By Muertos (email@example.com)
This blog was originally published here
Just the other day I finished reading Lawrence Wright's book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). I've been meaning to read this book, for which Wright won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, since it came out but my schedule (which is very heavy on reading) only just lightened up enough for me to get through it. The Looming Tower is an extremely impressive book, one which probably deserved to win the Pulitzer, and it's required reading for anyone with an interest in 9/11, terrorism, Al-Qaeda or the modern history of the Middle East in general. What is particularly interesting about this book, at least from my perspective, is what it can tell us about the ubiquitous and very hard-to-eradicate conspiracy theories that continue to linger on about September 11, now nearly ten years after its occurrence.
The Looming Tower
is not about 9/11 conspiracy theories. It's only tangentially about 9/11 itself; the event, while the narrative climax of the book, is only briefly described in the second-to-last chapter. Its focus is on the origins and rise of Al-Qaeda as well as a semi-biography of its (thankfully) deceased leader, Osama bin Laden. However, what The Looming Tower
does―without expressly setting out to―is demonstrate just how far removed from reality "9/11 Truth" theories really are. The Looming Tower
is an exhaustive study of the background of the 9/11 event and what led up to it. This background is totally missing from conspiracy theorists' shallow views of the 9/11 attacks, but it is key to any rational person who wishes to understand why Osama and his group attacked us, what they hoped to accomplish, and―crucially―why the United States was caught blindsided on that fateful day.
Indeed, although it was not conceived as a piece to debunk the ridiculous conspiracy theories still pushed by 9/11 Twoofers (I call them that to emphasize that they believe in woo
, or irrational and unsupportable things), The Looming Tower
offers some excellent rejoinders to some of the Twoofers' most oft-repeated memes. I'll deal with a few in this blog.
1. "Al-Qaeda doesn't really exist!"
Twoofers see 9/11 as a comparatively simple event: a bunch of evil people, usually members of the Bush administration, Israeli intelligence services or "the Illuminati," decided to blow up the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and blame the attack on a terrorist group called Al-Qaeda. This simple narrative becomes much less complicated if the Twoofers can assert, as many do, that Al-Qaeda doesn't really exist
and is a figment of the conspirators' imagination or some sort of propaganda stunt. Another especially ludicrous assertion is that Al-Qaeda doesn't exist because supposedly the words "al qaeda" mean "the toilet" in Arabic and no terrorist group would name itself after a toilet. I'm not kidding, some Twoofers actually make this claim
. The Looming Tower
shuts down this asinine supposition right off the bat.
Al-Qaeda very much exists, and its history is extremely complicated―reflecting a level of historical, political and religious complexity that Twoofers generally cannot perceive. Wright traces the development of the group from its intellectual and political roots in Islamist thought (note: Islamist is not synonymous with Islamic) and particularly the role of Egyptian political dissidents who, beginning in the 1940s, became increasingly unsatisfied with what they viewed as the corrupt secularism of a series of Egyptian governments, from King Farouk to General Nasser and eventually to Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Indeed Egypt, not Afghanistan, was the real cradle of Al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden was merely the last and most radical of a long line of Islamists who called for the unity of Islamic countries along strict religious lines and who ultimately came to blame the problems of the Middle East on external enemies―at first Israel but increasingly the United States. In tracing this progression Wright relies upon the written words of various Islamist figures themselves, interviews with people who knew them and contemporary news articles stretching back to the 1940s. It would be extremely difficult to fake these sources. It's especially interesting that very few of the sources Wright relies on were produced by the U.S. government, thus undermining one of the Twoofers' blanket assertions, that everything we supposedly know about Al-Qaeda is what the evil government has told us. Just browsing Wright's many pages of notes and his extensive bibliography shows that there aren't many government sources at all. Hmm, could it be because the existence and history of Al-Qaeda is well-documented independently of government say-so?
2. "Osama bin Laden is/was a CIA agent in the 1980s [or beyond.]"
This is one of the most common misconceptions about bin Laden, and it's not limited to conspiracy theorists―many people I know who clearly do not believe that 9/11 was an "inside job" still repeat the claim that Osama was a CIA agent as if it was true. It isn't. Not only does everything we know about bin Laden's philosophy, theology, personality and political orientation indicate that the last thing he would ever have done was work for an American intelligence agency, but in fact American intelligence had never even heard of bin Laden until years after the Afghan-Soviet War of the 1980s was over. Based on the history of bin Laden in the Afghan war presented in The Looming Tower
, it is extremely difficult to make a case that he was ever any type of Western intelligence asset, much less a CIA stooge.
