Title: The Terror Years
Rating: 4 Stars
This is a series of independent essays highlighting various aspects of life in the Middle East. If you’ve already read The Looming Tower, then a couple of essays will seem familiar to you, but I still found them valuable because each was focused on a pretty narrow topic.
The two that were most redundant to The Looming Tower where the essays on Ayman Zawahiri and John O’Neill. In history the two might always have some kind of weird symbiotic relationship. Zawahari is the master terrorist that inspired bin Laden to look beyond Saudi Arabia towards the United States, and O’Neill was laser focused on stopping terrorist attacks on American soil. Wright does well here looking beyond their life’s work and focusing on the nuances and contradictions that exist in them. This is true especially of O’Neill, who is clearly a slightly fallen hero who was gently pushed out of the FBI and became head of the twin towers about a month before they fell. There is a complexity to a man who, despite his single minded focus on stopping terrorism, also found time to have multiple affairs, propose to women while he was still married, and live a lifestyle that left him constantly hounded by debtors.
Speaking of 9/11, there is another affecting essay concerning another FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who was recruited by O’Neill and became another passionate defender against terrorism. He led the investigation into the suicide bombing of the USS Cole. Working under difficult circumstances, it was his hard work that started making the connections to a larger conspiracy being directed by al-Qaeda. There is a heartbreaking turn here in this essay as it exposes the paranoia and distrust between the FBI and the CIA pre 9/11. The FBI was predominately concerned with prosecuting cases while the CIA was focused on using assets (criminals that were prosecutable) to gather intelligence. Therefore, the CIA was loathe to share intelligence with the FBI. Almost immediately after 9/11, it was discovered that nearly fifty CIA personnel knew that al-Qaeda agents were in the United States but none of them informed the FBI, despite the fact that there were working groups designed explicitly to share such information. Upon learning this, Soufan immediately runs into a bathroom to throw up. History is a great teacher, but sometimes the tuition is a bitch.
Most of the essays focus on topics beyond 9/11. The essay that struck me the most was the one on Saudi Arabia (The Kingdom of Silence). Wright embedded himself in the kingdom for several months working for a Saudi newspaper. This essay was striking for many reasons and highlighted how little I know about Saudi Arabia. Many Saudis are highly educated but there are actually very few jobs for educated Saudis. The education that many get has little practical purpose. Men want to marry but few of them have the means to do so. There is a tremendous amount of money but it is tightly controlled by the very large royal family, so the average Saudi is actually struggling. Corruption is endemic but must never be spoken of. By the end of the piece, you are thinking that this is a country that, behind its apparent static, stable appearance, could within a generation suffer revolution.
Beyond these essays were ones on the state of culture in Syria under the Assad regime (spoiler alert: not great), a look at how invasive (and how blithe the government leaders seem about it) America’s intelligence agencies are getting domestically, an interesting essay on some Islamic terrorists that are actually renouncing violence (thus disproving that Islamic terrorists are this monolithic force), and an absolutely heartbreaking article on five Americans that were kidnapped by terrorists, the government’s seeming disinterest in them, and the private efforts made to try to save them.
The bottom line is that you are looking for some grand, unifying theory of the state of terrorism today, this is not your thing. If you are interested in some essays on the subject by a skilled writer deeply experienced in it, then you should find this extremely valuable.