The Looming Tower author, Lawrence Wright
HH: If you’re driving, you’ll want to pull over. If you’re in your house, you’ll want to sit down. For the next two hours, I’m going to talk with Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda And The Road To 9/11, about the nature of al Qaeda, where it came from, where it is going, what it did on 9/11, and what it did before and since. It’s a conversation you really don’t want to miss. The Looming Tower is now on best seller lists across the United States, widely hailed as the most comprehensive history of al Qaeda ever put forward. Lawrence Wright is a staff writer at the New Yorker, a fellow at the Center On Law and Security at New York University. He’s the author of five previous books. He’s a graduate of Tulane, and I’m pleased to welcome him. Lawrence Wright, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
LW: Hugh, thanks for having me.
HH: Great to have you. I’d like to begin at the end, if I could.
HH: John O’Neill, on the night before he is killed in the World Trade Center, after helping personally evacuate the kids from the day care center, had been out all night at Elaine’s in New York, out to the China Club. And this retired FBI agent, turned head of the World Trade Center security, says to one of his colleagues out carousing and dining that night, we’re overdue.
HH: In the course of writing this book, Lawrence Wright, did any other similarly situated American counter-terrorism official tell you something similar to what O’Neill said on September 10th, or the early morning hours of September 11th, 2001?
LW: O’Neill wasn’t alone. He was just one of the very few who really understood the nature of the threat, and what peril we were really in. There were people. John was a prophet in many respects, because as early at 1996, he was saying that al Qaeda posed a real threat to America, even though his director, Louis Freeh, for years afterwards, was reassuring the White House that al Qaeda posed no threat to the homeland. Michael Scheuer at the CIA was another one who was very aware of the danger of al Qaeda, and was constantly trying to alert his superiors. And there were people within the I49 squad, which is one of those squads that I particularly pay attention to in my book, who were really charged with finding bin Laden. There was some really good people in that squad, but they were thwarted, in many ways, by inter-rivalry among other intelligence agencies, and by their own superiors.
HH: Over the course of the next two hours, I want to cover a lot of that ground. But in the five…you’ve been writing this book for how long now, Lawrence Wright?
LW: Well, you know, I started on 9/11, so it’s essentially a five year project.
HH: And it’s incredibly well researched. You’ve had to travel the globe. And it’s so comprehensive, that no matter what someone’s politics, they’re going to have to walk away from this saying this is a truly extraordinary and fair and balanced account. My question is in the post-9/11 world, as you’ve talked to other people, similarly situated to John O’Neill, do they think that we are once again overdue?
LW: You know, it’s more complicated now. We were in a spot, Hugh, where…I’ve been reading the al Qaeda’s memoirist, and their strategist recently. And they…al Qaeda itself says it was essentially eliminated after November/December, 2001. Although bin Laden and Zawahiri and the top lieutenants got away, according to al Qaeda, you know, 80-85% of their membership was captured or killed. And they themselves were scattered, and in disrepute all over the globe. So essentially, they were in a kind of zombie-like state. It’s not something that they were surprised about in some ways. I mean, they had planned for the day when their leadership would be eliminated. They wanted to create a legacy of smaller groups, such as the ones that we’ve seen popping up, especially in Europe. You know, 8-10 people, loosely connected, if connected at all, but bound together by ideology, learning tactics over the internet. This was all part of al Qaeda’s contingency plan. And unfortunately, Iraq has given them a new lease on life, and provided a new training ground for al Qaeda, which they badly needed. So yes, we are in danger, although the threat levels, and the kind of chatter that preceded 9/11, aren’t evident right now. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of people that aren’t trying to hurt us.
HH: A historical question. Do you believe, based on your researches, that there were other planes in the air on 9/11 that were part of the operation that were grounded, and did not carry through their missions?
LW: No. I don’t have any evidence of that.
HH: Now the same question about three different groups. First group. Do you think most of the American political elite understand this enemy, even five years after the attack?
LW: No, I think that it’s a tragedy that after five years…I’ll speak especially about our intelligence community. We have such a poor grasp of who these people are, and what they want, and where they come from. And I’ll tell you why. You know, we have reorganized American intelligence. We’ve added an entire new tier of bureaucracy with this directorate of intelligence. We have created an entirely new department of homeland security. That has not added anything to our intelligence. What would help our intelligence is getting people on the ground that actually understand al Qaeda and where it comes from. If you go up on the 7th floor of the FBI, to take one example, an organization that made its reputation fighting the Mafia, and to some extent, the IRA, who do you find up there on the top floor? Irish and Italian Catholic guys. It’s no wonder they were effective in fighting those organizations, because they come from the same neighborhoods. They speak the same language. They know who they’re fighting against. But our intelligence agencies have an ingrained prejudice against hiring people of Muslim or Arabic background who really can penetrate those communities. When, for instance, Clinton told the CIA get him, you know, he gave a presidential directive. Get this guy. The CIA couldn’t get him. They didn’t have anybody who could get close to him, and they still don’t.
HH: Second category. Does the American military elite understand this enemy?
LW: I think of all the branches of government, that the military is moving faster in terms of evolving its response to this threat than in any other branch of government. It’s not to say that the military can solve the problem alone. I don’t think it can. But you know, the military is really down in the weeds with the enemy, and they’ve learned a lot about the culture and how to adapt to it. So I feel better about the military’s ability to understand the enemy, if not defeat him.
HH: Have you had a chance to read Robert Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts? Along with your book, I think the two indispensable books, post 9/11?
LW: No, but I’ll put it on my list. Thanks for the recommendation.
HH: It’s about the military, and I think you’re right about the down in the tall grass with them. Do any of the people who would be president, who are out already speaking, and there’s a long list, Republican and Democrat, and I’m sure you’ve heard some of this. Do any of them strike you as being particularly aware of this enemy, and how and why it operates?
LW: No, I think that terrorism is a unique threat. And if you go back, for instance, to the pre-9/11 presidential campaign, Bush-Gore, they didn’t talk about terrorism at all. And it’s very difficult for any, either of the parties to really pose clear, sustainable plan for dealing with terrorism. It’s a long term, perhaps a generational problem.
