Lawrence Wright arrived in Egypt in 1969 to study linguistics and Arabic and teach English at the American University in Cairo. A conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, Wright lived in Cairo for two years as part of a foreign service commitment in lieu of military service. On returning to the United States, he pursued his writing career, first covering race relations in Nashville, TN.
In 2006, Wright, a fifteen-year staff writer at The New Yorker, published The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. An historical narrative of the lead-up to 9/11, the book charts the constellation of factors that explain the rise of radical Islam, among them Nasser’s 1966 execution of Islamic dissident Sayyid Qutb and the merging of Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Al-Jihad movement with Osama bin Laden’s nascent Al-Qaeda through the 1990s.
The Looming Tower was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction earlier this year.
The journalist, author, screenwriter and playwright spoke to The Daily Star Egypt over the telephone about his award-winning work covering 9/11, current anti-terrorism policies and how citizens should proceed in a world marked by what he called “clashes of identity within civilizations.
What drove you to pursue the over 600 interviews across the globe that formed the research for your book?
Like every American I was very, very upset by 9/11. Unlike many, I had spent time in the Arab world. I spoke some Arabic, although very rusty, and I had also been the co-writer to this movie The Siege, which had some eerie aspects that prefigured the events of 9/11. [The film imagines an Islamic terror attack on New York City and subsequent racial profiling and crackdowns on civil liberties.]
All of those were influential factors in causing me to decide, well, I have to write about this. I made the decision I was going to write about it on the morning of 9/11. Certainly I was sympathetic to all the Muslims and Arabs in America who were innocent victims as well and I talked to a number of them in the days following 9/11 – it was important that this was not a black and white issue.
Have you received any backlash on how certain people in the book were presented since their portraits are based primarily on interviews?
I was really surprised, especially with the people I talked to for the book. The reactions have been overwhelmingly favorable. I remember even when I was working on the Al-Zawahiri section, a large part of which was published in The New Yorker in 2002. I had spoken to a lot of Zawahiri s friends, people who had been in prison with him, people that had been in Al-Jihad with him. And quite to my surprise they liked that article a lot. They understood that I didn t agree with them or sympathize with their aims, but they felt seen and heard, I think. And my access actually improved after that.
You write in your book that “It didn’t help that some journalists’ investigations of bin Laden were more creative than those of the American intelligence community. Would you say the same today?
Yeah. [The American intelligence community] is actually beginning to turn more to what they call open source reporting, which is mainly journalism, as a way of acquiring information, because their own resources still remain so low. They just don t have the resources to paint a complete picture.
Is it right to conclude from your book that without Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, we d be looking at a different reality today?
Absolutely. Al-Qaeda is really a function of the two of them; it couldn t be possible without either one. It was bin Laden that had the money and ambition, but it was Zawahiri who had the men and the training and the ideas that are all part of Al-Qaeda. Really it was a marriage of those two forces.
The Looming Tower suggests that you can attribute the brutality of Al-Qaeda to the torture and humiliation of Al-Zawahiri and other Islamists in Egyptian prisons following the assassination of President Sadat. With the current spate of Muslim Brotherhood arrests and the Egyptian government s complicity in the CIA s policy of extraordinary rendition, do you think we could see similar consequences in the future?
Of course I do. I think it is a terrible policy. Torture and illegal behavior on the part of the government are very dangerous and have unexpected consequences, because people that have endured those kinds of conditions feel like they re getting up out of the rules. The gloves are off. It s really, really dangerous. I think it s obvious that a lot of those guys who were in prison and subjected to torture were psychologically destroyed. But there were some people like Zawahiri who before being imprisoned and tortured had no real ambitions for revolution or guerilla warfare anymore than someone does for a military coup. Before, he was not interested in spilling blood. But when he came out of prison he had this strength to, this intensity. You see it in the line repeated by Zawahiri when he was imprisoned [in the early 80s following Sadat’s assassination: And they used the wild dogs. And they used the wild dogs! ]
Describe your one-man play following the book, called My Trip to Al-Qaeda.
It’s not really an adaptation. Instead the play’s about my experience, really all about what it was like to talk to these jihadists. It’s also about how the United States has changed as a result of these strikes, what had happened to our country, what kind of country we had become. I used film clips, pieces of my interviews, photographs I d taken to go along with the points I make on stage.
What have you learned or what do you still ask yourself having done this work, whether the book or now the play?
I ve met some sources I wish I d known about when I was working on my book. I now know a former Al-Qaeda member who came forward because of the play. I ve continually learned things and as I look back on the human stories and the mixing images of this giant tragedy, there seems to be no end. Probably all of my life I ll feel this response from people who want someone to hear what they went through.
What would you say to people who describe 9/11, its precursors and the years since as part of an inherent clash of civilizations?
Well, for one thing it s not inherent. Islam and the West have clashed in the past and have not clashed. There is nothing inevitable about it. Also, I think it s wrong to think of it as a clash between civilizations, because Islam is not really a civilization but a religion that exists in civilizations all over the world. That is a mischaracterization. I think that, for the most part, the clashes come from a clash of identity within civilizations that feel threatened.
In Belgium, for example, the number one name for a child born today is Mohammed, which isn t that surprising because Mohammed is the most popular name in the whole world right now. But if you were someone of Flemish ancestry, you must be saying to yourself, where is this going? What is happening to my country s history and language, our precious place in the world? And if you re Mohammed you re probably thinking, they speak for someone else; I’m not one of them.
And it s very likely that Mohammed has never been to Morocco, or may not even speak Arabic. But he s really lost. It s not surprising that he goes off to this mosque and associates with other angry and alienated young men and that Islam becomes more than a religion; it becomes a complete identity. That is why I call it a clash of identity within civilizations. It s different wherever you go. It s different in Europe than in the Middle East. It s different in Indonesia. There are many different expressions of these feelings of alienation, rather than this clash of civilizations.
What do you see as a remedy to how Americans view people in the Middle East and visa versa?
I m a strong advocate of student exchanges and also citizen action. If you look at what was happening as a prelude to the end of the Cold War, citizens had really taken matters into their own hands through sister city projects, citizen excha
nges, even, you know, fishing clubs doing exchanges, network news anchors in Moscow and New York trading places. Basically, [citizens] made a declaration to take things into their own hands. You don t see that happening now. And that, I think, is a vital step for reconciliation.
Americans are harder and harder to spot abroad, especially if you travel in places like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. There are a number of Americans there; they re just in their compounds, in hiding. Or locked up inside those prisons we call our embassies.
I think it s very important for Americans to get out, and for Arabs to come to the US. There would be a much greater impact if that would happen. There are a lot of concerns about security risks [about Arabs entering the US], but I think that there are also security risks in not having them come.