Book Review - The Terror Years - Wall Street Journal

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Book Review - The Terror Years - Wall Street Journal

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Wall Street Journal – 8/23/2016

In the Shadow of the Towers

Book Review by Max Boot -- He is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written for numerous publications such as The Weekly Standard, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, and he has also authored books of military history. Boot's most recent book, titled Invisible Armies which came out in 2013, is about the history of guerrilla warfare.

No book about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has won as much acclaim, and deservedly so, as Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” Its multi-talented author, a longtime writer for the New Yorker, even staged a one-man play, “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” about his reporting experiences. Since publishing “The Looming Tower” in 2006, Mr. Wright has gone on to produce two other impressive books: one about Scientology, the other about the Camp David negotiations between Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.

Now he returns to the subject of terrorism but not, alas, with a truly new book. “The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State” is a collection of articles that appeared between 2002 and 2015 in the New Yorker—and that remain available online. In a prologue, he says he hopes the book can be “a primer on the evolution of the jihadist movement from its early years to the present, and the parallel actions of the West to attempt to contain it.”

Three of these articles were incorporated in somewhat altered form into “The Looming Tower.” These are “The Man Behind Bin Laden,” about Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al Qaeda; “The Counterterrorist,” about John P. O’Neill, a legendary FBI counterterrorism agent who was obsessed with al Qaeda and died in the Twin Towers; and “The Agent,” about Ali Soufan, the Lebanese-American FBI agent who was one of the few U.S. terrorism investigators fluent in Arabic and who worked closely with O’Neill. Another, “The Kingdom of Silence,” about Mr. Wright’s experience mentoring young journalists at an English-language newspaper in Jeddah in 2004, informed the description of Saudi Arabia in “The Looming Tower.”

So if you’re keeping count, “The Terror Years” makes their third appearance in print. The other chapters are slightly fresher and chronicle various aspects of the war on terrorism since 9/11. “The Terror Web” is about Spain’s response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people and led the country to pull its troops out of Iraq. “Captured on Film” describes the beleaguered state of the Syrian film industry during the relatively peaceful days of the Assad dictatorship before the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

“The Master Plan” focuses on the second generation of al Qaeda strategists and especially on the Syrian Abu Musab al-Suri, who concluded that the 9/11 attacks were a disaster for the organization. In 2005 he produced a plan for al Qaeda’s future that called for, inter alia, the creation of an Islamic caliphate of the kind that ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq, proclaimed in 2014.

“The Rebellion Within” focuses on another al Qaeda rebel, Egyptian physician Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl. Once one of al Qaeda’s most influential ideologues, Dr. Fadl was imprisoned in Egypt and from his jail cell produced in 2008 a book rejecting al Qaeda’s violence. Mr. Wright’s essay, written in 2008, seems to suggest that Dr. Fadl’s rebellion might presage a turn against terrorism on the part of the radical Islamist movement. Unfortunately it was not to be. Instead ISIS surpassed even al Qaeda in its brutality.

“The Spymaster” describes a series of interviews that Mr. Wright conducted with Adm. Mike McConnell, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in 2007-09, focusing on tensions between preserving civil liberties and fighting terrorism. “Captives” is about a visit Mr. Wright made to the Gaza Strip to learn about how Hamas rules a territory hemmed in by both Israel and Egypt. A particular focus of this essay is Hamas’s capture in 2006 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel’s attempts to get him back finally paid off in 2011 when Mr. Shalit was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners who, collectively, “had been responsible for the deaths of 569 Israelis.”

The final essay, “Five Hostages,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year, is the only one that deals with ISIS, the group that, for the moment at least, has supplanted al Qaeda as the most notorious terrorist organization in the world. Mr. Wright recounts the dedicated private efforts to secure the release of five Americans kidnapped in Syria. This is a heartbreaking chapter, because only one of them—freelance writer Peter Theophilus Padnos—emerged alive, thanks to the intercession of the government of Qatar. The others were murdered by ISIS; in several cases their beheadings were televised.

In describing these disparate episodes, Mr. Wright is not pursuing any larger agenda. There are no policy prescriptions. This is reportage pure and simple—and it is first-rate.

Mr. Wright became intimately familiar with the Middle East when, as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he traveled to Egypt to perform national service at the American University in Cairo. In the years since, he has gotten to know not only important figures in terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda and Hamas but also their adversaries in the United States, Israel and other countries. He recounts his findings in crystalline prose unadorned with fancy word tricks. He has a deceptively simple, folksy way of writing that appears natural but can be achieved only with painstaking effort.

The author is present in his articles as a cool, detached observer, akin to the narrator of a Somerset Maugham story—someone who seeks to understand all sides. At the same time, Mr. Wright never loses his own moral compass—he is in no doubt about how evil groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS are, and, although he is critical of George W. Bush’s decision to launch the invasion of Iraq (he calls it “one of the greatest blunders in American history”), he is generally sympathetic to U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

His conclusion in a short epilogue is surely right but hardly encouraging: “The conflict that the Islamic State has provoked will ultimately bring about its destruction, but not without much more havoc and heartache.”

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