HH: Do you think Bush understands his enemy in this regard, Osama and his lieutenants?
LW: I think that American intelligence and the administration are beginning to recalibrate. You know, the bravado days of bring ’em on, those are gone. And I think that in Bush’s recent speeches, where he’s directly addressing bin Laden and his policies, rather than avoiding the issue, I think are very encouraging. So I do think that there’s an appreciation that’s beginning to take root in the administration, of the nature of the threat, and what a formidable challenge they do actually pose.
HH: There’s one anecdote in here, one bit of history of al Qaeda, which I want to get in before our first break, so that people understand. It’s the boy spies…
LW: Oh, yes.
HH: …about which I’d heard nothing. But it tells us about Egyptian secret police, it tells us about Zawahiri. If you could, in a minute and a half, tell people what that episode was.
LW: In 1995, Zawahiri, the number two guy in al Qaeda, and other Egyptian groups, attempted an assassination on Hosni Mubarek, the Egyptian president. It was part of their long term campaign against the Egyptian state. But that went too far. The Egyptians, the intelligence agencies, went to Sudan, where Zawahiri and his organization, al Jahad, were located. And they enticed a young boy, a 12 year old boy, into coming to watch some videos and have some sodas. And they drugged him and sodomized him and photographed the entire thing. Then, they told him that they were going to turn these photographs over to his father if he didn’t cooperate. That could have been a death sentence for that boy. So he cooperated. He put microphones and listening devices in his parents’ apartment. He brought home papers…he brought papers to the Egyptian spies. And he also recruited another boy, who was subjected to the same degrading treatment. And the Egyptians decided to use these boys to try to assassinate Zawahiri. They actually got them to try to plant a bomb outside an apartment building where Zawahiri and some of his leaders were going to meet. The Sudanese intelligence intercepted this…
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HH: Lawrence Wright, before we went to break, we were telling…you were recounting the story of the boy spies kidnapped in Sudan in 1995 by Egyptian intelligence, sodomized, brutalized, turned against Zawahiri. And what happened to them?
LW: Well, the Sudanese intelligence intercepted this young boy as he was planting a bomb on behalf of the Egyptian intelligence officers. And Zawahiri found out about it, and he demanded to talk to the boys. And the Sudanese willingly handed him over, thinking they were going to get him back. Zawahiri put these two boys on trial. First of all, there was some objection about putting children on trial, but he had them stripped naked to see if they had pubic hair, which was an indication that they were mature enough to stand trial. And then, he convicted them and executed them, and videotaped the entire procedure to distribute among other followers who might be tempted to betray him.
HH: And how old were they?
HH: To me, both the brutality of the Egyptian secret police, and the brutality of Zawahiri, come through in that in ways that lots of books fail to communicate, and we’ll come back to that. Now I want to shift into a mode that’s a little bit less forward looking, and try and get a condensation, it’s impossible, of where this movement came from. But I want to begin by looking at your author’s note at the end, when you talk at great length about a number of different aspects. And at one point, you surprise me by saying I’ve had to compromise on reporting things I believed to be true, but cannot prove. And you reference a Prince Turkey note.
HH: You don’t mean to say you didn’t report anything you didn’t believe was true, but that there were things that you thought you could not put in here, because they had not been adequately sourced, or were contradicted?
LW: Exactly. You know, there were plenty of tantalizing rumors, and sometimes, they came from rather authoritative sources. Like an example is, I was told by two different…well, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, two French scholars of great repute, they’re wonderful scholars, both of them had heard this story that in the battle of Jalalabad in 1989, when the Soviets had left, and the Afghan communists government was trying to defend that city, bin Laden, and several of his supporters, captured a garrison of troops who were out at the airport, and they cut them into pieces, and put them inside boxes, and sent them inside a truck to the garrison troops in Jalalabad with a note saying this is what happens to unbelievers. Well, that was interesting. You know, I mean, it was the first real evidence of this kind of bloodthirstyness that’s so characteristic of bin Laden and his movement. I hadn’t seen that before. But neither Gilles nor Olivier were present, and so I had to seek out people that were actually in the battle of Jalalabad that were with bin Laden, and Arab reporters who have covered it, and Afghan troops. I couldn’t find anybody who would substantiate it. But I had two really good sources. And I just chose not to print it.
HH: And so, I tell that to people so that they understand that which does appear has been very, very deeply sourced, and we’re going to get to that after one more preliminary. Also in the author’s note, I owe a particular debt to Richard A. Clarke, who is a very patient tutor in the way of Washington. Now Clarke is a very controversial figure with my audience, with a lot of audiences. Not because of the work he did in the 90’s, but the tales he told before the 9/11 Commission. Where do you assess his credibility, Lawrence Wright? I’ve had friends who worked with him on the NSC, close friends of mine, tell me Dick Clarke was always about Dick Clarke first. But that doesn’t necessarily disqualify him from being better than most, not as good as some in the 90’s.
LW: You know, when I first met Dick, it was right after 9/11. I was desperate to find a way to write about what had happened. I was looking at online obituaries that were streaming in, and I found this obituary for John O’Neill, whom we just talked about. And I thought, it made him sound like a disgrace, honestly, that he had been kind of forced out of the Bureau, and had become the chief of security at the World Trade Center, had died that day. And I didn’t know what to make of him, but I decided this is the way I’m going to get into the story. That’s where I began. And one of the people that had never talked to the press before at that point was Dick Clarke. He was very close to O’Neill. But when I called him up, he returned my call. And he said you know, I’m doing this because I want John’s kids to know what kind of man he was. This is before most people knew the name of Richard Clarke. And he was very patient with me, because I didn’t understand the inner workings of the National Security Council, or how the FBI and the CIA dealt with each other, or refused to deal with each other. He was remarkably candid. So I understand that many people find him a controversial subject. But in terms of being a tutor in the ways of Washington, you couldn’t find a better one.
