Notes on The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

A place for notes and raw thoughts on the book.

On the effect of the Six Day War on Muslims

It was a psychological turning point in history of the modern the Middle East. The speed and decisiveness of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War humiliated many Muslims who had believed until then that God favored their cause. They had lost not only their armies and their territories but also faith in their leaders, in their countries, and in themselves. The profound appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and elsewhere was born in this shocking debacle. A newly striedent voice was heard in the mosques; the voice said taht they ahd been defeated by a force far larger than the tiny country of Israel. God had turned against the Muslims. The only way back to Him was to return to pure religion. The voice answered despair with a simple formulation: Islam is the solution.

(p. ?)


The main point of their diagnosis was that the Islamic nation was in misery because of illegitimate leadership. The jihadis then asked themselves who was responsible for this situation. They pointed to what they called the Christian-Jewish alliance that had emerged following the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Britain and France divided Arab lands between them, and the Balfour Declaration the following year, which called for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Soon thereafter the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and with it the Islamic caliphate. This was all seen as an ongoing campaign by the Christian-Jewish alliance to suffocate Islam, using such tools as the United Nations, compliant Arab rulers, multinational corporations, satellite channels, and international relief agencies.

(Chap. 15, p. 294)

These passages interest me on several levels. For one thing, my initial reaction is that this indicates that political factors seem to drive the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism. The humiliation leads to a more pure, extreme turning to Islam–but for the primary objective of political and worldly power and success. That is, the Muslim countries and their rulers will be strong; they won’t be defeated by Israel.*

To me, if the motivations were primarily spiritual, I would expect humility, and turning inward, more submission to Allah, in the form of obedience to commands that involving loving God and loving thy neighbor–although, here, I’m imposing my Christian beliefs. Still, I believe that in any of the major world religions, acts of kindness, love–basically, the fruits of the spirit–would evince a spiritual returning to religion. Additionally, the goal is for the individual to get right with God or a higher power–and far less about worldly blessings or success. My sense is that Islamic fundamentals want the latter–that that is their primary goal, more than making things right with God.

I could be wrong about this, though. Their reaction also reminds me of incidents in the Old Testament. Worldly and political success of the Israel depended heavily (solely) on faith and obedience in God. If Israel and their leaders trusted and obeyed, they prospered; when they didn’t, disaster, eventually hit them. And when disaster did occur, the proper response was to confess and repent–going back to obeying God’s commands and trusting Him. Was the motivation spiritual or more political, and materialistic? That’s a tougher question to answer. On some level, I feel like the Israelites (and humans in general) turn to God in times of suffering because they want to alleviate that suffering. Still, this focus of this process is God and one’s relationship to God. (Maybe the Islamists have a similar approach–I’m not sure.) Also, to return to God and truly trust and obey Him is an act of faith, even if the motives are primarily selfish. Ultimately, though, we can look at the fruit born from the endeavor: Are acts of love, humility, forgiveness, patience the products of the process? Or are the results closer to the opposite?

(*Interestingly, Wright says anti-semitism wasn’t very strong among Muslims. What changed this?

…but in the 1930s, Nazi propaganda no Arabic-language shortwave radio, coupled with slanders by Christian missionaries in the region, infected the area with this ancient Western prejudice. After the war Cairo became a sanctuary for Nazis, who advised the military and the government. The rise of Islamist movement coincided with the decline of fascism, but they overlapped in Egypt, and the germ passed into a new carrier.

I doubt this completely explains the animus towards Jews from Arabs and Muslims, but it seems plausible as one contributing, even significant, factor.)


Most Saudis in the 1950s live as their ancestors had lived two thousand years before. Few actually thought of themselves as Saudi, since the concept of nationality meant little to them, and government occupied practically no place in their lives. They were tribesman without boundaries. The enforced equality fo poverty and meager expectations had created a society as horizontal as the desert floor. Tribal codes of behavior, couple with injunctions of the Quran, had governed individual thought and action. Many, perhaps the majority, had never seen an automobile or a foreigner. There was littel education beyond the ritual memorization of the Quran, and scarce need for more. The essential experience of living on the Arabian Peninsula was that nothing changed. The eternal and the present were one and the same.

Suddenly into this desert rushed a flood of change: roads, cities, schools, expatriate workers, dollar bills, and an overriding new awareness of the world and one’s place in it. Their country–and their lives–became alien to them. Thrown into the global marketplace of ideas and values, many Saudis looking for something worthy in their own traditions found it in the unsparing beliefs that informed their understanding of Islam. Wahhabism provided a dam against the overwhelming, raging river of modernity. There was a widespread feeling, not only among extremists, that this torrent of progress was eroding the essential quality of Arabia, which was its sacredness.

