people from the flying glass. I thought it would be appropriate to put him in a courtroom in Nairobi and let him explain to 150 blind Africans why he was just striking at a symbol of American power. And then on the same day, he put off a bomb in front of the American embassy in Tanzania, killing 11 people, all of them Muslims. And al Qaeda excused that, because it was Friday, and good Muslims would be in the mosques. I think that would be a wonderful venue to ask what is a good Muslim.
HH: I will be back with Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, one of the most fascinating portraits in The Looming Tower is of the Egyptian doctor, Zawahiri. He’s now the titular or operational head of al Qaeda. But from based on what I read about him in this book, I don’t think he’s going to be very effective in that role. Or has he grown, to use a perverse distortion of the term, in the last ten years into that job?
LW: Well, he had his own terror organization, al Jahad, in Egypt, and he ran it into the ground. And he’s certainly not charismatic. He’s anti-charismatic. He’s not the kind of person people willingly give their lives up to follow. But on the other hand, he’s a skilled bureaucrat. He’s a tactician, he’s a propagandist, he’s inherited an organization that is in trouble. There’s no question about that. But there are other figures on the horizon, like Anwar al-Awlaki, who is the person that most troubles me. He has qualities that bin Laden didn’t have. He’s a fluent English speaker. In fact, he’s an American citizen. And he also has religious credentials that bin Laden never had. Those kinds of things are, on the horizon, they really worry me. This man has already influenced four different actions against American citizens. And I think that there will be others in the future. If we’re looking for threats from al Qaeda, I see them coming from Yemen, from Anwar al-Awlaki.
HH: Well, when you talk about someone like al-Awlaki, and you contrast it with Zawahiri, who Zawahiri is in this debate with Dr. Fadl, which you talk about in your afterwards…
HH: Does al-Awlaki engage in that kind of theoretical Islamist debate? Or does he just go about killing people?
LW: No, no. I mean, that’s his appeal, Hugh. He is an Imam. He cites the Koran. He cites the Hadith. And that is, you know, he’s seen as being an authority. And somebody like Nidal Malak Hasan, the guy that, the soldier in Fort Hood that shot all those other comrades, he was very influenced by al-Awlaki and his readings of the Koran, and his incitement. I think that’s the reason I mark him as the most dangerous man in the world right now.
HH: But let me ask you, Lawrence Wright, the most interesting, controversial part of your new afterwards, I think, is this line. “The fateful decision of the Bush administration to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003 revivified the radical Islamist agenda.” I’m going to be discussing this with Vice President Cheney next week, since we ran out of time yesterday to do it. But my question is, if that’s the case, would there be an al-Awlaki if there hadn’t been an Iraq, in your opinion?
LW: I don’t think so. I mean, it’s conceivable. I mean, the radical Islamist idea was still there and planted in the ground very firmly. But what happened is we took our eye off the ball. We went into Afghanistan to get bin Laden, and we didn’t get him. And al Qaeda was pretty much on its back at that point. It was disgraced. Everybody was scattered, they were impoverished, and they were repudiated all over the world, including the Muslim world. And then we invaded Iraq. And it gave substance to bin Laden’s statement that America was at war with Islam, and it incited many Muslims that, you know, decided to join the fight. Moreover, it liberated Iran, which I think is a far more potent threat to American interests than Iraq ever was.
HH: But what I’m scratching at here, Lawrence Wright, is if al-Awlaki is the biggest threat from the al Qaeda Islamist, Sunni fundamentalists right now, was he a product of the Iraq invasion in some way that you can trace? Because I think the counterargument to your assertion would be sadly, bin Laden’s cancer was spread long before he went to Iraq, and at least we killed Zarqawi out of the deal.
LW: Well, Hugh, I’m not saying he might not have risen. He was already there. He was in America. I think he influenced the 9/11 hijackers. You know, when the two of them came to America in January of 2000, they went to San Diego where he was the Imam in a mosque there, and they followed them all across the country. So there’s no question that al-Awlaki, in my mind, there’s no question that al-Awlaki was hooked up to al Qaeda long before 9/11. So in my view of events, you know, it’s not, Iraq is sort of irrelevant to this standing.
