Monday, Sept. 11, 2 p.m. ET
Sept. 11 -- Five Years Later
Monday, September 11, 2006; 2:00 PM
Lawrence Wright , author of "The Looming Tower: and the Road to 9/11," was online Monday, Sept. 11, at 2 p.m. ET to take questions and comments about his book, a narrative history of the events leading up to 9/11 which includes detailed accounts of terrorist plans and intelligence failures that culminated in the attacks on the U.S. Wright traveled to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, England, France, Germany and Spain to conduct research and hundreds of interviews for his detailed account of what happened.
A transcript follows.
San Francisco, Calif.: Mr. Wright: there's a theory, advocated most recently by Martin Amis in the U.K. Guardian among others, that misogyny-- irrational hatred of women and female sexuality-- is what fundamentally drives al-Qaeda, from Islamist intellectual Sayyid Qutb's revulsion at openly flirtatious American women, to bin Laden expressing disgust that female soldiers were part of the U.S. military garrison stationed in Saudi Arabia after Gulf War I, to Mohammed Atta's "martyrdom" note strictly instructing that no women touch his body. What do you think?
Lawrence Wright: I do think that the separation of men from women in large parts of the Muslim world is a serious problem, especially in that it prevents young men from enjoying the nurture and socialization that the female world provides. It is undoubtedly true that many of the leaders of al-Qaeda and other forms of radical Islam are anti-woman; although, one could say that is characteristic of fundamentalist movements as a whole.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think al-Qaeda expected the damage to be so extensive? I ask because bin Laden states on tape he was surprised the towers fell (indeed no one expected they would fall). If the goal has been to maximize deaths, why didn't they attack later in the day when the buildings were full and why didn't they hit in the lower floors and trap people above rather than hit in the upper part of the buildings? What was the actual goal that day of hitting the World Trade Center?
Lawrence Wright: If you read the al-Qaeda theorists and the memoirs of some of the leadership, one theme is how shocked they were by the extent of the damage, and how angry many of them were with bin Laden for steering them into what they thought was a losing battle with the U.S. Of course, the Towers were on the AQ hit list because they were so evocative of America's economic dominance. The targets were all deeply symbolic - the Pentagon, representing U.S. military power, and the Capitol, which was the intended target of the fourth plane, which represented the seat of American government. Al-Qaeda is addicted to symbolism, and it is important to keep that in mind when anticipating future attacks.
Chappell, N.C.: Besides a couple fatawa, why hasn't bin Laden released any ideological writings? Sayyid Qutb wrote "Milestones" and "In the Shade of the Quran"; and Zawahiri has written "Knights under the Prophet's Banner." You would think that with his preeminent stature amongst the Jihadists, that he would release some type of writings of his thoughts so that his message may live on to inspire and incite his followers. Why the absence?
Lawrence Wright: Actually, bin Laden is a very poor writer. His 1996 declaration of war against America is probably his work, and it's a confused mess. Zawahiri wrote the 1998 fatwa for him, which is much more focused and clearly stated. He uses speech writers to compose his major statements.
It's important to point out, I think, that AQ really doesn't have a political platform. Beyond their utopian notions of capturing an Arab country, and imposing a caliphate, the leaders of AQ really haven't thought about the pressing political problems that have handicapped the Islamic world - the chronic underemployment, low educational standards, poor health care and a degraded environment. These are the same issues that animate people all over the world, but AQ has never given them a thought.
Bloomsburg, Pa.: Thank you for taking questions.
Is there any feasible way to settle the rise of fundamental Islamism and the targeting of the West?
National governments are not necessarily involved, so whom to negotiate with?
Is a path to peace just as elusive as smoke?
Lawrence Wright: There is a path to peace, but it is a long, slow process, requiring at least another generation.
When I lived in Cairo 30 years ago, many of the Arab and Muslim countries were about on a par economically with underdeveloped Asian countries - the same countries that adopted political and economic reforms and have since left the Arab countries far behind. It's depressing, if you are an Arab, to see how barren the Arab economies are, and how sterile the politics. If you take all 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Countries, their combined GNP is less than that of Germany! I think the same reforms that worked in Asia could stimulate Muslim economies and dry up the pool of despair and futility that makes so many prey to radicalism.