The myth that bin Laden worked for the CIA is born out of conflation and reduction from a few key facts. It is clearly true that the CIA and the U.S. government funded and armed the Afghan rebels who were fighting the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a tottering Marxist client state. It is also clearly true that bin Laden and other Islamists, such as Al-Zawahiri, went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets alongside the mujahedin
(the Afghan resistance). However, the mujahedin
was not monolithic, and just because bin Laden was supposedly on "our side" doesn't mean the CIA funded him or knew anything about him. In fact The Looming Tower
makes the case that bin Laden and his Arabic friends (Afghans are not Arabs) were small fries in the Afghan insurgency. They only took part in a few battles against the Soviets, one of which was a major defeat, and these foreign fighters cannot be credited with turning the tide of the war. The vast majority of rebel activity was directed and carried out by indigenous Afghan groups who were receiving Western aid that was funneled through Pakistan's ISI intelligence service. Bin Laden and his friends were much more of an annoyance to the mujahedin
than a help. The idea that bin Laden would have been on the CIA payroll is utterly laughable.
Furthermore, what would bin Laden have stood to gain? In the 1980s Osama bin Laden was quite wealthy, one of many sons of Mohammed bin Laden, an engineer and contractor who literally built modern Saudi Arabia and was one of the Saudi royal family's closest friends. (Mohammen bin Laden, who died in the early 1960s, had nothing to do with terrorism or Islamist ideology). Osama brought his own money to Afghanistan and wanted to use it to fund jihad against the Soviets. He could buy his own guns from the Pakistanis, and wouldn't have needed to get them from the CIA. A supposed alliance between bin Laden and the CIA doesn't make sense from the CIA's standpoint either. By the time the war ended in 1989 bin Laden was barely thirty years old, didn't have a lot of followers, and carried no clout among the mujahedin. It is difficult to see what the CIA would have stood to gain by funding him. Since there isn't an iota of evidence to suggest a bin Laden-CIA cooperation anyway, it is very safe to conclude that there never was any cooperation.
Bin Laden was not a CIA agent―not in 1987, 1997 or 2001. The claim simply isn't true.
3. "There is very little evidence linking Al-Qaeda or Osama to 9/11."
In the strange world of 9/11 Twoofers, the projection of blame for 9/11 onto Al-Qaeda is random and arbitrary, as if the conspirators fingered an innocent (or nonexistent) group and then sold a shoddy, flimsy case to the public about bin Laden's guilt. Twoofers love to present "evidence" supposedly showing how flimsy this case is. This ass-backwards reasoning leads to inveterate clangers such as various "sacred lists" arguments
like, "9/11 isn't even on Bin Laden's wanted poster!" or "The hijackers don't appear on the flight manifests!" I've blogged before about how silly these arguments are. In The Looming Tower
, Wright makes clear not only that there was never any other suspect for who carried out the 9/11 attacks, but that the attacks were themselves an unmistakable calling card of Al-Qaeda's philosophy, tactics, objectives and modus operandi.
Indeed, Al-Qaeda's history is a long progression leading directly to 9/11. Wright lays out the evolution of Al-Qaeda's reach and how they built successively on each one of their successes and failures, as well as the successes and failures of other terrorists. For example, Al-Qaeda's obsession with the World Trade Center can be seen in the February 1993 bombing, which used truck bombs in the basements and was plotted, not by bin Laden directly, but by fellow Islamists who traveled in the Al-Qaeda orbit. In the early 1990s Al-Qaeda began the tactic of using suicide missions; the direct targeting of civilians, the lack of political demands and no direct claims of responsibility also evolved in this period. Bin Laden and his allies learned from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and essentially replicated it in suicide-mission form in the 1996 Khobar Towers and the 1998 embassy blasts in Tanzania and Kenya. (Astonishingly, there are Twoofers out there who have never even heard
of these prior terrorist attacks). The idea to use planes grew out of several attacks proposed, but not carried out, in the 1990s in the Philippines as well as the "Millennium Plot," where Al-Qaeda planned to hijack planes and crash them into buildings on the U.S. West Coast on December 31, 1999. Khaled Shiekh Mohammed, an Al-Qaeda terrorist now in U.S. custody, put all the pieces together for what became the 9/11 attacks and sold the idea to bin Laden. It's no secret that Mohammed planned the attacks. He admitted it to an Arabic TV network in 2002 of his own free will
. At the time he admitted it, Mohammed was a free man--the interview was given before
he was captured by U.S. forces, which means that his confession was not
extracted by torture, as 9/11 Twoofers often like to claim. The fact that bin Laden himself clearly and unequivocally confessed to being the mastermind behind the attacks
merely rounds out what we already know: that Al-Qaeda did 9/11, beyond any shadow of doubt.
