Saturday, September 02, 2006

Was al-Qaeda born of boredom?

An earlier post included part of an excerpt from Lawrence Wright's new book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. That excerpt drew from the part of the book which discussed the intellectual inspiration provided to al-Qaeda by an Egpytian writer and educator named Sayyid Qutb.

Ideas and inspirations don't exist in a vacuum, of course, and it is important to understand the context in which the movement grew. In Saudi Arabia, one reviewer of Wright's book points out, that context was partly defined by...boredom.

I was an occasional visitor to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Its capital, Riyadh, was reminiscent of Houston with mosques and without the charm. A kind of consumerism had gripped the place, but with an Islamic flavour: the women in the shopping malls were mostly covered, and the stores closed for prayers. In shiny new office blocks, young men sat behind empty desks and transmitted an air of profound ennui.

Into this dreary society, made more cynical perhaps by the worldly excesses of many of its leaders, was launched a myth. The myth was of the Arab Afghans, of the doughty fighters from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries who repelled a superpower in Afghanistan.

Their leader, Osama bin Laden, son of a Saudi construction magnate, was hailed as a legendary figure. In fact, as this brilliant book by Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker makes clear, the Arab Afghans were a sideline in the fighting, occasionally a liability to their Afghan allies and set apart mainly by their obsession with dying.

When the fighters returned, the myth was amplified by the young Saudis who found in their intense religiosity a refuge from daily tedium. In a country of an austere state-sponsored religious puritanism, young men were left with very limited life choices. “Exposed to so few alternative ways of thinking even about Islam, they were trapped in a two-dimensional spiritual world; they could only become more extreme or less so,” he writes.

Click here to read more of this review. As the reviewer (Stephen Fidler) notes, Wright's book is about much more than Qutb's role or even Osama's.

[Another] part of Wright’s book describes the history of the few Americans who recognised early the threat posed by al-Qaeda. It is a story of missed opportunities, of bureaucratic and personal infighting, of orders that made it harder to share information among intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Even if everything had worked perfectly, there is no guarantee that 9/11 would have been thwarted. But Wright’s book reinforces the sense that, had things been different, it could have been.

The tragedy is epitomised in the life and death of John O’Neill, the FBI executive described here as “an adulterer, a philanderer, a liar, an egotist and a materialist”, but whose ultimately fruitless battle against al-Qaeda came to dominate his life. Retired from the bureau, disillusioned and seeking his own form of spiritual solace, he died when the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11.

--Marshal Zeringue