The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11

By Ross, Colin | The Journal of Psychohistory, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11


Ross, Colin, The Journal of Psychohistory


Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Vintage Books, 2011.

Reviewed by Colin Ross

Originally published in 2007, this book was reprinted in 2011 with a new afterword commenting on the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. The book is full of historical detail and is based on interviews with about 300 named individuals. There are 52 pages of notes at the back and an 11-page bibliography. There is no doubt, then, that the author did a great deal of investigative journalism and background work. Despite that substantial effort and the extensive documentation, there are several problems with the book.

According to Lawrence Wright, bin Laden was a devout teenager who never indulged in any western moral excesses:

In Osama's fourteenth year he experienced a religious and political awakening. . . He was rarely angry except when sexual matters came up. When he thought one of his half brothers was flirting with a maid, Osama slapped him. Another time, when he was in a café in Beirut, one of his brother's friends produced a porno magazine. Osama made it clear that neither he nor any of his brothers would ever have anything to do with the boy again. There seems never to have been a moment in his entire life when he gave way to the sins of the flesh, venal or ribald behavior, the temptations of liquor, smoking, or gambling. Food held little interest for him. He loved adventure and poetry and little else but God. (page 87).

Lawrence Wright does not reference either Yossef Bodansky or the book he published in 2001 just after 9/11, entitled, Bin Laden. The Man Who Declared War on America. This by itself seems like a major omission, but the problem is greater when we read the following paragraph by Bodansky:

Osama bin Laden started the 1970s as did many other sons of the affluent and well-connected - breaking the strict Muslim lifestyle in Saudi Arabia with sojourns in cosmopolitan Beirut. While in high school and college Osama visited Beirut often, frequenting flashy nightclubs, casinos, and bars. He was a drinker and a womanizer, which often got him into bar brawls, (page 3)

These are very divergent accounts of Osama bin Laden's teen years. Both cannot be correct. It is impossible for an interested civilian reader to determine which account of Osama bin Laden's behavior in Beirut is more accurate, however, the discrepancy raises concerns about the accuracy of Lawrence Wright's overall account.

A second problem is the section of The Looming Tower that deals with Ali Mohammed. A detailed biographical time line of Ali Mohammed is available at www.historycommons.org. Lawrence Wright asks us to believe an implausible version of Ali Mohammed's career that reads like a sanitized cover story.

According to Wright, Ali Mohammed was a member of the Egyptian Army Unit that assassinated Anwar Sadat. In 1984 he was recruited by the CIA and moved to Hamburg. Subsequent to this he was moved to California "on a visa-waiver program that was sponsored by the agency itself, one designed to shield valuable assets or those who have performed important services for the country." (page 205). He acquired US citizenship by marrying Linda Sanchez and following that joined the US army and was stationed at Fort Bragg. While at Fort Bragg, Mohammed spent the weekends in New York City training al-Queda cell members.

Wright would have us believe that in 1988, Mohammed took some leave time and went to Afghanistan where he supposedly killed Russians for a few weeks but was actually training al-Queda terrorists. He left active duty in 1989 and moved to California. There, in 1993, he was interviewed by an FBI agent who he told about his experience fighting Russians in Afghanistan. The FBI agent then turned things over to the Department of Defense, who sent a team of counterintelligence experts out to interview Mohammed. Mohammed showed them the locations of al-Queda training centers on a map of Afghanistan and mentioned Osama bin Laden to them. …

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