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Author Dissects People, Politics Prior to 9/11 Attacks

September 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, two post-9/11 stories, beginning with a new book conversation about the people and events behind the attacks, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer who visited the United States, before penning a manifesto that would galvanize several generations of Muslims to turn toward a more militant Islam.

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI, Muslim Leader: We are Muslims. We are Muslims!

JEFFREY BROWN: Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who railed against his own government in a Cairo jail…

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI: We tried our best to establish this Islamic state and Islamic society.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and later became the number two in Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. Raised amid privilege and wealth in Saudi Arabia, he liked to quote poetry and verses from the Koran, like this one: “Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower.”

Their stories and much more are told in a new book called “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11.”

Its author is Lawrence Wright, a staff writer with “The New Yorker” magazine.

Lawrence Wright, welcome.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, Author, “The Looming Tower”: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: One way of looking at 9/11 is the big picture…

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … clash of civilizations. You write about big shifts, but you have decided to focus and tell the story through individuals. Why?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, there are two reasons.

One is, it’s an easier story to tell, when you’re following the biographies of individuals, because they’re interesting in themselves. And characters like that are — are great for a writer, because they can carry the information.

But the second is that there were individual decisions that made al-Qaida. It wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for a few men, Ayman al-Zawahri and bin Laden being two of them. Al-Qaida, in its present form, is the creation of individuals. It’s not just a historical phenomenon.

Sayyid Qutb

Lawrence Wright
Author
But he [ Sayyid Qutb] saw an America that most Americans didn't see at that time. For one thing, he was a dark Egyptian. You know, he had a sense, right away, that race was a terrific problem in America. And he felt very offended.

JEFFREY BROWN: The predecessor to those two that you start with, Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian intellectual, comes to the United States in 1948...

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right. That's correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and has a clash with modernity that you suggest some of the themes have come down to this day.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes. His trip to America really prefigures the experience of many radical Muslims who discovered themselves as extremists in the West.

Qutb arrived in America in 1948. And he went to -- he came to Washington and New York, and then spent most of his time in Greeley, Colorado, a little Western town where there was an education school. And it was a temperance colony, no alcohol allowed, had a church on every corner. You would expect that this middle-aged, teetotaling Egyptian virgin would have found himself right at home there.

But he saw an America that most Americans didn't see at that time. For one thing, he was a dark Egyptian. You know, he had a sense, right away, that race was a terrific problem in America. And he felt very offended. He also was extremely unsettled by the women.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sexuality.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: The sexuality of America was extremely threatening to him, and especially in Greeley. These -- these young girls that were coming in from the ranches and farms and in the small cities in Colorado, they were very frank and open about their sexuality, at a time when it was pretty closed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, he would go back to Egypt, end up in the jails by the government of Nasser at the time.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hanged.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Qutb was hanged because he wrote this book, "Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq," which means "Milestones." And it's the manifesto that Zawahri and bin Laden and all the jihadi leaders read. It calls for a vanguard of Muslim youth to purify Islam.

Al-Zawahri

Lawrence Wright
Author
A lot of human rights workers suggest -- and I agree -- that the brutality that characterizes the al-Qaida movement was born in those Egyptian prisons. And the point of torture is humiliation.

JEFFREY BROWN: The next character you mention, al-Zawahri, also was in the jails of Cairo...

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... where you suggest one of the -- one of the major themes that comes out in the book, humiliation.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Torture leads to humiliation, leads to yet another theme, revenge.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

When Nasser hanged the Qutb in '66, Zawahri started a cell to overthrow the Egyptian government. He was 15 years old. Now, his idea at that time was to create a swift surgical coup. But, after the Sadat assassination in 1981, he was, as you say, rounded up and put in prison.

And he was tortured, brutally tortured. A lot of human rights workers suggest -- and I agree -- that the brutality that characterizes the al-Qaida movement was born in those Egyptian prisons. And the point of torture is humiliation.

He was a surgeon, a very proud man. And some of these people were completely broken. But he came out of there a butcher.

JEFFREY BROWN: So much of the focus after 9/11 was on Saudi Arabia. But it's fascinating to read in the book, so much of the earlier history is in places like Egypt.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: That's where this movement grew up. And that's where the thinking came from.