Lincoln, Mass.: Do you think that we can find ways to bridge the chasm between liberal democracy and radical Islam?
Lawrence Wright: I think democracy is an inherently moderating force, and it is an essential remedy for the radicalism that characterizes so much of that part of the world. But it is going to be a messy adventure, as the election of HAMAS in Palestine shows. On the other hand, Islamists have come to power, for instance in Turkey, and have learned that there is more to government than forcing your daughter to wear the hijab. Radical Islam really isn't interested in government; it is only interested in purification - the Taliban in Afghanistan is an example of what AQ would look like in power. Where it's been tried, radical Islam has always been a disaster. I hope that moderate voters in that part of the world will keep that lesson in mind.
Fredericksburg, Va: Were there any significant discoveries made during your research that were not covered in the official Commission's report on 9/11?
Lawrence Wright: Well, there were tons of things that I learned that weren't covered by the 9/11 commission report, in part because I told the story from a different point of view - and by traveling in those countries and personally talking with people that were associated with Zawahiri and bin Laden and others.
One notable difference between my book and the 9/11 Commission report is that the report really doesn't address the influence of Zawahiri and his Egyptian terror group, Al Jihad, which really forms the core of AQ. Zawahiri has been the man behind bin Laden since the beginning; AQ is really a joint venture between the two men, and wouldn't exist without the efforts of both of them. I think of it as a vector of these two forces.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: If bin Laden is as isolated as we assert, would it not benefit the United State to keep him alive and in hiding so that we have a bad guy to point at for justification to continue the "Global War on Terrorism"? And to avoid elevating him to martyr status? That being said, do you feel U.S. intelligence knows exactly where he is and will not eliminate him for fear of giving him mythical status? To paraphrase Sayyid Qutb, "My words are worth more when I am dead."
Lawrence Wright: Because I'm also a screenwriter, I was asked by a member of American intelligence what we should do if we actually captured bin Laden. The intelligence community is very concerned about this, and they wanted me to write a script about how this should play out. I declined, because I'm also a reporter, but I'll tell you how I would write the end of this movie:
Don't kill him. That would, as you say, make him a martyr. Of course, if we capture him and put him on trial, we can expect bin Laden's sympathizers to attack Americans, and likely kidnap people to hold for ransom.
To blunt bin Laden's appeal to such people, I suggest we first put him on trial in Kenya, where in August 1998 AQ murdered 213 people, most of them black Africans who were either in or around the American Embassy or in the secretarial school across the street. More than 150 people were blinded by flying glass. I say, put bin Laden in a courtroom in Nairobi and let him explain to those 150 blind Africans how he was only attacking an icon of American power.
Then take him to Tanzania, where on the same day in August he struck another American embassy, killing 11, nearly all of them Muslims. AQ excuses this action because the bombing took place on a Friday, when "good Muslims" would be in the mosque. That would be an excellent opportunity to pose the question of what Islam really stands for.
Then you can bring him to America to answer for the Cole bombing and 9/11.
You could take him to so many places - Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid, London, etc. - but I suggest the last stop is his homeland, where hundreds have died at the hands of AQ. Try bin Laden under Sharia law. Then, if he's found guilty, he would be taken to a square in downtown Riyadh. The executioner, a large black man with a heavy sword, traditionally confronts the audience, who are composed of the victims, and implores them to forgive the condemned man. If they are unable to do so, the executioner performs his task. Then bin Laden will be buried in an unmarked Wahhabi graveyard, as he would want to be.
In that way, I think you can begin to roll back some of his awful legacy.
Potomac, Md.: I am concerned about the way some in government and in the media refer to Islamic extremists. Even such an experienced military person as former Navy Secretary John Lehman has called such people, "Islamists." This is utter inaccurate and misleading, as I feel certain you're aware. Even "jihadists" is not helpful, because to many non-extreme Muslims, jihad represents mainly the inner challenges one must face in the effort to be a person of Allah/God. Could you please comment on this terminology? Thank you.