HH: Now I’m going to ask you, was the source for…there’s a very compelling anecdote on pages 291 and 292, when the CIA finds bin Laden in the company of some United Arab Emirate princes, who were out hawking in Afghanistan for an endangered bird.
HH: And Osama is moving in and out of this camp, and Scheuer comes up with a plan, and the Pentagon readies its cruise missiles, and Dick Clarke says no, I’m not going to advance this one. We could kill the UAE royal family…
HH: We could end up this way. Who told you that story? Was it Clarke?
LW: Well, it was Scheuer and Clarke. You know, both of them. I would interview…any time I found something like that, I’d try to talk to both parties. So I had both of them tell me about it.
HH: Now you have a neutral voice in this book. But looking back at that, ought they to have fired on that party?
LW: You know, the thing that Scheuer admits, he never could find bin Laden. He just knew he was there. He knew that bin Laden was coming in and out of that region. He couldn’t see his camp. I mean, it was odd to me that he could see the falcons on the mast through satellite imagery, but he couldn’t spot where bin Laden might be staying. So on balance, I feel like you have to have the man actually in your targets in order to pull the trigger. We’ve made mistakes before. I mean, you know, the CIA was under the impression, for instance, that bin Laden is a physical giant, which his friends say he’s not. He’s about 6′ or 6′ 1″.
HH: And under the impression that he had kidney failure, that to this day, I didn’t know it was an urban myth until I read you book.
LW: Yeah. Well, there are many of these myths that I suffered from as well when I started. In 2001, after 9/11, when predator drones were going through Afghanistan, they shot down a man who was tall, because he was tall. Now it makes a difference whether your information is correct. But they found a tall man, and they killed him. If bin Laden’s only six foot tall, then that poor fellow was the subject of a mighty dose of misinformation.
HH: And we’ve had misinformation about the Sudan aspirin factory, and before that, about…
LW: Oh, yeah. Many tragedies in the way.
HH: Many in this war.
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HH: Before we turn to Sayyid Qutb, Lawrence Wright, there was a controversy recently about an ABC series, the Path To 9/11, a five hour mini-series. Did you watch it?
LW: No. That speech is both nights, so I missed it.
HH: From the accounts that you have heard…sometime, when you see it, I’d like you to see it. It seems to me that you would find it very fair, if in one or two minutes, overdramatic because of the narrative you provided, which I read after seeing the movie. And it just seems it would be interesting to get your reaction to that. Let’s begin with Sayyid Qutb, about whom a few people have heard, but not nearly as many, and certainly not that he spent some time in Greeley, Colorado, which listens in great numbers to this program.
LW: Oh, great.
HH: (laughing) Yes, we’ve got a lot of Greeley listeners, so please tell them their history, and their involvement in the production of al Qaeda.
LW: Well, first of all, I want to thank the citizens of Greeley for being so hospitable to me when I was there. I had a great time. Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian writer and educator who came to America in 1948. And it was a time when America’s standing in the Arab world, Muslim world, was really high. And Americans’ opinion of themselves was pretty high. You know, we were just on a post-war party, and really in a kind of triumphalist mode. Qutb saw a different America, and he spent much of that time in that little northern Colorado town, going to an education school there. For one thing, he was a very dark Egyptian, so he saw that racist side of America. One of his roommates recalls that they went to a movie. And at that time, Qutb loved American movies. And the theater owner said you can’t come in, you’re Negroes. And one of them said, no, no, we’re not Negroes, we’re Egyptians. And the theater owner said oh, very well, you can come in. And Qutb drew himself up and said well, if you will not let a black American in, this black Egyptian refuses to enter. So he saw that side of America. He was also really appalled, but also highly titillated by the sexuality that he encountered. He was a middle-aged, tea-totalling Egyptian virgin. And I think that the kind of excited atmosphere, that he was so charged. When he writes about it, it’s almost pornographic. And there was no bars in the city, because it was a temperance colony. You would think it would be a perfect place for him. But these farming ranch girls that would come in, and they were very frank about sexuality. They really unsettled him, and he thought that the preachers were in league with the devil, because there were these Church dances that were sponsoring dates between girls and boys. All these things horrified him. He went back to Egypt, and he wrote a book about his adventures in America, that was very influential. But the book that really started things up was one that he wrote called Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq, which means signposts along the way, or milestones, it usually is translated. And in there, he talked about how there was no pure Islamic society anymore. There was no way for a Muslim to be truly Muslim any longer, that we needed to purify Islamic society. And he called for a vanguard of Muslim youth to rise up and overthrow their infidel rulers, and create a pure Islamic society. That’s the book that Zawahiri and bin Laden and all the future al Qaedaistas read.
LW: Milestones. And there…actually, Hugh, there’s a direct connection between Qutb’s life and Zawahiri. The last man to see Sayyid Qutb alive before Nasser, the president of Egypt, hanged him in 1966, was…he’s now a labor lawyer in Cairo. His name is Mafouz Azan. And he was also Qutb’s lawyer, and his protégé. And the year that Nasser hanged Qutb, Ayman al Zawahiri a cell to overthrow the Egyptian government. He was fifteen years old.
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HH: When we talk about Sayyid Qutb, Lawrence Wright, we’re talking about Salafist fundamentalism, and Wahabist fundamentalism. We’re not talking about Ahmadinejad’s Shiia, 12th imam thing.
HH: And there’s not much about the latter. Before we go back to Egypt in 1950, which do you view as the greater threat to America at this hour?
LW: It’s an interesting question, Hugh. They’re both very dangerous in their own way. And I think that the real threat is that they are collaborating in certain ways. I’ve written about al Qaeda’s master plan, its grand plan. And one of the things that al Qaeda would love to see happen is to have happen, is to have the U.S. and Iran in a real conflict, because it was accomplish things that al Qaeda can’t do for itself. Like al Qaeda would love to destroy the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Iran can do that. Al Qaeda can’t. Al Qaeda would love to have Hezbollah activated against Israel and the U.S. Al Qaeda can’t do that, but Iran can. So that’s a part of their strategy, if they could accomplish it. So I think they’re more dangerous together than they are separately. And we’d be really wise not to try to follow their playbook, which is to draw us deeper into conflict with Iran and Syria. And they’re great readers of American political theory, and Paul Kennedy’s book, The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers…you know that book?
