Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Looming Tower

It is an old saw that journalism is the first draft of history. New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is a fine “first draft” of history based on many interviews and wide reading.

Wright has the advantage of having lived and worked in Cairo for two years. He is extremely informative on the Egyptian background for many of the al-Qaeda central figures. But so he is about Saudi Arabia and bin Laden’s own background.

Wright is not attempting to be deeply analytical, just usefully empirical, which he is: there is perceptive analysis, it is just worn lightly. He simply tells the story and the analysis comes, almost in passing, from that. Thus Wright does not attempt to fully explain the intense animosity to the US that bin Laden successfully taps into, he just reports it. We do find out that, for example, a Yemeni who was an important al-Qaeda figure, was hugely ignorant about the US, which he nevertheless blamed as the source of evil in the world. The intensely patriotic Arab-American Muslim FBI agent who was his interrogator was able, by his example, by knowing his Muslim theology, by breaching that ignorance, to get lots of information from him.

There and elsewhere, Wright conveys how effective a good interrogator can be. Which reinforces how unutterably stupid the authorisation of waterboarding and other such “mild” torture is: feeding martyr complexes, doing great damage to America’s moral stature, for no needed gain.

Wright is telling two sets of stories. One is of Sayyid Qutb, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden and various Islamist terrorists. The other is the US counter-terrorism effort. Particularly the story of John O’Neill, the New York based FBI counter-terrorist squad head who was greatly concerned by bin Laden years before the wider American bureaucracy, and Carl Michael Scheuer, the equally fixated CIA operative. Alas, the two got along badly at both personal and bureaucratic levels (the cop who wanted to convict bin Laden, versus the “spook” who wanted to kill him), and badly with other members of their own organizations. Exacerbated by neither the FBI nor the CIA playing well with other bureaucracies.

A constant theme of The Looming Tower is how different parts of the US security and intelligence bureaucracy knew crucial bits of information and completely failed to tell other agencies. If the FBI and CIA had shared information properly, if either had passed key information in their possession on to border security, there is an excellent chance the 9/11 plot would have been foiled. (An interview with Michael Scheuer on rendition is here.)
But bureaucratic process imperatives persistently overrode any sense of common purpose. To some extent the FBI-CIA conflict was inherent. The FBI thought like cops—the point is to get evidence and convict people. The CIA folk thought like intelligence operatives—information that becomes evidence is compromised intelligence and the simplest way to get rid of an enemy is to kill him, particularly given all the thorny jurisdictional issues. This expresses a tension that is at the heart of counter-terrorism. The jihadi regard themselves as being at war, but they blot out the difference between warrior and murderer. They wear no uniform. They deliberately target civilians and hide amongst them. So do we treat them as soldiers or as criminals?

In old-fashioned international law, they would come under the same ambit as soldiers caught in action not in uniform—be subject to summary execution. The purpose of which was precisely to force soldiers not to look like civilians. But not all jihadis are caught in flagrante delicto. And you want information from them—the lack of reliable human or other intelligence (and the screw-ups that causes in itself) is one of the themes of Wright’s book. Hence all the problems of Gitmo and of “catch and release”.

If one was to apply standard Anglosphere policy from the abolition of torture in the C17th to the dying away of summary execution in the mid C20th, the policy would be:
(1) jihadis caught in action not in uniform in war zones would be summarily executed after being given a chance to become information sources instead.
(2) Those caught in war zones in more ambiguous circumstances would be detained and processed by military tribunals for a range of outcomes from execution, indefinite detention to release.
(3) Those executed would be treated as the British learnt to do: buried in pigskins.
(4) No use of any form of torture whatsoever. Learn to be clever interrogators.
(5) Domestic terrorism is simply a criminal matter.
But summary execution was tainted by the Nazi example, just as non-uniformed combatants were ennobled by the example of the resistance to Nazism. Even so, international law gave fighting in uniform protections for good reason.

Takfiri ideology
Wright starts the telling of the story with Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood and the slow development of takfiri ideology (p.124ff). One of the minor themes running through the story is sexual horror. We are treated to Sayyid Qutb being appalled by the materialism, irreligiosity and brazen sexual licence of the US epitomised by—a church dance in a Presbyterian church hall in a small town in the US in 1948. (Admittedly, a fairly socially liberal small town, but still.) Qutb is one of key intellectual figures in the development of modern Islamism. If a Presbyterian church dance in 1948 in small town US appalls him, it is safe to say that nothing the West could do (short of converting to a very strict form of Islam) was or is going to appease him and his ilk.

Which is, of course, the real demand. The ultimate sin of the West is to be not Muslim and extremely successfully not Muslim. Particularly after the collapse of Communism, the Christianity of the US was especially offensive (p.171). Qutb’s earlier recounting of his experiences in the US includes some very implausible claims about (hostile) knowledge by everyday Americans about happenings in Islam. One strongly suspects the pervasive lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the Islamic world was far more confronting for Qutb: hostility was a more comforting thought than indifference.

