The events of September 11, 2001, irreversibly shattered our collective notions of innocence and safety. The twisted metal and bloodied bodies strewn across the American Eastern seaboard that Tuesday morning heralded a new age of state security and global transformation. The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright follows up his seminal 2006 analysis on the genesis of the 9/11 attacks, The Looming Tower, with his latest book: The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State. This compilation of pieces on the jihadist-Western confrontation presents a twin indictment against the dangers of unbridled, puritanical expressions of Islam and the alarming bureaucratic and operational missteps of the American intelligence apparatus that culminated in the horrific deaths of four Americans at the hands of ISIS in 2014.
To glean an effective understanding of 9/11’s causes and aftermath, we have numerous political and journalistic works that analyze al-Qaeda and its ever-growing offshoots and affiliates. Works like Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, which intricately explains the espionage and militant environment of post-Soviet invasion Afghanistan, The Last Refuge by Gregory Johnsen that presents a comprehensive analysis of al-Qaeda’s growth in Yemen, and Peter Bergen’s The Longest War, which offers a salient account of American shortcomings in combating al-Qaeda, are superb pieces for understanding the global “War on Terror.” To understand the latest case of al-Qaeda-inspired Salafist jihadism, the movement to recapture the traditional, “pure” Islam through armed and violent means,[i] The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants, which expertly explains the Islamic State’s genesis and fervent eschatology, and Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad, which dissects the complex landscape of post-revolution militancy, are superb scholarly pieces.
This compilation of pieces on the jihadist-Western confrontation presents a twin indictment against the dangers of unbridled, puritanical expressions of Islam and the alarming bureaucratic and operational missteps of the American intelligence apparatus that culminated in the horrific deaths of four Americans at the hands of ISIS in 2014.
Wright’s contribution to the canon is an incredibly immersive, broad-stroke foray into the global fight against militant jihadist ideology and action. While omitting the refined analytic, especially Arabic-language, engagement of other works, it nevertheless offers an accessible, if somewhat disjointed, account of the conflict. Wright never conceals his skepticism towards government overreach—he reveals his role as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, thoroughly outlines what he views as the “ineffectiveness of American policy” in negotiating hostage releases, and scorns the contemporary “security state” as a defeatist acquiescence to terror. Thus, those interested in counter-terrorism and national security may find his critical stance towards security policy superficial and lacking objectivity. Nevertheless, the work’s strength is its candid portrayal of societal and personal shortcomings and strivings from areas as diverse as the meeting rooms of Washington, D.C., the heat of southern Arabia, and the hinterlands of Afghanistan. It presents keen historiography, intriguing first-hand experiences, and illuminating interviews.
The through-line of the dual faults of virulent Islamism and ill-informed American policy presents a topically-diverse narrative loosely arranged in chronological order. The work weaves an intricate tapestry of the people, philosophies, and places that comprise the battle lines in this oft-characterized civilizational struggle. The work begins with al-Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents committed to stamping out the nascent group after its October 2000 strike on the USS Cole in Yemen. Wright then transitions to an in-depth account of time in Saudi Arabia, ushering to its failures in fostering a cohesive and productive civil society. He continues with outlining the ideology of the Islamist movement, embodied in political science and theological texts, and its fissure along moderate and fundamentalist lines. Finally, he narrates the ordeal of the 2014 ISIS kidnappings, highlighting the U.S. government’s inability to negotiate the safe release of American lives. The work transitions from descriptions of leaders and locales in a way that is, for the most part, appealing. Some chapters, like a description of the censored Syrian film industry or the gridlocked state of the Gaza Strip, did not mesh with the narrative arch; however, the diverse compilation of articles did make for overall dynamic reading.