LW: In there, he talks about imperial overreach. And this is central to their idea, of their plan for America, is to draw us deeper and deeper into these regions, so that our grip becomes less and less strong, and eventually, we’re way too overextended.
HH: I don’t want to digress too far, though. But if Ahmadinejad makes a speech as he made yesterday, and if I have available, I’ll play for you the end of that. Did you happen to hear…that he made on Tuesday. Did you happen to hear his…
LW: No, I didn’t hear it.
HH: He closed it with a most extraordinary prayer that called for the 12th imam’s urgent return. Would you ever want that government to have nukes, Lawrence Wright?
LW: You know, no. I don’t want them to. But we were likely to see this happen, though, Hugh. We’ve already had, of course, an Islamist government in Pakistan that developed a nuclear bomb before Musharraf came into power. So although very dangerous, and their contacts with Hezbollah, I think, make it even more dangerous, it may not be something that we can actually stop. So I think we’re going to have to find a way to negotiate our way out of this, because the alternative is not very rewarding, I don’t think.
HH: Well, we’ll have to come back to that a different day, because I don’t want to lose the thread. We’re back in Egypt in 1950…and we disagree, but we’ll just put it aside.
HH: Sayyid Qutb returns to Egypt, and this is the time when Faruq is so profligate, and such a disgusting figure. Nasser raises up his coups. They cooperate with Qutb, they fall out, and Nasser executes him. What’s the effect on the Muslim brothers of this period?
LW: Well, you know, Nasser had thought he had crushed the whole movement. He rounded up as many of them as he could find, and threw them into these concentration camps. You know, I happened to live in Egypt during that time. I was there from ’69-’71, teaching at the American University in Cairo. And I was there when Nasser died, and Sadat came to power. And Sadat made the unfortunate calculation that he could let these guys out of prison, and work out an agreement with them. I could see where he would think that, because he was an extremely pious Muslim himself. He had the prayer mark on his forehead, which was very unusual when we lived there. I mean, you didn’t see women in hijabs or black abayas, and stuff like that, like you do now in Egypt. And Egyptians actually made fun of that prayer mark, although now, you see it everywhere. But he calculated that he was a pious Muslim himself, and that he could deal with the radical fringe that was so popular in the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups. But he completely miscalculated.
HH: When the secular Arab leaders miscalculated, and executed Qutb, or then Sadat let the brothers out of prison, you begin to turn to the story of Ayman al-Zawahiri, which in many ways, he’s a much more evil character than Osama, though it’s hard to put gradations on this. Tell people about where he came from, his background, and how he became the brains, possibly, of al Qaeda.
LW: You know, he is a fascinating guy. I don’t know exactly who it would be. The family is not at the level of like the Kennedy’s or the Rockefeller’s, but they’re really well known names in Egypt. The Zawahiri’s, on his father’s side, were mostly doctors. His father was a professor of pharmacology, and his great-uncle was the head of al-Assar, the most prominent university in Islam, in Cairo, the oldest university in the world. And on his mother’s side, the Azam side of the family, her father was a diplomat, founded a university in Saudi Arabia, had been the amabassador to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Her grandfather had founded the Arab League. So extremely prominent families on both sides. And so Ayman al-Zawahiri had a lineage that anybody in Cairo would have known about. He was himself a surgeon. And he was, as I said earlier, determined since a teenager to overthrow the Egyptian government, and had been working underground all of his life. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by an organization that Zawahiri was associated with, and he was put into prison, along with more than…nearly 200 other Islamists. In that prison, he was really brutally tortured. And I think a lot of the brutality, the appetite for blood that is so characteristic of al Qaeda, comes out of that experience.
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HH: Where did he go, Lawrence Wright?
LW: Well, he went, first of all, to Saudi Arabia. He went to work in a clinic in Jeddah, which was bin Laden’s home town. And it might be that they met at that time, in 1984. And it would have been logical. One of my sources says that they did meet at that time, because both men, both Zawahiri and bin Laden were interested in the jihad against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. So young Egyptians were coming to Jeddah, where they were sent off to Afghanistan, and bin Laden was paying for that. So it could well have been that they met there. But if not then, in the next couple of years, they did meet in Bashawar in Pakistan, where the base for the resistance against the Soviets was established.
HH: And so he was, actually, quite the committed fanatic. He would travel back and forth to the front lines of the jihad in Afghanistan, and at quite considerable personal peril and expense to wage jihad at this point.
LW: This is bin Laden?
HH: No, I’m talking about Zawahiri.
LW: No, you know, the truth about Zawahiri is he didn’t care about the jihad against the Soviets. He was only interested in overthrowing his own government.
HH: But didn’t he go to the hospitals there?
LW: Yes, he did. But his real goal, Hugh, was not…he was a takfiri, which means one who excommunicates any other Muslim who doesn’t believe as he did. And the takfiris excommunicated, in their minds, the entire nation of Afghanistan. They just didn’t believe they were real Muslims. They were Sufis, for the most part. So they didn’t take them seriously. What Zawahiri really wanted was to capture these young Egyptians, these idealists who were coming in to fight against the Soviets. He wanted to capture them and to train them, and then take them back to Egypt to overthrow the government. That was his real…
HH: But he’s been a phenomenally, because of his personality, he has been phenomenally unsuccessful in molding his own terror network, is that…
LW: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. He was not…he’s certainly not a charismatic leader. But he did have a talent for organizing men around him. And when he met bin Laden, you know, sometimes, I think it must have been like Colonel Parker spotting Elvis for the first time. He thought, you know, I can do something with this kid. Here was this wealthy, charismatic, young Saudi who had a dream, which was, at the time, he wanted to create a Muslim, an Arab foreign legion, something that could go anywhere and fight for Muslim causes. And mainly, he was an anti-communist organization at the time.
