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Classic book review – The Looming Tower

It is hard to imagine a better portrait of 9/11 and its causes.

By Erik Spanberg / March 15, 2009



[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on Sept. 5, 2006.] Ali Mohammed isn't a boxing legend whose name has been transposed.

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He is, instead, an Egyptian double agent who formulated the playbook for violence and other military tactics as a part of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda while also stringing along American intelligence agencies.

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, that nugget of information is interesting enough. What makes Mohammed's story riveting is how he gleaned the sophisticated techniques that were later passed on to Al Qaeda and, in turn, transformed the terrorist organization from a bedraggled, ineffective guerrilla force into lethal killers.

In the mid-1980s, Mohammed, after a brief stint working as a CIA agent in Germany, came to America and joined the United States Army. In the Army, he trained with elite soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
During his down time, Mohammed covertly couriered US Army maps and training manuals to a nearby Kinko's and made copies. Mohammed, in effect, was paid by the federal government while stealing tactics and intelligence later used by Al Qaeda to terrorize the US and its allies. In 1998, he posed as a tourist and cased the East African embassies bombed under bin Laden's direction, the precursors to 9/11.

This frightening episode represents one of many tantalizing threads running through Lawrence Wright's tapestry of terrorism in The Looming Tower, a book filled with dazzling insight, pitch-perfect anecdotes, and compelling context.

Simply put, this is the most thorough and accessible account of the people, politics, and roiling theology behind Islamic terrorism. It should be required reading for every American; yes, it is that good.

Indeed, the book traces the contemporary movement far beyond the boilerplate lingo of jihad and infidels. The author traces the philosophy adopted by bin Laden and Al Qaeda to Sayyid Qutb, a brilliant dissident Egyptian scholar. Qutb's influence grew when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had him executed in 1966.

Wright, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine, spent five years researching and writing "The Looming Tower." On every page, that diligence rewards the reader.

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