Lawrence Wright: That's an excellent point. Many Muslims fought in the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and they did not go on to join AQ or become extreme radicals.
Part of the confusion is that the radicals call themselves jihadis, and the press, in the Muslim world and in the West, goes along with that. It would be better in most cases to just call them terrorists.
Cleveland, Ohio: Recent polling shows that over 40 percent of the American public still believes Iraq was directly involved in the attack of 9/11. This one point alone may go down as one of the greatest hoaxes in history, if not one of the greatest triumphs of propaganda. How can this administration and its sycophants be allowed to use the national media to propagate this myth, and why isn't there a greater effort to set the record straight?
Lawrence Wright: It is shocking to realize how tied in the public imagination 9/11 is to Saddam Hussein. It must be a source of frustration to bin Laden! He despised Saddam and actually warned his countrymen before Saddam's invasion of Kuwait that something like that would happen. And he implored the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, to let him use AQ to defend the Kingdom. Of course, the defense minister laughed him out of the office, but it's important to note that bin Laden always saw Saddam as an enemy, not an ally.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Wright -- I found your book fascinating and of real assistance in helping me understand a fairly complicated situation regarding anti-American extremists in the Middle East.
One thing I never fully understood, and seemed left a little vague, was how/why al-Zahawri turned philosophically against the United States during the period of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- where the United States was funding much of the opposition to that cause (and which al-Zahawri felt so strongly). Your book implies that his conversion to anti-Americanism took place during that period but doesn't finger why.
Also, on a different note, I couldn't tell what your philosophical approach was to using the Jihad names of individuals rather than their real names. Any comment on this issue?
Lawrence Wright: Zawahiri, when he came to Afghanistan in the mid eighties, was really focused on Egypt. His goal was to strike at the head of government and seize control in a swift, military coup.
But he was very affected by the presence of some extreme radicals who where working in the same hospital in Peshawar where he practiced medicine. They were a part of a stream of radical Islamist thinking that predated AQ. They see the whole world as doomed, and only by purifying Islam and then conquering the infidels can humankind be saved. In these men's eyes, after they polished off the Soviet Union, there was really only one power that remained. They hoped to provoke America into following the Soviets' mistake of blundering into Afghanistan and being bled to death. They actually convinced bin Laden that the United States could be disunited, as had happened with the Soviets.
That's an interesting question about the jihadi names. I knew that Arabic names were going to pose an obstacle to many readers, because they are exotic and hard to pronounce. So I very consciously tried to make it as easy as possible for readers to remember them. The Abu names are often much simpler and more striking. The choice was mainly to help the reader along.
Leesburg, Va.: Can OBL still strike? Or is he too busy running? My thoughts are that he would had used 9/11 to strike again to get the attention he loves.
Lawrence Wright: Probably AQ, the mother ship, is too isolated to be effective in organizing another strike on America right now. But that doesn't mean that bin Laden's influence is not powerful; indeed, the ideals and goals that AQ stands for have proliferated among countless start-ups around the world.
It is striking that the AQ theorists actually planned for the day that their leadership would be eliminated. Since 1998, they have been publishing documents on the Internet that contain their philosophy and tactics, so that future generations of radicals can employ the lessons of their elders. They also envisioned a struggle for territory using almost conventional forces, such as we see again in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
The old model of AQ, in other words, is dead, or nearly so, but the new one is prospering, alas.
Rochester, Mich.: Do you give any credibility to proponents such as "Loose Change" that are convinced the U.S. Government was behind the 9/11 attacks?
Lawrence Wright: No! And it's really dismaying, after listening to Arabs spin out their conspiracies for years about how 9/11 was the work of Mossad or that bin Laden was working for the CIA, to come home and find equally absurd and unfounded theories being tossed about.
I often wonder what causes people to believe such theories. And I wonder what kind of country they think we live in - one that would deliberately murder thousands of its citizens. Whatever dim view one might take of our government, that's just crazy.
Lincoln, Mass.: This is a follow-up to your answer to my last question: are you saying that we may have to accept a period of "democratic" misrule in some countries before the Muslim countries achieve something like what we understand as democracy?