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HH: This hour, let’s begin, Lawrence Wright, with bin Laden’s father, who comes out of Yemen, and simply by dint of extraordinary effort, builds a fortune of extraordinary size.
LW: You know, it’s an amazing story, Hugh. And it’s hard to understand Osama bin Laden without appreciating the figure, the titanic figure that his father is. Mohammed bin Laden walked out of Yemen in 1930 into Saudi Arabia. He was illiterate, he was missing one eye, and he was a hod carrier, essentially. And yet, he managed to build himself up a small construction company that eventually became the largest, privately-held company in the Middle East, and the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia. He built much of modern Saudi Arabia, the highways, the universities, the airports, the mosques, the schools. He renovated the holy mosque of Mecca and Medina. His hand is everywhere. You can’t look around Saudi Arabia without seeing the bin Laden touch. And you know, he died when Osama was nine, and he’d divorced Osama’s mother when Osama was around five. So Osama didn’t know his father very well, but he lived in the shadow of this figure all of his life, and he was obsessed with kind of living up to that legend.
HH: And he began doing that by taking his part of the fortune, which was considerable, and establishing the base, al Qaeda, in Afghanistan, during jihad against the Soviets. Then quickly tell us where he moved from, because part of this is also the history of Saudi Arabia.
HH: That’s why the book is so compelling, and how their deal with the Wahabist clerics became sort of a suicide pact in many ways.
LW: Yeah, it’s a fascinating tale, and one of the interesting anecdotes in the book is about the attack on the mosque in 1979.
HH: I didn’t know any of this stuff, the French who convert to Islam in order to go in and try to pump poison gas in?
LW: It was a horrible fiasco in many ways. A group of radicals, in some ways, prototypes for the kind of al Qaeda thinkers that would be on the horizon, they seized the Grand Mosque during the Hadj. It was two weeks, the Saudi forces were struggling to evict them. It was a very bloody battle. It’s hard to know, really, how many people died, but probably hundreds. And it wound up with the Saudis having to drill holes in the terrace above these warrens that were underground, and drop hand grenades in, to drive these people out. It was the bin Laden’s, of course, the family’s construction firm that had really built the mosque, and they, Salem bin Laden, one of bin Laden’s eldest brothers, came out to help Prince Turkey al Faisal, who was the head of Saudi intelligence at the time, try to root these people out. And it’s a little irony that bin Laden, Osama bin laden himself was actually arrested right after this. He was apparently coming from the family farm, which was near Mecca. And he was driving down a dirt road, leaving a trail of dust, and they thought, the authorities thought these were some of the radicals trying to escape. So he was held for several days. And at the time, he thought that this was a horrible desecration of Islam, but later, he came to believe that these were good Muslims. And much of what he says now about Saudi Arabia and Islam echoes the statements that these radicals made in 1979.
HH: Well, the extremist war against Saudi Arabia, itself a very extreme state when it comes to theological beliefs, begins, really, in ’79 with this thing.
HH: And somehow, bin Laden gets caught up in it, even though for a while, the Saudis thought he was doing great work.
LW: Yeah, and following…and 1979 was the earthquake year in Islam. You know, there was this Grand Mosque attack, and that was the year that the Shah fell, and the Ayatollah came to power, showing so many radicals that it is possible to take over a very important country, and turn it into a theocracy. And then, of course, you had the invasion of the Soviets into Afghanistan that same year. It just completely rocked the Islamic world. And it was…bin Laden, like every young Muslim, was shaken by this, and the invasion into Afghanistan was particularly upsetting to him. And that’s where eventually, he decided to put his energy.
HH: After the driving out of the Soviets, and after the warlord period begins in Afghanistan, he finds himself in Sudan, as does Zawahiri. And in fact, it sort of underscores, both Sudan and Afghanistan, Lawrence Wright, that the Bush administration’s policy of they cannot be allowed to nest somewhere, because all of the terrorists will find them. It’s extraordinary how they’ve all met and eaten and supped together, and plotted together.
LW: You know, it’s actually…and I see this as kind of a paradox, Hugh. Sudan was an open country for terrorists. You know, they had an Islamic revolution, and they opened their doors to anybody, any Muslim who wanted to come. And naturally, the ones who came were the ones that weren’t invited anywhere else. And so even…you had Carlos the Jackal there, and Abu Nidal, and all these different terrorist groups. And you had bin Laden, who had some money to give them. And it was in…during the Clinton administration, in 1996, that it was decided that bin Laden posed a threat by just being there. And so American authorities put pressure on the Sudanese to expel him. And the Sudanese first of all said well, do you want him? And you know, we didn’t have an indictment on bin Laden. There wasn’t very much that we could do with him. At the time, it may be that he hadn’t killed any Americans yet. So we said no.
HH: We being who?
LW: We being the State Department, and the NSC.
HH: Quite a lot of debate over whether or not President Clinton was involved in that decision. What do your researches tell you?
LW: Well, they did want to…you know, the Clinton administration clearly wanted to force bin Laden out of Sudan. They thought it was dangerous for him to be there. But the Sudanese argued, listen, he’s going to go to Afghanistan. Here, he’s under watch. Here, he has investments. You know, at least you know his address. If he goes to Afghanistan, nobody will be in control.
HH: But when…let me press you on this point. When Sudan offered bin Laden to the United States, and we said no, and you said State Department and NSC, do you think President Clinton was involved in that decision?
LW: Well, you know, it certainly reflects his administration’s policies.
HH: Because he said something to the effect that he was. But that’s a presser. You never can tell when they’re talking off the cuff.
LW: Well, you know, I can understand their concern, but they weren’t thinking about the fact the Sudanese really did have a point. You know, he’s dangerous, but he’s under our watch. Well, we did…they did, at our instruction, expel bin Laden. And on the way out the door, they picked his pockets.
HH: Oh, that is amazing, yeah.