HH: All right, let me ask you about Guantanamo Bay, Lawrence Wright, and the ongoing debate about whether or not we ought to keep it open, whether or not we ought to try people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed there, or in New York, or in other places. What are you opinions on that? You know this movement, and you know how they work, their propaganda. Is the security of the United States better served by keeping Gitmo open, in your opinion? Or closing it and by trying them there? Or trying them in the United States?
LW: Hugh, I’m a fan of the American justice system, which did an amazing job before 9/11 of prosecuting and convicting terrorists who were striking at America, or wanted to. They had an unparalleled record of success, especially in the Southern District of New York. It was really a remarkable job. Moreover, we’ve learned so much from those trials. Now I understand the practicalities in a war of detaining people that have, that are waging war. Every war has detainees. And whether they’re in Gitmo or in American prisons, there is a, it’s a prudent course to take people off the battlefield. But then you have to reckon with them. If they’re going to be tried, I think it serves us better to put them on trial in civilian courts and have them answer for their crimes. If we’re going to call them crimes, let’s put them on trial here.
HH: And then, the last question, which we’ll finish up after the break, but we’ll start it now. The Arab spring, to what extent is this a reaction to bin Laden, or a flowering of the democracy experiment in Iraq? How do you characterize it, and we’ve got about a minute to the break, and we’ll come back and have you finish that.
LW: This is the best thing that’s happened in the Arab world in my lifetime, Hugh. This is a transformational moment. Of course, this is the Middle East, and things rarely turn out well. So keep that in mind. But al Qaeda’s been sidelined. And I think Muslims all over the world have seen the power of non-violent resistance and social change, and how that can really transform their societies.
HH: I’ll be right back with Lawrence Wright for one more short segment.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, thanks to you as well. Probably the key question on many people’s minds, though perhaps it’s not articulated, and you mentioned earlier Major Hasan and his home grown Islamist radicalism, is how deep in the United States, specifically, in the West generally, has al Qaeda spread its roots? Do you see it continuing to spread, or is it retracting in the U.S. and in Europe?
LW: Well, Europe has been the main problem, Hugh, because of all these alienated Muslim communities that are impoverished and disenfranchised. I think that truly, Islamism is in a state of confusion and introspection right now, because the Arab spring has them off-guard. You know, their idea was the only way they could change these countries was through violent action. And then non-violent protestors stood up. And Hugh, just appreciate the civil rights movement in America. 40 martyrs, 40 lives changed American history. In the 17 days of the Cairo revolution, 840 people were killed. 2,200 people, non-violent protestors for the most part in Syria right now, and they’re not walking into police batons and fire hoses. They’re walking into tanks and helicopter gun ships. I can’t think of a moment in history when people have stood up and demanded change in a non-violent way with such enormous sacrifices.
HH: Are we doing enough to support that, especially in Syria, Lawrence Wright?
LW: You know, I’ve been really happy to see the American ambassador going out to these places where they are demonstrating, and showing the flag. There’s very little that we can do. But just being there with them, it’s their revolution, remember, Hugh. We have to let them have it. But just showing them our support is terribly valuable.
HH: Last question with about a minute left, Lawrence Wright. Do you fear the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
LW: Well, I think the Muslim Brotherhood is a disaster for the future of Egypt. But on the other hand, it’s killing al Qaeda. They have taken the course of democratic change. And al Qaeda has been usurped by that. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood right now is splintering into different factions. So it’s not one Brotherhood anymore. This is what happens when you suddenly open the gates.
HH: Lawrence Wright, thank you so much, the new book, The Looming Tower, it’s not a new book, it’s the issue of a new edition of The Looming Tower, available in paperback from Vintage Press with a new afterwards. I very much appreciate the time, and hopefully we’ll check back with you.
End of interview.