In fact, every time I read about Qutb’s life, I wonder a bit more about that sexual horror. He never married, claiming he could never meet any woman up to true Islamic standards. A delicate, softly-spoken fellow, there is an old witticism about the man who can never meet the right woman, though it could just have been early romantic disappointment, as Wright implies (p.9). In the case of Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attack, there is even more reason—which Wright takes note of (p.307)—to think that conflicted sexuality might have underlain his hyper-religiosity. It is, after all, something that other forms of monotheism have experienced (the wildly disproportionate tendency of Catholic priests to be same-sex oriented, for example): an inevitable result of monotheism claiming that variance in sexuality is against God, so driving gay boys to prove they are good little boys really, that God doesn’t hate them because they love God so much and are so keen to do His work (however they conceive that).

In the Middle East, liberal parliamentarianism was an import from the West that became hopelessly compromised by complicity in Western domination. Qutb and other Islamists were strong against British (i.e. infidel) domination of Egypt. Alas, the secular nationalists led by Nasser overthrew the monarchy and took power. Which then led to a struggle between those who looked to Islam as the answers to the conundrums of modernity and those who looked to other imports from the West (socialism, secularism, nationalism). That struggle led to Qutb’s trial and execution.

The Muslim Middle East became a three-way struggle between traditional monarchies (generally allied to the West), secular nationalists (generally allied to the Soviet bloc) and Islamists. Traditionalist monarchies fell to secular nationalists in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Northern Yemen and Iraq. Sadat made peace with Israel and switched Egypt to the Western camp, the Soviet Union collapsed and secular nationalism became undermined by its economic and nationalist failures (particularly regular defeat by Israel).

But the Islamists were successful nowhere until the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Sunni Islamists successes since have been limited to Sudan and Hamas’s more recent electoral success and seizure of Gaza. They did win elections in Jordan and form a government: but the Hashemite dynasty was clever enough to let them run the drains, etc, turning them into ordinary politicians and taking the gloss off. (They lost the next election, once Jordanian voters worked out the king had actually meant the elections.) They probably won an election in Algeria, but the secular-nationalist military blocked them, leading to a brutal civil war in which the Islamists were crushed. Just as the Ba’ath regime in Syria had brutally crushed a Muslim brotherhood uprising in Hama.

Wright takes us through the convulsions of Egyptian politics through the life of Qutb and then of Zawarihi. In the long, losing, struggle against the Egyptian regime, some Islamists developed the notion that their (Muslim) enemies were takfiri, so not really Muslims, so the proper object of war without limit. Anywhere ruled by such folk was not Islam really, it was the House of War. Which excused the real adherents of Islam from the Islamic restrictions on legitimate war when fighting such enemies, an outlook with a deep affinity to chaos and barbarism, as Wright notes (p.159).

So the modern terrorist jihadi ideology was born. Epitomised in the purposes of al-Qaeda:
1. Establishing the rule of God on Earth
2. Attaining martyrdom in the service of God
3. Purification of the ranks of Islam from the elements of depravity (p.302)
Soviet invasion

Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

The history of Saudi Arabia and the impact of the Soviet invasion is examined through the lives of Prince Turki, long-time head of Saudi intelligence, and Osama bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia is the odd-kingdom out. The al-Saud family had come to power fairly brutally (effectively creating the polity) and in alliance with an extremely severe form of Islam. Not a new pattern in Islam. What made this case different was oil. Oil created the American connection, it made the Kingdom (and the al-Saud family) fabulously wealthy (and fabulously corrupt) and provided the money for Salafi Islam to become dominant in Islamic missionary efforts, supplanting the much more syncretic Sufi traditions. Saudi Arabia is not traditionalist so much as damn-near religious totalitarianism, particularly given the al-Saud family tends to rely on ever more strict adherence whenever it feels pressured. This very narrow and intolerant version of Islam is what is preached in many Western mosques, because it has Saudi oil money behind it.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Saudis saw it as part of a Soviet drive to the Gulf. They poured money into supporting the muhajideen, matching American support dollar-for-dollar. The support was typically funnelled through the Pakistani ISI. The very pious Osama bin Laden, part of a Yemeni family that had become a wealthy part of the Saudi establishment, saw this as a defence of Islam against atheist communist infidels. His father had very successfully used Aramco and Royal patronage to build a major construction and business empire in the Kingdom. Osama helped raise funds and began to organise Arab fighters. These were mostly unsuccessful as fighters (sometimes farcically so), but gave Osama a lot of contacts, some military experience and jihadi veteran cred.