LW: Yeah, he was never really as rich as we’ve thought. He was worth only about $7 million dollars, which was his share of the bin Laden construction company. And the Saudis had cut him off of that, and they also cut off his annual allowance, which on some really good years, amounted to as much as half a million dollars. His own investments weren’t making any money. But nonetheless, they were substantial, and the Sudanese authorities divvied them up among themselves. Abu Rida al-Suri, who was bin Laden’s business manager and good friend, told me in Khartoum that when bin Laden left there, he was worth about $50,000. But the intelligence agent who held the file on al Qaeda for the Sudanese government said he left here with nothing.
HH: Wow. Before we get to break, and we go to Afghanistan with bin Laden, we also have to introduce the blind sheik into this, because although he’s in federal prison, in the harshest of lockdown conditions, along with Ramzi Youssef, he was, for a time, a competitor, a different franchise, operating with the same objective. How come he lost, in a manner of speaking, and ends up in New York, and bin Laden ends up in Afghanistan with Zawahiri?
LW: Well, you know, bin Laden…excuse me. The blind sheik, Adbel Rahman, and Zawahiri were in prison together. And they were…their efforts were very closely tied, but they were really competitors. And they had many quarrels in the prisons about the future of the Islamist movement. And they were always competitors, too, for bin Laden and his money. And in this sense, Zawahiri showed his organizational genius by surrounding bin Laden with his own men, so that he kind of captured him.
HH: So in effect, having the blind sheik, leaving him no choice but to go to America.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, bin Laden gets to Afghanistan, and all terrorist roads start to run to him, although the original relationship with Mullah Omar, as you recount, is somewhat strained, and at times, tenuous. But we failed to break it, the Saudis failed to break it, and he begins to flourish, and he runs these camps. And into these camps comes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and other terrorists who would be behind the embassy bombings, the Cole bombing, and ultimately, 9/11. How did we not see what was coming, when all terror suspects in the world are going in and out of bin Laden’s camps, and talking to Zawahiri?
LW: It’s a little mysterious, Hugh, at how badly we fumbled it, because when Zawahiri had come to America, and his own man, Ali Mohammed, a great story, had tried to penetrate American intelligence…actually did kind of penetrate American intelligence, and he had revealed the existence of al Qaeda in 1993. But that never got up to the top. And then in 1996, we get it from an al Qaeda defector, you know, straight from the real source, as bin Laden’s former secretary. And he outlines the whole thing for us. And then in August of that year, bin Laden declares war on America. And then in 1998, he actually bombs the American embassies, after warning on CNN that he was about to do something drastic. So again and again, we were getting messages that this guy really posed a problem to us. And even after the American embassy bombings, there were people in American intelligence that just didn’t take it seriously. It was only after that, that al Qaeda went on the State Department terrorism list. And even then, they weren’t devoting that much attention to the real problem that al Qaeda posed.
HH: But in classic FBI fashion, they were after Ramzi Youssef. And they got him, because he had killed New Yorkers in the first World Trade Center attack. And to a certain extent, they were what? Chasing the minor capo in the organization, not seeing what was going on at the top?
LW: You know, I would say that after the embassy bombings…I have to credit the FBI with doing a wonderful investigation of that, and they got a lot of convictions, and they indicted bin Laden early on. So they did know, but there was not a real strong governmental effort to actually get him. As I said, we didn’t have the ability, we didn’t have the people on the ground. One of the heroes in my book is Ali Sufan, this 29 year old Arab-American who was the case agent on the Cole bombing in October of 2000. And he was one of 8 FBI agents in the entire country who spoke Arabic, the only one in New York. And I’m afraid that hasn’t changed. Last week, the FBI graduated a new class of fifty new agents, and only one of them speaks a foreign language at all.
HH: Right. Let’s talk a little bit, then, about one of the most despairing passages, is the refusal of the CIA to work with the FBI, and the FBI’s arrogance back to the CIA, the famous wall.
HH: I played earlier Pink Floyd’s number. That was actually part of the musical repertoire of the CIA. Explain to people how.
LW: Well, the best way to explain this is that I just mentioned Ali Sufan. When he and John O’Neill, and other investigators were looking into the Cole bombing, they uncovered evidence that was leading to several al Qaeda personalities into a meeting that had taken place somewhere in Southeast Asia, as it happens, Kuala Lumpur, in January of 2000. Three times, Sufan, the FBI, formerly request through the director’s office to the director of the CIA, formal request for information about that meeting. Three times, the CIA refuses to respond. Now there was no legal wall, or legal reason for them to do so. There’s a culture that had grown up, they were very, very jealous of surrendering information. Just leave aside the fact, you know, that meeting in Kuala Lumpur was between the Cole bombers and two hijackers who would then come to America. Here was Ali Sufan and his team investigating the death of 17 American sailors, and the CIA essentially is obstructing justice. Well, of course, the CIA did know about that meeting. They actually asked the Malaysian authorities to surveil it. They had photographs. They found out that in January of 2000, two hijackers, two would…future hijackers, two known al Qaeda members, flew from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles, then went to San Diego. They knew in March of 2000, a year and a half before 9/11, that al Qaeda was in America, and they refused to tell the FBI.
HH: On this program, Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair writer, has asserted that on the morning of 9/11, George Tenet, upon learning of the attacks, said I hope it wasn’t the guys in the flight school. Do you credit that? Or is that apocryphal?
LW: Hugh, I don’t know how far up the chain the information about these two al Qaeda hijackers went. Certainly, there were people that were in the top of Alec Station, not Mike Scheuer…
HH: You’ve got to explain what Alec Station is to people.
LW: Alec Station was the virtual bin Laden station, that was recently abandoned. But it was create…it was to pursue and find bin Laden, set up in 1996. And there were people there that knew because of the following of the Malaysian meeting, and the participants there, they knew that these people had come into the U.S. I don’t know how far it passed up. I could not get cooperation from the CIA to talk to the people that were involved.
HH: Would George Tenet cooperate with you?
HH: How about Sandy Berger?
LW: I talked to Berger, but very briefly. He wasn’t very happy. (laughing)
HH: How about Janet Reno?
