Q&A: LAWRENCE WRIGHT
An online exclusive interview
Photograph by Kenny Braun
Friday, March 16, 2007
By James HughesLawrence Wright is an Austin-based author and frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine whose 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, was nominated for the National Book Award and is widely considered essential reading for those struggling to comprehend the inception of the enigmatic terrorist network.
Wright’s current project is My Trip to Al-Qaeda, a one-man play where the writer reflects on his years tracing the origins of key figures and milestones in the jihadi movement. (Wright interviewed over 600 subjects for The Looming Tower and presents new findings and assessments onstage.) The play, which is structured as a multimedia monolog involving excerpts from his original interviews, news footage and personal photographs, runs through April 14th at the Culture Project in SoHo, a nonprofit theater located less than two miles from the World Trade Center site. Although Wright has written for the screen (his 1999 film The Siege, about a series of attacks in Manhattan perpetrated by a terrorist cell in Brooklyn, was the most rented movie in America in the weeks following 9/11), My Trip to Al-Qaeda marks his first attempt at creating an original work for the stage.
The following interview took place on March 11th, 2007
Stop Smiling: What’s interesting about My Trip to Al-Qaeda is that it isn’t another procedural about the events of 9/11. Instead you offer some essential background on Middle Eastern culture and warfare. One of the more striking facts you uncover is how the Saudi Arabians who plotted 9/11 equated the use of a catapult in an ancient battle with the use of modern airliners as weapons.
Lawrence Wright: In some of the jihadi literature I was reading I was struck by a parallel that had been drawn to Taif [a city near Mecca]. Taif was a holdout against Islam for a long time, and the prophet had personal reasons for wanting to conquer the city, because he’d been persecuted there. He encircled the city, but was unable to get them to capitulate. Finally, they decided to use a catapult, and it worked. But it violated the precepts of Islam — it’s forbidden in Islam to injure women and children and non-combatants — except that the prophet said it was justified in this case. It’s that exception that’s unusual in the history of Islam, which laid the basis for Al-Qaeda’s reasoning for the murder of innocents on 9/11. And the airplanes, as you can imagine, were launched in a similar fashion as the catapult. So you can understand the drift of their thinking. I should add that it would be a mistake to look at 9/11 as a product of our contemporary moment in the minds of the people who perpetrated it.
SS: Last Saturday was the day some believe to be Osama bin Laden’s 50th birthday, and we’re speaking on a Monday, one week after the date that marked 2,001 days since 9/11. These are arbitrary dates, but they both illustrate the length of the search to find and punish bin Laden. Can you say with any confidence that the US is any closer to capturing him, or is pursuing that search with the vigor that most Americans expect?
LW: Certainly there’s no way of knowing if they’re about to catch him or not. In my opinion, they’ve retreated from the pursuit of bin Laden. There was a unique department devoted to finding him — Alec Station, the virtual bin Laden station that was a combination of the CIA and FBI and various other intelligence agencies — and they disbanded that. I think partly that was because the continual ability of bin Laden to evade capture is an ongoing rebuke. To some extent it diminishes the obviousness of their failure, they dissolved the group that was actually pursuing him. There are people that are charged to find bin Laden, but it’s a very disorganized and demoralized group of people. After five years I think our intelligence agencies are in a state of profound confusion.
Since 9/11, we’ve had a whole new tier of bureaucracy created with the Director of Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. Have either of these made us any safer? No. Have they added to the vital store of intelligence? No. What would do that? Skilled people on the ground, and that’s where we’re failing. We’re especially failing in the area of hiring native speakers of Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Urdu — the languages of the communities we’re struggling against. That’s a huge failure. If you go up on the seventh floor of the FBI Headquarters in Washington — an organization that made its reputation fighting the Mafia and, to some extent, the IRA — who’s up there? It's Irish and Italian Catholic guys. No wonder they were effective in fighting those organizations, because they came from those same communities — they knew whom they were fighting against. Until you go up to that seventh floor and find native speakers of Arabic, there’s always going to be a failure of imagination and a failure to connect the dots, because they don’t recognize what those dots are. The head of counter-terrorism for the FBI testified under oath that he didn’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and he said it didn’t matter. If you don’t know the first thing about the enemy you’re fighting against, you’ll never be victorious.
SS: Has bin Laden’s absence in recent years perhaps exposed him to be more of a figurehead than a leader?
LW: Bin Laden is in an odd spot. He’s still very important. It would be a mistake to say he’s only a figurehead. He’s an aspiring figure to millions of young Muslims. He gives voice to their complaints in a way that people aren’t allowed in their own countries. He’s a source of inspiration. He’s still able to direct, and indicates where he wants people to go. Lately he’s been pointing to Kashmir and Darfur, saying these are the areas of conflict the young jihadis should go to. Nobody else has that authority. If he were no longer on the scene, it would make a profound difference to Al-Qaeda. It wouldn’t mean it’s the end of the movement. Al-Qaeda is really split into four different groups now: North African Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in Europe and the old mothership of supporters in Pakistan. Each of these operates semi-independently. There are networks connecting them, but the more Al-Qaeda is able to set up training camps — as they’ve been able to do in Pakistan and Mali, and probably again in Afghanistan, and certainly in the western provinces of Iraq — then they’re able to become a more coherent entity once again.