Wright presents a captivating description of the militant Islamist movement, starting with its characters. He presents al-Zawahiri as a “seasoned propagandist” well-versed in the fundamentalist discourse born from Muslim Brotherhood writings. He explains how Zawahiri developed from his stint as a surgeon among the “Afghan Arabs” in Peshawar, and how “he emerged a hardened radical whose beliefs had been hammered into brilliant resolve” (29) after serving time in connection to Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination. After a brief sojourn across Eurasia, he reunites with the wealthy Saudi ideologue named Osama bin Laden in February 1998. Wright depicts Dr. Fadl, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, as a counterbalance to Zawahiri’s notions on the global jihad. He explains how Fadl, one of the preeminent ideologues of the early al-Qaeda movement, tempered his views—decrying terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and proclaiming that the 9/11 high jackers “‘betrayed the enemy’” by breaking the contract of protection embodied in their US visas (245). Wright’s presentation of the breakdown in leadership highlights what al-Qaeda figure Abu al-Walid al-Masri deemed “‘a tragic example of an Islamic movement managed in an alarmingly meaningless way’” (187) that would continue to plague the movement.
Wright uses the longest chapter, “The Kingdom of Silence,” to depict the social strains of life in Saudi Arabia that he postulates give rise to fundamentalism that can fester into terrorist action. … By offering candid, on-the-ground examples of Saudi society, albeit constrained by limited linguistic and social engagement, Wright provides a believable thesis that ideologues like bin Laden devise an avenue of purpose for many stagnant lives.
The Terror Years’s coverage of al-Qaeda’s (as well as affiliates’ and offshoots’) ideological justifications for violence does seem dated. Covering the 2004 Madrid train bombings, Wright states that “terrorism plays a sacramental role, dramatizing a religious conflict by giving it an apocalyptic backdrop” through a “relentless march of radical Islam against the modern, secular world” (156). He reinforces this assertion by charting the connection between strategy, such as Abu Musab al-Suri’s Call for Worldwide Islamic Resistance and Abu Bakr Naji’s “The Management of Savagery,” with operational tactics by early al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He hints at the tactics’ focus on “small spontaneous groups carrying out individual acts of terror in Europe, while waging an open struggle for territory in Iraq” (193). Since this is exactly what is happening today, as evidenced by the 2015 Paris attacks, 2016 Brussels bombings, and raging battles over Mosul and al-Raqqa, a more comprehensive and up-to-date description of Islamic State actions and the group’s evolving rhetoric in light of mounting territorial shifts and regressions would have been timelier and more effectively captured the contemporary state of the jihadist movement.
Wright uses the longest chapter, “The Kingdom of Silence,”to depict the social strains of life in Saudi Arabia that he postulates give rise to fundamentalism that can fester into terrorist action. He facilitates this sociological study of sorts by serving as a mentor for three novice reporters at the Saudi Gazette in early 2003. He loathes the repressive patriarchal dynamics that relegate women to the periphery of society, believing that “enforced piety that holds the sexes apart” (114) serves as a primary factor in terrorist fantasies that envision the acquisition of virgin maidens in exchange for martyrdom. He also characterizes Saudi socio-cultural dynamics as “a studied avoidance of the real” by highlighting their dodging of taboo subjects such as the domineering authority of religious conservativism, neglected infrastructure in the major cities, and pejorative views on foreign guest workers (most of whom possess superior work ethic and language skills). Wright displays a country of “unemployment and idleness” (123), citing the disinterest in prompt deadlines and thorough journalism among his cohort. By offering candid, on-the-ground examples of Saudi society, albeit constrained by limited linguistic and social engagement, Wright provides a believable thesis that ideologues like bin Laden devise an avenue of purpose for many stagnant lives.
The Terror Years recounts the story of leaders on the American “side,” if you will, in an absorbing manner. In describing the FBI’s fieldwork in Yemen while investigating the USS Cole, Wright presents the personal animosity between the gun-slinging, slick-talking lawman embodied in Agent John O’Neill and the regionally-versed, measured diplomat personified by Ambassador Barbara Bodine. He delves into O’Neill’s personal demons of women, loans, and debts, describing him as both “insecure” and “driven.” Diplomacy ultimately wins, and O’Neill leaves the FBI and transfers to head of security at the World Trade Center, only to perish amidst al-Qaeda’s wrath. The work also dedicates a chapter to the sharp, Arabic-speaking, FBI Agent Ali Soufan. One account I particularly enjoyed was Soufan’s multiple-day binge sparing with an al-Qaeda operative in a dank Aden jail over the theological nuances of holy war. Wright valorizes the men’s efforts to probe al-Qaeda’s terror in a respectful and historically-acute manner.