Lawrence Wright: Every situation is different, of course. There is really nothing between the government and the mosque in Saudi Arabia. When I lived there in the course of preparing this book, I had the opportunity to teach young journalists in Jeddah, bin Laden's hometown. It was a very boring and depressing life for them. There were no movies, no theater, no nightclubs, no music, no political life, no unions, few parks or museums. That entire space of life we call civil society simply doesn't exist. In such a barren environment, it will be difficult to transition to democracy.
Egypt, on the other hand, has a much richer society, with many more civil institutions. The Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, are much better organized than most of the opposition, and no doubt they will play a powerful role, if not a leading one, in any democratic government that may come to power. But the Brothers are so fixated on issues such as the hijab that they will have to learn to broaden their appeal. Making them responsible to the electorate - i.e., creating jobs, providing education, improving health care - these are really important matters, and any party that fails to deliver them will ultimately fail.
Of course, I think this is slow and messy work. Everywhere radical Islam has come to power, it's been a mess. It's like the automobile crash tests - some dummies live, some die, but the car is always a wreck.
Chevy Chase, Md.: You interviewed a lot of family members and life-long friends of some of the most notorious members of al-Qaeda. How do they generally feel about the activities of their loved ones? Are they contrite or proud or impressed?
Lawrence Wright: It's a mix. There are some who are deeply sympathetic - who are, really, just as radical - but I suppose those people who agreed to talk to me were more likely to be in opposition to bin Laden and Zawahiri - at least, to their tactics. Yet, even those sources, in most cases, were ambivalent, and I certainly endured lots of lectures about America's policies, the decadence of the West, and so on. I hope never to have another finger wagged under my nose!
San Francisco: Mr. Wright: Aren't you too quickly dismissing the idea that Saddam and al-Qaeda probably collaborated or at least considered collaborating? Bin Laden also hated the U.S., but he didn't seem to have a problem being an indirect ally to us, when we were funding the Afghan resistance. In 2000, when bin Laden was being expelled from Sudan, Saddam offered him asylum:
And your New Yorker colleague Jeff Goldberg once said another writer "will regret the day he cast such scorn on the idea that Saddam's secret police maintains serious links to al-Qaida".
Aren't you, by contrast, engaging in a priori rejection of a plausible scenario?
Lawrence Wright: I'm aware that Saddam courted AQ. He sent emissaries to Sudan when bin Laden was there and they flattered him, calling him another Mahdi. Again, in Afghanistan, Saddam made another outreach to AQ, offering sanctuary. But the testimony of AQ insiders is that bin Laden was always adamant in his contempt of Saddam.
Just to argue against my point, however, the former Iraqi PM, Iyad Allawi, says that Zawahiri came to Iraq in 1999, to attend an Islamist conference, and Jeff Goldberg also cites Zawahiri's visit.
I've always thought that Zawahiri was more willing than bin Laden to do a deal w/the devil - or, a fellow devil, to be precise! But I don't see any evidence that this ever came to anything.
Monroe, Mich.: We have heard so little on the al-Qaeda leaders currently living in Iran, namely Saif al Adel and Saad bin Laden. Reportedly, these men are being sheltered by the Qods Division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Why is there so little mention of al-Qaeda members in Iran? Afterall, the fear of another state sponsor of al-Qaeda was used as partial justification for the Iraq War, yet it is rarely mentioned with regards to Iran.
Lawrence Wright: Good point! Iran and AQ have worked together, especially in the Sudan years. Zawahiri sold information to Iran about Egypt's plans to attack it, and Hezbollah actually trained AQ fighters. There is a deep, old connection.
In one of Zawahiri's letters to Zarqawi, the now dead leader of AQ in Iraq, he cautioned Zarqawi not to wage war on the Shiites precisely because of the hostages Iran held - bin Laden's son, as you mentioned, and the AQ security chief. I think Iran has been holding them as bargaining chips, both with the West and AQ.
Lawrence Wright: Thanks, everyone, for participating in this. Some really fine questions.
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