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A Road to Ruin
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on June 11, 2020
"Wherever you are, death will find you, even if you are in high towers." - Quran 4:78
Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamic theorist, begins this saga with a voyage to the US in 1948. After a brief stay in the post war sin city of New York, Qutb attended college in small town Colorado as a well known Arabic author. On return to Cairo his ideas crystallized into a dialectical opposition between east-west, traditional-modern and religious-secular. At the time Israel had defeated the Arab alliance and the British were occupying the Suez Canal. Joining with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb assisted Nasser in 1952 to depose King Farouk, but Pan-Arabic socialism thwarted his desires for a sharia state. Following a 1954 assassination attempt on Nasser, Qutb was jailed and then executed in 1966.
Ayman al-Zawahiri was born in 1951 to a famous family of doctors and clerics, friends of Qutb. He lived in a rich Cairo suburb, home to Edward Said, Omar Sharif and future King Hussein. In 1967 Egypt blocked the straight to the Red Sea from Palestine. Israel destroyed Egypt's air force, overran Sinai and reached the Suez canal in less than a week. The same six days saw the capture of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Golan Heights, and a rout of Jordanian and Syrian forces. The war marked the birth of a new fundamentalism. Only a return to the faith could regain the lost favor of God. Zawahiri believed that restoration of a caliphate would lead to a holy war with the US and it's Jewish conspirators.
Nasser died in 1970 and Sadat emptied jails of Muslim Brothers in a bid to legitimize his presidency. The decade saw a surge in radical groups fostered by official tolerance. Khomeini established Islamic rule in 1979 Iran, raising hopes for theocracy. Egypt was not ready for revolution however, and in 1980 Zawahiri visited Pakistan to provide medical support in the Afghanistan conflict. Sadat had signed a treaty with Israel in 1978, and was assassinated in 1981. Zawahiri was implicated, and tortured in the Citadel of Cairo. Mubarak arrested hundreds of Islamists for the trial. Omar Abdel Rahman, leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would share prison time with Zawahiri.
Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 to a successful family of developers in Saudi Arabia. King Saud had ended a rebellion of religious fanatics in 1931, and established Salafism as the fundamentalist creed of the land. Oil boomed in 1950, and the bin Laden's became rich through construction for the king. Seventeenth son Osama was a devout youth, and fervent for sharia law. Influenced by Qutb, he joined the Muslim Brothers. Rapid social change and resentment of royalty spurred dreams of revolution. King Faisal was killed in 1975 while making secular reforms. Mecca's mosque was seized in 1979 by rebels seeking theocratic rule. If an Islamic state could be formed the world would soon follow.
Abdullah Azzam, al-Azhar scholar and jihadi, left Jordan for Jeddah in 1980, where he met bin Laden. He joined Afghan forces against the Soviets, issued fatwas to fight and spun tales of battlefield miracles. Bin Laden had raised funds and recruited volunteers, where he met Zawahiri. Saudi royals sacrificed riches to defend the faith and block the USSR from the gulf. The US funneled fortunes into the region to protect oil interests. Bin Laden built training camps for foreign fighters, using Pakistan as a local base. A network of Arab princes, holy warriors, secret agents, Muslim mystics and puppet dictators was born. Azzam became a founding father of al-Qaida, Hamas and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Azzam vied with Zawahiri and bin Laden for control of al-Qaida when the USSR fell in 1989. The Saudis intervened and bin Laden won the day. When Azzam fell from favor he was killed. Hailed as hero in the Afghanistan-Soviet war, bin Laden led a ragtag band who amused the Afghan army. The last half of the book covers the decade leading to the 2001 attacks. Royal corruption and an economic slide bred unrest in the Kingdom. Bin Laden blamed the US, a tricky position towards an ally against the USSR, but the princes feared domestic threats as much as foreign ones. Allowing infidel troops on Saudi soil in 1990 to attack Saddam Hussein was an affront to bin Laden, even in defense of Saudi oil.
Hasan al-Turabi, a Sudanese scholar armed with degrees from London and Paris, staged a coup that created a Sunni Islamist state in 1989. He had been a Muslim Brotherhood leader since 1964. Sudan opened it's doors to stateless jihadi, with a special invitation extended to bin Laden. Relocating to Khartoum in 1992 he reunited with Zawahiri. As the communist threat subsided a Christian one took hold. The presence of Americans in the KSA and Yemen violated a Quranic verse about one religion in Arabia. This coalesced into a crusades redux, where ancient battles began anew. If a western new world order was the future, then al-Qaida would reignite a fight for past traditions of law and faith.
Omar Abdel Rahman led the 1993 WTC bombing, funded by bin Laden. Al-Qaida trained fighters killed 19 US soldiers in Mogadishu that year. Mubarak survived a 1995 assassination attempt by Zawahiri. Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, under the baleful eye of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who was bankrolled by Pakistan and the KSA. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed visited bin Laden. His nephew, WTC bomber Ramzi Yousef blew up a passenger jet and plotted to kill Bill Clinton. Their new plan was to crash airliners into US buildings. Khobar Towers exploded, killing 19 US Air Force personnel. In 1997 62 tourists were gunned down in Egypt. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania followed in 1998.
The last quarter of the book details the dysfunctional ties between the FBI and the CIA. An agent of Zawahiri told the FBI about al-Qaida in 1993, but the CIA wasn't informed. As bin Laden declared war on the US in 1996 we wondered what it would mean. Al-Qaida began suicide missions, evolving from freedom fighters to global terrorists. In 1999 a missile strike aimed at bin Laden was canceled by the CIA. As al-Qaida pilots entered the US in 2000 the CIA didn't tell the FBI. The USS Cole exploded in Yemen killing 17 sailors. By the summer of 2001 there were reports a vast attack was imminent. The FBI agent who lead the al-Qaida team retired. Within two weeks at his new job in the WTC the planes hit.
I lived next to the WTC then as I do now. Assuming I had heard it all in the news, I delayed reading this book. Instead of a narrow focus on the 911 plot, the book gives a wide historical context. It is not a painstaking recount of the attack. Lawrence Wright won a 2007 Pullitzer Prize for his work. More than 350 people worldwide were interviewed by the author. He takes a balanced view and no one is blameless in this account. From blinkered politicians and warlike empires, corrupt royalty and cynical clergy, Machiavellian intellects and credulous minds came a scourge of violence. Bin Laden may not have succeeded in a showdown for a single world faith, but the seeds of destruction were sown.