LW: I could never get her to call me back.
HH: Louis Freeh?
LW: We exchanged e-mails on several occasions.
HH: Do you think…you know, there’s a cast of characters in the 90’s, Reno and Freeh and Tenet and Perry and Cohen and Berger and Albright. Did any of them really believe there was a threat out there, in your estimate, Lawrence Wright?
LW: No, they say they do. I think that the people that really believed there was a threat, people know that they believed that. I mean, it was obvious with O’Neill, for instance.
LW: He was publicly saying it. It was obvious with Scheuer. He made himself very unpopular in the CIA, because he was constantly hectoring them about what a threat bin Laden was. So if, for instance, Sandy Berger really felt that way, and if George Tenet had really declared war, as he says, you would think that there would be people that remembered that.
HH: But Scheuer and O’Neill are also hating each other with an intensity that springs off of your pages.
LW: It’s such a tragedy. It makes tears come to your eyes. Here are two really powerful, insightful, driven men. I mean, driven…you rarely run into anybody in life who are so obsessed, and so compelling in their pursuit of bin Laden. And yet because of personal rivalries, and bureaucratic turf wars, they hated each other. And it was, for instance, when O’Neill put the FBI man in Alec Station, Scheuer just thought they were spies. That’s the way he treated them.
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HH: I want to go to our allies, and their methods, Lawrence Wright. We’ve touched on Egypt’s, we touched on Saudi Arabia’s. Can they ever kill off this extremism? Or do their methods inevitably bring more of the extremists to the fore?
LW: That’s the paradox that we face, Hugh. You know, the kill and capture approach has…we’ve succeeded in killing and capturing hundreds, maybe thousands. But we’ve created as many more, or if not, even more. And it’s…it is a truism that it is a battle of ideas. I think this is a long term conflict, that we’re going to be dealing with for a good long time. And that it’s al Qaeda, and the kind of Islamist radicalism, will only be defeated by creating a certain kind of hope in the Muslim world. You know, you can’t spend a lot of time in that part of the world without coming to grips with the futility, the sense of helplessness and despair that’s so characteristic of young people’s lives there. I had…I couldn’t get into Saudi Arabia as a reporter. You know, they wouldn’t let me in. So after a year and four months, I realized I’d have to take a job, so I got a job teaching. It was the best piece of bad luck. I got a job mentoring these young reporters in Jeddah, bin Laden’s home town. And so I got acquainted with Saudi life in a way that I could never have had the privilege of doing if I’d just been a reporter in a hotel room making my calls. And my reporters, just to give you a sense of what their life was like, there are no movies, no theaters, no plays, no nightclubs, no music, very few parks or museums, no political life at all, no political parties, no unions. There’s very little to do. And there’s very little for them, very few opportunities for them to express themselves in the world. And that sense of futility and helplessness is so pervasive. If you can fight that, if you can help them have more productive economy…
HH: But you’re raising, Lawrence Wright, something that the Islamists don’t want. They want that life, don’t they? Isn’t that the essence…
LW: It’s the most perverse thing in the world, isn’t it, Hugh?
LW: That what does the Muslim world need to be liberated from? Well, from ignorance and from poverty, and from repressive political societies. Those are the things that would really bring hope to that part of the world, and equality with the rest of the world, which they…and would overcome the sense of humiliation that they constantly refer to. But al Qaeda doesn’t offer that to them.
HH: And they don’t want it. I mean, if you go back to Milestones, I think you did a tremendous service in portraying…this isn’t born of poverty, in many respects, and you go through the hijackers. This is born out of religious zealotry, that desires that fierce asceticism that is very off putting to some, but intensely attractive to others, that they want to be martyrs.
LW: Yeah, yeah. There’s one thing that al Qaeda does offer, is death. And you know, I’ve been thinking recently, from our point of view, al Qaeda is a terrorist organization. But if you look at it from the point of view of those who join al Qaeda, it’s a suicide organization.
HH: Yeah, it’s a death cult.
LW: And I was very affected by a remark a reporter, a Pakistani reporter made to me several years ago…his name is Raham Ali Youssef-I, and he had covered the war against the Soviets. And he came upon a contingent of these Arabs, and there weren’t very many of them, and they had no effect on the war against the Soviets at all. But there they were, camped outside on a plane in white tents. And he said what are you doing? You know, the Soviets will, their air force will see you, and wipe you out. And one of the Arabs said to him, but we came to die. And that’s the culture in which al Qaeda was created, this sense of longing for martyrdom.
HH: And it’s…when we come back for our next segment, it contrasts with John O’Neill drinking, out on the town at Elaine’s, and eating until Four in the morning, when the suicide attackers of 9/11 were ritually shaving themselves, and going through their suicide preparation. How the former can take on and defeat the latter, I don’t know.
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HH: Lawrence Wright, a couple of years ago, you wrote for the New Yorker, The Terror Web. I tried to book you a couple of times since then, but you’ve been all over the world writing The Looming Tower. The Terror Web was an eye-opener, in that al Qaeda metastasized after they lost their base, after the American invasion of Afghanistan, even as 80-85% of their people were killed. You closed this book with the Zawahiri and bin Laden riding into Pakistan, escaping Anaconda. Have you followed, since you wrote the Terror Web for the New Yorker, which is available on the web, the continuing iteration of the sort of metastasized al Qaeda?
LW: Yeah, I just recently did a piece for the magazine called The Master Plan. And I’d been wondering what al Qaeda’s plans for itself were. And it turns out they’re very easy to obtain. Most of them are published on the web. And some of them are actually in English, although I had a lot of the work translated from Arabic. The plan is basically rather chilling, although it’s self-justifying, it is highly propagandistic in many ways, but sometimes, it’s a little chilling to see how it’s unfolded, and what they have in mind. Their 20 year plan is to…they wanted to entice America into conflict with the Muslim world, and that begins with 9/11, and the first stage ends with the fall of Baghdad. And their idea is that young jihadi recruits will stream into Iraq and get training. And then, they’ll go back to their own countries, and wage jihad against their rulers, and eventually pull down those governments, establish a caliphate. And in the year 2020, they will create an Islamic army that will wage a final apocalyptic battle with the unbelievers. That’s their plan.