SS: Do you give any credence to the conclusions of journalists like Jason Burke or the filmmaker Adam Curtis who stress that Al-Qaeda is a myth and that the US is fighting a phantom enemy?
LW: I was in London the week that Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares documentary appeared on the BBC. He and I had dinner and he went so far as to deny the existence of Al-Qaeda. I said, “Adam, I’ve got the foundation documents for Al-Qaeda in my briefcase.” And he didn’t ask to see them. For me, that was a very telling moment.
SS: You trace Al-Qaeda back as far as August 1988.
LW: Yes. I met the man who took the notes at the first meeting. I talked to people who joined Al-Qaeda. It’s not a myth at all. We even have their constitution, their bylaws, their employment contracts with health care benefits and month-long paid vacations — all of those things are available to anyone who’s really interested. It’s wishful thinking — in a kind of malicious fashion, I think — to believe that Al-Qaeda doesn’t exist.
SS: Now that you’re fully involved in the production of My Trip to Al-Qaeda, is it difficult to stay on top of developments related to your research?
LW: I’m in an odd spot right now. I’m not normally an actor. It has thrown my schedule off in strange ways. I can’t seem to break the spell of following this story and talking to people about it. I’m still very engaged by the subject. I’d like to move on, but I can’t seem to do that.
SS: Will this be your sole subject for the next several years?
LW: I hope not. I really would like to do something else. But it’s a pressing issue, and people are so uniformed, even five years after the tragedy. I feel strongly that it’s not something that’s going to disappear. We’re going to be struggling with this kind of terrorism for a long time. People should be aware of where it comes from and what generates it. If they’re not, we’re going to be continually at a disadvantage, because we won’t know our enemy nearly as well as our enemy knows us.
SS: Can you talk about the dangers of humiliation in Arab culture and how the American presence in their home countries stirs those emotions?
LW: Certainly no one likes to be humiliated — it’s not unique to Arabs. This is two-sided, I think. Many Arabs have been personally humiliated — for instance, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was tortured in prison. This is not uncommon. The powerlessness that people feel is dismayingly frequent in the Arab world. Especially when they look at the over-arching power that America exerts in the world, there’s a general sense that their lives are being controlled by other forces. So they attribute a lot of their own powerlessness to us. It’s not that we haven’t been complicit in supporting some of these appalling regimes — we have been, and we should change our behavior as much we possibly can. We should support democratic movements and the developments of civil societies. These things are critical towards creating the kind of hope that is the only counter to the despair that Al-Qaeda feeds on.
SS: In your New Yorker piece, The Master Plan,” you write about “Al-Zarqawi: The Second Generation of Al-Qaeda,” a playbook, so to speak, for all events post-9/11. This text stressed the importance of drawing the US into war with Iran, so we continue to overextend our forces. Obviously your colleague Seymour Hersh is concerned about the possibilities of this. Do you see a conflict with Iran becoming a reality?
LW: I sometimes think that Al-Qaeda operates almost as a neocon think tank. Their plans run along the same lines. It’s baffling to me how we seem to be mesmerized by Al-Qaeda and how we almost unthinkingly follow the script they want us to follow. If we’re to pursue an Iranian conflict, this would accomplish so many things that Al-Qaeda wants. For one thing, they oppose Iran and the Shiite influence in the world — they’re heretics. Having the US go to war against Iran would be ideal, because they aren’t powerful enough themselves to fight against Iran. The Iranians are able to destroy the Saudi oil fields, something Al-Qaeda would love to do but aren’t potent enough to do themselves. Iran can activate Hezbollah and Hamas against the US, something Al-Qaeda would love to happen. They don’t have the kind of force and influence required to do that. The US can go knock off the Syrian regime, another regime they despise. That would be perfect for their planning — it would put them right next door to Israel. All of those things are on their agenda, and we seem to be following that script without very much thought about the consequences.
The master plan calls for the establishment of a caliphate and the creation of an Islamic army in the year 2020. Al-Qaeda is going to be 20 years old next year. For a terrorist group, that’s a mature, long-lasting movement. It’s unusual, and shows an ability to be durable and nimble and adaptive. For it to plan for its next 20 years is entirely reasonable.
SS: Lastly, a question about your home state of Oklahoma. When you travel across the Middle East and conduct interviews, do you find that Arabs have an understanding of you as someone from the middle of the country, and how that might shape your views?
LW: Some do. For instance, in Saudi Arabia there’s a generation of middle aged men who came to America to learn English, and the government subsidized their education. In many cases they went to places like Tulsa or Austin or Phoenix. There were different centers that specialized in training Arabs to speak English, and they were rarely in the big towns. Those people know what it’s like to live in the heart of America. But that’s disappearing now. In order to really see America as the complicated and varied place it is, you have to come here. With all the restrictions on travel and visa applications, that’s beginning to become more and more rare. To have a nuanced view of America is essential.
Lawrence Wright: “The Master Plan”
Seymour Hersh: "The Redirection"
The Siege of Taif
NYT: The closing of Alec Station
More from journalist Jason Burke
More on Adam Curtis's film The Power of Nightmares
Wikipedia on Ayman al-Zawahiri