Furthermore, the analysis provided in The Looming Tower
focuses on the uniqueness of Al-Qaeda and the singularity of its deadly vision. There was, quite simply, no other terrorist group in the entire world
that could have carried out the 9/11 attacks. Suicide attacks have been used by Palestinian terrorists since the 1990s on a small scale, but before 9/11 no other terrorist group in the world had attempted to utilize suicide bombs on such a large scale--but Al-Qaeda had done so four times (the attacks mentioned in the above paragraph as well as the USS Cole
attack in Yemen in October 2000). No other terrorist group in the world had sleeper agents inside the United States--but Al-Qaeda did, and one of them, Zacarias Moussaoui, was in jail in the U.S. at the time of the attacks. No other terrorist group in the world had tried to attack the World Trade Center--but Al-Qaeda and its allies did, in 1993. Most tellingly, no other terrorist group had agents training at U.S. flight schools
in the summer of 2001--but Al-Qaeda did, and U.S. intelligence services were following up those leads (quite poorly) even before
the attacks took place.
From the moment the 9/11 attacks occurred there simply were no credible suspects other than Al-Qaeda. The investigations that occurred within days after the attacks--not four years, as Twoofers claim when they throw stones at the 9/11 Commission Report, but within days
--confirmed beyond all doubt the suspicions that everybody had at the moment the attacks took place. Some of these immediate investigations are detailed inThe Looming Tower
. Wright describes an interview between an FBI investigator and a Yemeni terrorist named Abu Jandal, three days after the attacks, in which Jandal admitted Al-Qaeda was responsible. This confession was not brought out under torture either. The long road to 9/11 was so unmistakable that it took merely a few confirmations after the attacks to confirm responsibility.
Twoofers' claims that there is little evidence linking Al-Qaeda to 9/11 is a toxic mixture of willful blindness and outright falsehood. You can't come away from The Looming Tower
with any other impression.
4. "The U.S. government knew about the attacks in advance but let them happen anyway."
Most Twoofers subscribe to a conspiracy theory we call MIHOP--Made It Happen On Purpose, meaning they believe the attacks were deliberately carried out by someone else and blamed on Al-Qaeda who was wholly innocent. A minority of Twoofers subscribe to LIHOP--Let It Happen On Purpose, which means that they concede Al-Qaeda did it, but that the U.S. government deliberately allowed it to happen. Sometimes conspiracy theorists who have been brutally refuted by the mountains of evidence linking Al-Qaeda to the attacks will retreat to a LIHOP position as a last resort, or they'll throw it as a sop to debunkers because they think (erroneously) that it sounds more reasonable. LIHOP is definitely a minority position and not the desired one in Twoofer orthodoxy, so I'm not sure belief in it is really very strong, but you do hear it from time to time.
The Looming Tower
puts LIHOP theories to bed too. Wright's book is not just a history of Al-Qaeda, but it also chronicles the U.S. government's efforts to respond to the threats emerging in the late 1990s as bin Laden began to ramp up his activities. The picture that the reader gets is one of incompetence, bureaucratic infighting, and failure to think creatively. If the counterterrorism bodies of the U.S. government, especially the FBI and the CIA, had been functioning properly, we might
have been able to prevent the 9/11 attacks, if we were lucky. They weren't functioning, and we weren't lucky. The Looming Tower
explains how agencies used intelligence as bargaining chips or even weapons against one another and how the rigid structures of investigation and response prevented people from taking action to follow up leads that could conceivably have led to the plot being discovered. Not surprisingly, that the counterterrorism arm of the government was fatally broken in 2001 was exactly the same conclusion that the 9/11 Commission came to. You don't hear Twoofers talk very much about that
The reason LIHOP doesn't work is because it presumes that these agencies functioned perfectly, or at least well enough to detect the 9/11 plot before it happened, and then that some authority from on high (who? President Bush? Condi Rice?) decreed that nothing would be done about it. If this was true, the evidence that Wright describes of bureaucratic infighting and inertia, the leads not followed, and the advice of far-seeing agents not being implemented would all have to be false
. Either the FBI and the CIA really did ferret out the plot and were overruled, or somebody else (who?) figured it out without the FBI and the CIA knowing about it and communicated that knowledge to whoever made the decision to let it go forward. The evidence Wright presents are totally inconsistent with both of those scenarios.
