The al-Qaeda puzzle in pieces

Forty years ago, in a scathing and prescient manifesto against consumer capitalism and celebrity culture entitled The Society of the Spectacle, the French situationist philosopher Guy Debord described everyday life as “a permanent opium war”. Modern capitalism was an “immense accumulation of spectacles” and what was once “truly lived has become mere representation”.

This is helpful. We can better understand the impact of the sensational counter-spectacle of 9/11, described by its principal inspirer as an “America struck by Almighty Allah in its vital organs”. Vital, of course, only because of their symbolic importance. Might Allah have been reading Debord? The events transformed Osama bin Laden into a global celebrity, a sinister Darth Vader figure who is an object of fascination for friend and enemy alike.

Even though al-Qaeda itself is clearly in decline, the world is preoccupied by wars and occupations old and new and a new triumvirate of Muslim leaders has emerged (Ahmadinejad in Iran, Nasrallah in Lebanon and Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq), while the global publishing empires continue to produce books that take us back to the events of 9/11. Another example, perhaps, of ways in which the military-ideological-cultural dominance of the United States can provincialise the rest of the world.

Lawrence Wright’s 480-page tome The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11, already a United States bestseller, is the latest work on al-Qaeda to join the global list. What makes it different? Wright is a New Yorker journalist who knows how to take care of his prose and construct a seductive narrative. His book is a skilful reconstruction of the lives of the main characters involved in what is now an old story: Bin Laden and friends, as well as the CIA and the FBI, feature in this work of reportage.

There is the by now obligatory prologue on the Egyptian Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb and his rejection of modernity after a spell in the US, where he experienced both racial discrimination and the sexual forwardness of women, experiences that later made him a hardcore Islamist. The hostility to the latter is puzzling since sensuality is hardly absent in the Muslim world and, in fact, Islam has fewer injunctions (for men) on this front than the Pauline tradition, not to mention Protestant fundamentalism. Cairo itself was not the capital of puritanism.

Wright has employed the vacuum-cleaner approach, collecting all the published material, sifting through it and then conducting dozens of interviews and doing a great deal of cross-checking. It is a murky tale. In a world dominated by dark shadows and in which a tenuous line often divides disinformation from fact, how is one to judge his informants? Wright is disarmingly frank. In a “note on sources”, he writes that “lies and deceptions always pose a problem to a journalist trying to construct a truthful narrative … in a project that largely relies on interviews with jihadis and intelligence operatives … nor can one put too much faith in sworn testimony by witnesses who have already proved themselves to be crooks, liars and double agents”.

The story, with its roots in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, is well established. During the Cold War, the US welcomed Islamists of every hue as allies against secular nationalism and the godless “Evil Empire”. One has only to glance back at the output of the American academy in the 1950s to get a picture of the high regard the State Department had for the Jamaat-i-Islami and similar organisations in the Muslim world.

The 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan accelerated the process. The Saudi and Egyptian regimes encouraged local jihadis to go and fight in Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan welcomed an assortment of bearded leaders in the White House and referred to them as the Afghan equivalents of Washington and Jefferson. As Wright demonstrates, they did not do much in the way of direct combat, but proceeded to construct their own organisations. Two of these merged later to form al-Qaeda under the joint leadership of Bin Laden and the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. Intellectually, the latter is the more arresting. Doubts remain about his biography. Did Zawahiri really win his own freedom from an Egyptian prison by naming names under torture?

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