I ran out of books to read while we were on vacation, and since I didn’t have a phone or a laptop I had to make do with, like, actual printed books. We visited a great bookstore in Durham, NC, on our final weekend of the trip and this book was available at a reduced price. I’d seen references to it before and thought it would be an informative read, so I went ahead and grabbed it.
You might think that a book about the leadup to 9/11 would be a little stale and irrelevant, but you’d be wrong. I think of myself as being fairly well-informed about actual Islamic terrorism and its roots, values, and goals, but this book clarified those aspects of this threat. In addition, the book makes the main players so fascinating and human that you come away with a new understanding of how this whole horrible tragedy was brought about, both by its planners and executors and also by the failure of many in various law enforcement agencies to follow some obvious clues.
(Always remembering the adage about 20/20 hindsight.) For instance, when Richard Clarke, the national coordinator for counterterrorism under Bill Clinton, briefed Condoleezza Rice, the incoming national security advisor under George W. Bush, about the growing threat of bin Laden and his organization, Rice gave him the impression that she’d never even heard of al-Qaeda, and she subsequently downgraded his position. (I have myself always found her attitude about threat warnings before 9/11 to be quite inexplicable.) There were many, many dropped balls that made the 9/11 attacks possible. But there are some cheering anecdotes in the book, too, as other threats were neutralized, sometimes because just one person noticed something suspicious.
The two most fascinating characters in the book are Osama bin Laden and John O’Neill. If you think of bin Laden as this mastermind who knew exactly what he was doing and who had millions at his disposal to spend as he chose on his nefarious schemes, you’ll realize how untrue that perception is if you read this book. In reality, he was an obsessed scatterbrain, if such a thing can exist. I had read before that 9/11 was the result of a bunch of disorganized murderous nincompoops who managed to have a very lucky day, and that characterization is certainly borne out by this book. It’s so maddening to think of how little it would have taken to stop the attacks and/or to capture bin Laden and his crew afterwards. And if there had been any one person who could have done either it would have been O’Neill, the FBI counterterrorism agent who ended up as a security officer in the Twin Towers after some missteps of his own that stopped his career in the Bureau. Both men are given their due in this book.
I must confess to doing some skipping around after I got through the first part of the book. The problem wasn’t Wright’s writing, which is impeccable, but that he was having to detail the career of the other 9/11 mastermind, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is simply not very interesting in and of himself but whose story must be told as part of the whole. Later, when I was suffering from some post-trip insomnia, I went back and picked up on some parts I’d skipped. Now I wish I’d just pushed through, because Wright does such a great job of tying the threads together. It would have been better to read the book in its proper order, and I’d encourage you to do just that.
As the debate over how to deal with Islamic terrorism continues in our government and society in general, I think it’s very useful for the participants in that debate to have a solid understanding of the background of this whole movement. To gain this understanding by way of reading a fascinating, well-written account makes the process an enjoyable one, even if the information gained is pretty unsettling.