Wright reserves his most emotional and narratively-engaging segment for the last chapter. “Five Hostages,” which recounts the 2014 whirlwind experience of five families working alongside Atlantic Media philanthropist David Bradley, serves as the climax of his build-up of the dual sins of jihadist action and American policy.
The same veneration is not present for the broader American intelligence community (IC). Wright even loathes the term “intelligence community,” noting “throughout their history these organizations have been brutally competitive, undermining one another and even hoarding vital information” (201). He presents a particularly scathing assessment of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), suggesting they withheld key information on Malaysian-based meetings and entry of two future 9/11 hijackers into the United States in early 2001 from the FBI. Wright’s primary grievance is America’s use of torture, or what former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell would term “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He presses the former DNI throughout a spate of interviews to thoroughly explain the tactic, and provides accounts of its overall ineffectiveness in one chapter’s postscript. He also scorns the post-9/11 dragnet approach to surveillance, a reasonable gripe considering his family’s own monitoring during research on The Looming Tower. He notes that the “intelligence community lags significantly behind private industry” and equates the world envisioned by the apparatus to that of Disney—where “environments are carefully controlled and people are closely observed” (212). His work overwhelmingly fails to highlight IC successes, an obligation well-met by other publications. [ii]
Wright reserves his most emotional and narratively-engaging segment for the last chapter. “Five Hostages,” which recounts the 2014 whirlwind experience of five families working alongside Atlantic Media philanthropist David Bradley, serves as the climax of his build-up of the dual sins of jihadist action and American policy. He presents a riveting account of the erudite and self-aware, if impressionable, group of correspondents, activists, and volunteers that made up the quartet of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller. Wright expertly humanizes the orange jumpsuit-clad and veiled figures that beamed across global media, relaying the informal lectures organized by Foley in an ISIS holding cell, the altruism of Mueller throughout India, Tibet, and Palestine, and Kassig’s actions serving his NGO. He describes the group as “idealists” who sought to promulgate their blessings, and he graciously dedicates the book to their memory.
He transports us to the dining room deliberations of Bradley’s Embassy Row home, where we receive an in-depth view of the families’ desperation in crafting ransom rebuttals and videos pleading for clemency. He describes the “impressive connections” of Bradley’s team, especially their impromptu meetings in Doha facilitated by now private-sector consultant Ali Soufan, and their enduring efforts to get the captives home. Again, Wright scorns American policy on hostage negotiations, accusing the FBI, the State Department, and even the Obama Administration of willfully neglecting key negotiation tactics and procedures that yielded sterling results for their European counterparts. He ends the section with a somber quote from Bradley, noting that “‘It feels like evil won (336).’”
A terrorist is not made overnight, nor is he or she crafted in a singular crucible of poverty, abuse, or instability. Rather, he or she is forged through the amalgamation of numerous hardships that Wright succinctly describes as “Despair.” The Terror Years displays the ideological justifications, indeed distortions, of the Islamist movement’s most militant ideologues to create a cadre of susceptible fighters to wage a global jihad. To this, the work juxtaposes a woefully inept American security response, rooted in bureaucratic infighting and operational blunders, that resulted in the rise of al-Qaeda, the germination of ISIS, and the spread of violence and carnage throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. The work is a personal, journalistic account with a clear bias towards critique and against the political. Thus, it hardly hits the mark for expert scholarship regarding the jihadist-Western struggle. Regardless, Wright’s book is worthy of a read for its respectful and humanist engagement with the personalities of the conflict and narrative brilliance in presenting this conflict of immense temporal and spatial depth and breadth in an easily consumable anthology.