After reading The Looming Tower
, I'm not convinced, frankly, that we could
have discovered the plot beforehand in the detail that would have been necessary to foil it. Al-Qaeda functions through personal loyalty, family and clan affiliations, and trust. If you're an infiltrator, you can't buy your way in, and even if you share their philosophy they won't trust you just on that alone. This is the difference between gathering intelligence on a terrorist group such as this and spying on an established government, the Mafia or some other organization where money or ideological conviction are the main requirements for membership.
To foil a terrorist attack you must know where
and exactly when
it will take place, how it's going to be done, and who's going to do it. Unless you have a mole inside the organization itself, it's very difficult to piece all of that information together from external sources. Clearly the U.S. government could have done a much better job of that, and it's remotely possible that they might have gained a clear enough picture to be able to take some steps to prevent the attacks. But I doubt it. The LIHOP scenario is simply not logical, and Wright's look at how counterterrorism really functioned in the days before 9/11 underscores that conclusion.
5. "We don't (or can't) know what really happened on 9/11."
Some Twoofers--often those who don't want to admit they're Twoofers--will try to take an agnostic position about 9/11, and claim that debating what happened is pointless because "we can't ever know." The Looming Tower
demolishes this idiocy too. We can
know, and we do
. It's all there.
We know who planned the attack. We know who came up with the idea. We know the evolution of the planners' thinking and strategies. We know their religious backgrounds and their political motivation. We know how they got to be in the positions that they were. We know how they financed the attacks. We know how they recruited those who carried them out. We know when and where they entered the United States. We know how, when and where the hijackers who had flight training received it, how the training was paid for and what they planned to do. For each and every one of the participants in 9/11, from Osama bin Laden down to Hani Hanjour, we know the personal histories that brought them to the point of committing this terrible act. We know all of these things, and it's all out there in the public domain--this information was not
, as Twoofers believe, disseminated to us by government sources. We're not taking somebody's word for it. It's all there in Wright's text, in his footnotes and most importantly in his sources.
Indeed--what relevant facts about 9/11 don't
we know? Honestly I can't think of any.
The assertion that "we don't know what really happened" is a dishonest claim from someone who either hasn't investigated the facts of 9/11, or, more likely, by someone who has
investigated them but doesn't like what he or she found, so they'd rather just wish it away by claiming it doesn't exist. This is how Twoofers think, but it's not how rational people operate in the real world.
Why The Looming Tower will not convince a single conspiracy theorist to abandon their beliefs.
The Looming Tower
is not new. It was published five years ago. Lawrence Wright has gone on to other highly-acclaimed projects. This book is certainly not news. Why, then, did it fail to convince Twoofers that their beliefs about 9/11 being an "inside job" were nothing but paranoid delusions?
The answer is simple: the Twoofers didn't read it. Furthermore, they never will.
Conspiracy theorists are notoriously unwilling to do any real scholarly investigation into the subjects that they claim they're passionate about. If it's not on the Alex Jones show, in the movie Zeitgeist or (better yet) on YouTube
, they don't want to have anything to do with it. They love spurious sources that can't be verified, which are mostly pseudoscientists and other conspiracy theorists. They hate academic researchers with a passion. Consequently, a book like The Looming Tower
will never mean anything to them, even if it ever crosses their event horizon at all.
I've never heard of a single Twoofer who has read this book. My guess is that any Twoofers reading this article now will simply sneer and dismiss the book out of hand by saying something like, "Lawrence Wright is a disinfo agent" or "he's part of the mainstream media, so naturally he'd support the official story."
But actually read
it? Actually engage with the sources
to determine their veracity? Conduct some sort of logical analysis about what the book argues, whether it is plausible, and whether its argument is supported by the material Wright cites? That is asking far too much of your typical conspiracy theorist. No; it's easier to hunker down, bellow that anyone who disagrees with 9/11 conspiracy theories is a "shill" or a "sheeple," or a paid government agent, and simply pretend that the very professional, academic and scholarly analysis engaged in by a writer with Wright's credentials simply doesn't exist.
Herein lies the irony. Without even specifically addressing a single 9/11 conspiracy theory, The Looming Tower
demonstrates that all of those theories lie completely beyond the realm of reality or possibility. Therefore, the Twoofers will never acknowledge it. It does not exist in their world. And it's likely to stay that way.
Thanks for reading.