The Soviets pulled out, the muhajideen won (and promptly started fighting amongst themselves). Then the Soviet Empire collapsed. To folk such as Osama, this was easily read as being a result of the great Islamic victory, on the pattern of the collapse of the Persian Empire under Muslim assault in the C7th, that:
Faith is stronger than weapons, and the ticket to enter the sacred zone where such miracles occur is the willingness to die (p.120).
(The C7th as the ultimate pattern for everything being an especially strong belief of the wahhabi Islam Osama had been raised under.)

Kuwait war
Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and American and other Western troops flooded into Saudi Kingdom to defend it and then retake Kuwait. The presence of infidel soldiers in the Land of the Two Holy Places Osama took as an enormous affront to Islam. A sign of the corruption and weakness of the al-Saud. So began his steady enstrangement from the al-Saud.

He moved to Sudan, where a local Islamist thinker, Hassan al-Turabi, has been very influential in a series of Islamist governments. In fact, as Wright points out, Turabi and Osama had quite different visions of Islam (Turabi is something of an advocate of women’s rights, for example, citing examples from Muhammad’s life). But they agreed that Islam is the answer to all social and political issues. Osama was prepared to experiment with one of Turabi's ideas, which was to make common cause with Shi'a (pp.173). And Osama invested a lot of money in Sudan, which few folk were.

Osama invested a lot of money, but mostly very unwisely. There are good reasons why Sudan does not attract much investment. He essentially went broke and had his Saudi citizenship revoked because he would not stop public statements denouncing the connections with the US, especially the presence of infidel troops.

Stateless, lacking money, already fingered as a terrorist financier, Osama returned to Afghanistan where an Islamist army of mostly orphan boys, the Taliban, supported by the ISI and the Saudis, had taken over most of the country. Their leader, Muhammad Omar, having literally wrapped himself in the (alleged) cloak of the Prophet, a local object of veneration.

Wright takes us through the machinations between Osama, Zawahiri, Omar and the Saudis. He also takes us through Osama’s increasingly active embrace of terrorism (including an increasing interest in acquiring nuclear weapons), the East African embassy and USS Cole bombings and the at-cross-purposes American responses.

The incoherent—at times simply incompetent—dithering of the Clinton Administration is detailed in a very this-is-what-happened way. The revised intelligence information policy of the second-term Clinton Administration meant even less information was shared between agencies. While its “response by cruise missile” was actively counterproductive: failing to hit anyone crucial, destroying an innocuous factory in Sudan, making Osama much more personally cautious (so harder to hit) and boosting his prestige as “unkillable”. Osama was apparently able to sell an unexploded cruise missile to the Chinese for $US10m: a complete debacle. It doesn’t leave one confident that a putative Gore Administration would have been any more competent in dealing with the Middle East, though there might have been more continuity in effort against bin Laden.

Wright details al-Qaeda as very much a shoestring operation, where major statements and acts of terror produce donations and volunteers. We move back and forth from terrorists to counter-terrorists, each with their own set of problems, both personal and institutional. Wright provides considerable detail on bin Laden’s polygamous family life. John O’Neill had a chaotic private life (he was naturally polygamous too, but his culture did not permit it) and lived beyond his means. He ended up leaving the FBI when his 20 years service was up and taking a much higher paying private security job—as head of security for the World Trade Center. He was killed when the Towers collapsed on 9/11.

Wright concludes with the Afghanistan campaign and bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora over the border into Pakistan.

What struck me most about the al-Qaeda story was how very specifically Muslim it is. The jihadi impulse is not limited to one organization. Specific conceptions of Islam drive the impulse. Thus the first attack on the World Trade Center was nothing to do with bin Laden, though he attracted a key figure involved in it to him.

Wright makes the point that many jihadis are displaced people, people who in some are alienated from the society they are in, and look to Islam to provide an identity for them. Often, as with Sayyid Qutb, it was the experience of living in the West that defined them as radical Muslim (p.304), that Islam was very much what the West was not. (Qutb’s notion of political sovereignty as belonging only to God, for example.) Wright notes some similarities with the Nazis—a burning desire to get “on top” of history, a belief in pervasive Jewish power (p.306). (There are others: an ideology of conflict, glorification of violence, use of modern means to implement atavistic ends, a veteran mystique, contempt for democracy.)

Wright also makes the point that death itself is what is attractive, that martyrdom is what is being sold:
The lure of an illustrious and meaningful death was especially powerful in cases where the pleasures and rewards of life were crushed by government oppression and economic deprivation (p.106).
Though, as he notes later, it was not poverty as such but frustrated opportunity that was the problem—the recruits tended to be disproportionately better educated (p.301).

This is not a “what is to be done” book. It is a “this is what happened” book. And a very fine and informative one it is too.


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