America as the enemy

Lawrence Wright
Author
It was an escalation on his part to try to draw the U.S. into Afghanistan, and then rally Muslims to attack us, thereby creating a unified Muslim umma, an army of Muslims, who would then be able to spread their message throughout the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have so much detail about bin Laden, I mean, the kind of remarkable. His favorite television program...

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... was "Bonanza" at one point.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: He turned to farming. And he boasted about, his sunflowers should be in the "Guinness Book of Records."

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: At times, he seems like a so-so businessman...

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... at times, more a myth-maker than a fighter in Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did he become the galvanizing force that he became?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: First of all, he had a vision for what was really kind of a -- a Muslim Foreign Legion.

He was an anti-communist. When the al-Qaida was formed in 1988 -- the first meeting was in August -- the mission was really to chase the retreating Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and fight communism in Central Asia, and then in Yemen.

Now, this was a -- you know, a bold vision, but he could never have put together this plan if it weren't for Zawahri. Zawahri already had a terrorist group called Al-Jihad, which he was using to wage war on Egypt. And he noticed this charismatic and wealthy young Saudi, and surrounded him with his Egyptian well-trained leaders.

And they became the core of al-Qaida. So, in many ways, al-Qaida is really a vector of these two forces, of bin Laden and his Saudis, and Zawahri and his Egyptians.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, given that, how did America become the chief enemy?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: America represents modernity, of course. And that's one of the things they say they're against, although al-Qaida is really a very modern creation.

But, by fighting America, bin Laden was able to elevate his cause. By provoking America, he hoped to get America to follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He imagined that America, like the other superpower, the Soviet Union, would blunder into Afghanistan, and there be bled to death by Muslim holy warriors. So, it was an escalation on his part to try to draw the U.S. into Afghanistan, and then rally Muslims to attack us, thereby creating a unified Muslim umma, an army of Muslims, who would then be able to spread their message throughout the world.

Understanding the people of 9/11

Lawrence Wright
Author
Unfortunately, Iraq has given -- the -- the war in Iraq has given them new life. And I -- I fear the progeny of Al-Qaida are going to be with us for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All of these people that you talk to, the hundreds of interviews to get all this information, you must have met some very unsavory, dangerous characters. What -- what was it like personally for you?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, it's -- no, it was -- it's hard, because, right after 9/11, my emotions weren't altogether in control.

I was angry. And I was spending a lot of time in people -- you know, in -- in places where people were angry at me, angry at me for being an American. I had to put aside my anger, in order to be able to elicit the kind of information I needed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because, in a sense, you're putting a human face on these people.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes. I -- well, there's a -- there's a fellow in Khartoum that was extremely helpful to me. His name is Abu Rida al-Suri. And he was bin Laden's business manager.

He took the notes, the handwritten notes of -- on August 11, 1988, where Al-Qaida is first mentioned. So, he was deeply involved. He lived earlier in Kansas city. He's originally from Damascus.

And he's -- he's a funny guy. He has got a -- he has got a great sense of humor. He was always teasing bin Laden. And, when bin Laden first broached the subject of creating Al-Qaida, for instance, he said: "How are you going to get them to the fight? Air France?"

You know what I mean?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: This kind of -- it -- it -- it was -- you suddenly saw the kind -- the nature of the people that put this together and who they really were.

JEFFREY BROWN: Without forgetting what they eventually did.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: What they had done.

That was the thing. Sometimes, I would -- I would go back, after a conversation like that, and I would feel exhilarated that I had gotten the information, and then also horrified about the -- the -- the deeds that these guys had done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several reviewers have talked about your book having the narrative quality of a novel, which I agree with. It just reads like a novel, but one where we know the ending, the 9/11 attack.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, if you look at the headlines now, you look at what's going on in the world, it's also true, in a sense, that we don't know the ending.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes. We -- we don't know the ending.

And it's -- I can tell you this. In November or December of 2001, when, you know, America and coalition forces invaded Afghanistan, and fought the battle of Tora Bora, although we didn't capture or kill bin Laden or Zawahri or some of the other top lieutenants, Al-Qaida was essentially dead.

It was not only that most of the members had been killed or captured. It was repudiated throughout the world. And it -- you know, the internal documents show that they were in great despair. Unfortunately, Iraq has given -- the -- the war in Iraq has given them new life. And I -- I fear the progeny of Al-Qaida are going to be with us for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Lawrence Wright, thank you very much for joining us.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you.