What Went Wrong?
THE LOOMING TOWER
Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
By Lawrence Wright
Knopf. 469 pp. $27.95
The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission
By Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton
With Benjamin Rhodes
Knopf. 370 pp. $25.95
Almost five years ago, 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and changed the course of history. Any doubt that the threat to commercial aviation had receded was shattered just weeks ago when an alleged plot to blow up 10 planes over the Atlantic reminded us how vulnerable we still are to such massive attacks. Just as we underestimated al-Qaeda then, we risk repeating the same mistake now. Al-Qaeda today is frequently described as if it is in retreat: a broken and beaten organization, incapable of mounting further attacks on its own, that has devolved operational authority either to its various affiliates and associates or to organically produced, homegrown terrorist entities. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, al-Qaeda is on the march. It has regrouped and reorganized from the setbacks meted out by the United States, its allies and partners shortly after 9/11 -- above all, the loss of al-Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan -- and is marshalling its forces to continue the war that Osama bin Laden declared against America 10 years ago with his then mostly ignored fatwa.
In this respect, al-Qaeda is functioning exactly as its founders envisioned it: as both an inspiration and an organization, simultaneously summoning a broad universe of like-minded extremists to violence while still providing guidance and assistance for more spectacular types of terrorist operations. On the one hand, it remains true to its name: the Arabic word for a "base of operation" or "foundation," from which a worldwide Islamist revolution can be waged by inspiring radicalized Muslims to join the movement's holy fight. On the other, al-Qaeda continues to exercise its core operational and command-and-control capabilities: directing and implementing terrorist attacks, including perhaps the thwarted airline bombings, the 7/7 suicide bombings that occurred in London last July and the foiled 2004 plot to stage simultaneous suicide attacks on economic targets in lower Manhattan, Newark, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
To comprehend al-Qaeda's extraordinary resiliency and stubborn capacity for renewal and regeneration, one has to understand its early history and especially the powerful personalities of the two men responsible for its emergence and evolution: bin Laden and his deputy cum mentor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.