(p. 99)

Thoughts that come to mind:

1. Massive social change is often incredibly destabilizing and a serious threat that any political leader must be wary of. In the example above, the change came from something positive–namely, new wealth from oil. Nevertheless, this lead to really dramatic changes in a short time, which seemed to have a destabilizing effect. I would think this is a powerful argument for a more conservative approach to politics and governing (at least with regard to changes).

2. This reminded me of the social and cultural changes occurring in the U.S. now, and how those changes could contribute to significant numbers of people gravitating towards populism, demagoguery, and ethno-nationalism. How is this similar or different from 1950s Saudi Arabia? In a way, both reactions are yearning for a familiar and safe past. Both situations also seem to involve individuals exploiting this fear and discontent and anger.

3. This also reminded me of Russia. If they have been searching for a national narrative that makes them feel good–if they have never found one since the fall of the U.S.S.R., then it makes sense that a leader like Putin would try to act in ways that fall in line with that narrative (e.g., being an imperial power, taking back the Baltic countries, etc.). This might explain why many Russian citizens would also support this. If this is accurate, helping Russia find a more positive, constructive (to their neighbors and rest of the world) behooves all other nations. Of course, that’s far from easy.

Some takeaways:

How can you moderate social, cultural changes?
How can you find narratives that help the people feel good about their group identity/nation/culture, if they don’t already have one?

Both are important to protect the nation from demagogues.

The Motivation Behind Jihadists and Islamist Terrorist Organizations

I can’t remember if the book explicitly provides an answer for this, but here’s the sense I got–and I’ll use an analogy to explain. When I was growing up I remember watching a lot of UH sports with my father, watching UH (especially the basketball teams) get crushed by their opponents. And I remember hoping that one day the tables would turn, where UH would be crushing their opponents. At the heart of this was a sense of attachment to Hawai’i, with UH being the representative of the former. When UH got crushed, Hawai’i–and my identification with Hawai’i–got crushed in the process. What was at stake was my identity and pride in being from Hawai’i.

The sense I get is that something similar is driving most of the Islamist terrorist groups. This goes back to the effect of the Six Days War. Israel was to Muslims and BYU was to UH fans. Victory for these Islamist groups seemed largely determined by worldly measures–military, political, economic, or financial success, if not domination–things that would give one pride–pride in one’s culture and civilization.

Again, I think this is extremely different from spiritual or religious victory. A person concerned with religion and spirituality would not care about those things–or if they did, the concern would stem from worldly desires more than spiritual ones. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but that is my sense.


One thought on “Notes on The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

  1. TV Mini-Series

    The Hulu mini-series just wrapped up, and I wanted to put some of my comments here.

    1. The mini-series is a completely different animal. For example, the 9-11 and US efforts to stop that attack take up a relatively small portion of the book, whereas that story is takes up the whole TV series. This is neither a good or bad thing.

    2. The mini-series does seem to make a clear and concerted effort to present Islam and Muslims in a positive light. This can be seen in the presentation and the centrality of the Ali Soufan character. At times, this presentation felt a bit didactic. Additionally, while the film clearly presents al-Qaeda in a negative light, including a denunciation of their view of Islam, I thought the series didn’t simply vilify them, either. Overall, I like this aspect of the series, in spite of any shortcomings in the approach.

    3. The TV series definitely favors the FBI over the CIA and Bush administration. John O’Neil and Ali Soufan wear white hats, while Martin Schmidt (who I believe primarily represents the real-life Michael Scheuer), Diane Priest (fictional character, I believe) and Condi Rice wear the black hats. I guess it makes the series more entertaining, but I suspect it make thinking about what happened with accuracy and clarity far more difficult.

    4. In terms of how much I enjoyed the film, I would say I found it mildly interesting and entertaining. The book was sufficient, and the dramatization didn’t add a whole lot for me, but I should also say that I don’t really enjoy watching or experiencing the build up to the 9-11 attack. For those who feel similar, I would say the experience isn’t tortuous–the series seems to be aware of this–but watching this with enthusiasm is quite difficult.

    By the way, I’m not sure but Ali Soufan (former FBI special agent that was involved in trying to prevent 9-11 attack) helped produce the series, or had a big influence on the series. In fact, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t the case.

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