HH: They intend war.
LW: Yes, they do. The al Qaeda strategists, you know, intend this to be a battle to the finish. That doesn’t mean that everybody that’s drawn to al Qaeda has those kind of absurd, Utopian goals. There are people that go into it for very narrow reasons, and it could be combated by addressing some of the intense political problems in the region. But it’s gotten…it’s fascinating to me to see how al Qaeda has evolved over time, from being an organization that…mainly, bin Laden’s big goal was to get the American troops out of Saudi Arabia. You know, if you had sat him down in 2002, or early 2003, and said what’s your goal, get the Americans out of the holy land. And then, the Americans got out. In April of 2003, the troops which were there to enforce the no-fly rule against Saddam Hussein, the American administration said you know, Saddam is gone, we’re going to remove our troops. In May, the very next month, al Qaeda began its assaults on the foreigners housing compounds in Saudi Arabia. And it seemed a very clear statement that they weren’t going to be appeased, or mollified by any moves in the direction of what was their stated goal.
HH: And so, they’re not going to be appeased. They have this master plan, and to engage, obviously, in Iraq is one part of it. But although bin Laden was originally opposed, Zawahiri is very committed to weapons of mass destruction. Will they use those if they come into the possession of them?
LW: They certainly would. I mean, there’s no reason for them to hesitate to use it. It’s been a long term goal of al Qaeda to acquire a bomb, or any kind of weapon of mass destruction. Bin Laden himself was more wedded to the idea of the nuclear bomb. And Zawahiri was always interested in anthrax. That was one of the things he was very keen on. And there was another Egyptian, Abu Kabob, who was creating a kind of nerve gas, that was really…
HH: He’s killing all the dogs, and watching them die.
LW: Yeah, it took the dogs five hours to die. But they’ve always had an interest in WMD. And I’m sure that if they had such a weapon, they would employ it as soon as they could.
HH: Now let me ask you. What do you think would be the consequences of a rapid, or an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq?
LW: My fear is that Iraq will turn into an even wider scale civil war than it already has, under way, and that it might spill over into other regions. One of the problems with Iraq is although people are talking about dividing it, it doesn’t divide up very easily. And so, the Kurdish area might, but other than that, there’ll be just huge amount of conflict over territory and ethnic bloodletting. I don’t know that we can prevent it. I just observe that that might well be the consequence.
HH: I also, in a couple of pages, I’m not going to make you too popular with some people. On page 295 and 296, you review the history of Saddam’s connection with al Qaeda, tentative, but not dismissive of it at all. Have the post-war documents that have begun to arrive changed your understanding of that relationship?
LW: Not at all. I think you know, I think it’s pretty clear that Saddam had toyed with the idea of enlisting al Qaeda, and was rebuffed. He had, Saudi intelligence had told me that he had sent minions over to Sudan when bin Laden was there, between ’92 and ’96. And they flattered bin Laden, and told him he was the Mahdi, or the messiah of the Islamic world. And that didn’t get him anywhere. And then we sent, again, when bin Laden went to Afghanistan, on both occasions, bin Laden expressed no interest.
HH: And so, Saddam wanted them, but he did not get them?
HH: Now…30 seconds to our break. Is the Mubarak way, in your opinion, Lawrence Wright, the only way in the Arab world to deal with this?
LW: No, no. I don’t think so.
HH: I’m glad to hear you say that.
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HH: First, Lawrence Wright, thank you. That’s a lot of time out of your schedule. I see you’ve given a lot of long form interviews. Are you surprised by the interest?
LW: You know, I’m really pleased, because people seem very hungry to understand this situation, and they want it laid out in context. They don’t want soundbytes. They really want to understand what’s going on.
HH: Against that backdrop, I need sort of a two minute soundbyte. What ought to be the strategery here, vis-a-vis, we’ll put the Shiia menace aside in Iran, the 12th imam stuff, and just focus on al Qaeda, versus them. You get two minutes with the President. What’s the speech?
LW: All right. First, fix the intelligence by hiring people who actually speak Arabic natively, and Pashto, and Urdu, the languages you actually have to, the cultures you have to work against. We’re not going to understand…it’ll always be a failure of imagination if you have people that simply aren’t from those cultures fighting it. And secondly, I think that I believe in the democratization process. I don’t abandon that. But it’s going to be ugly, and it’s not going to be always very rewarding. I think Hamas in the future, we’ll see that again and again. But the thing about democracy that I genuinely believe is that it is an inherently moderating force. I think you can see that even right now with Hamas having to come to grips with being in power. They have to answer to the needs of the people. Turkey is a good example of a Islamist movement that has come into power and has had to adapt. So I say let them come to power through democratic processes, and it may not be pretty. But we can’t control everything. But if we do have people who are democratically elected, then we’ve got a better chance to have real partners.
HH: Have you seen the rise within Islam of reasonable…I hope you understand, reasonable fanatics, people who are reasonable fundamentalists?
LW: Yeah, and it’s funny you would ask it in that way, Hugh. You know, where they are, oddly enough, they’re in prison in Egypt. There’s some of the leaders of Gama Islamiya and even al Jahad, Zawahiri’s old organization, have been…they’ve had a considerable amount of time to think things over, and they’ve been writing very stern articles and books about the failure of the radical and violent approach, and how it steered the movement into a catastrophe, and that how the actions of al Qaeda’s suicide bombings, the murder of innocents, and all are against Islam. Those are the voices that people will listen to, and I think we should encourage that kind of dialogue, and find an opening to talk to them.
HH: Lawrence Wright, yours is a voice I hope everyone listens to, and a book I hope everyone buys and reads. The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda And The Road To 9/11. Thanks for a lot of your time. I very much appreciate it.
LW: Hugh, it was great. Thanks for having me.
End of interview.