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The Looming Tower: Road to 9/11 an engrossing trip

Bill Norton [The Kansas City Star]

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright; Knopf ($27.95)

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If 373 pages of nonfiction narrative ever deserved to be doubled in number, they are found in Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

Wright's Tower is not just fine reportage and writing, although both are exceptional. It's also an invaluable peek into the mindset of a gaggle of zealous misfits and malcontents who are bent on doing damage to the United States and the misfits and malcontents within the U.S. government who are trying to stop them.

Lest that sound too much like a Tom Clancy novel, think Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov when it comes to Wright's handling of twisted religious themes, themes he's handled brilliantly in two other nonfiction works.

When it comes to intricate, melancholy weaving of distorted motive into plot in the Mideast, think of Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl. And when it comes to revealing black-hatted demi-heroes, Wright does for the late FBI agent John O'Neill what Neil Sheehan did for the late Army officer John Paul Vann in A Bright, Shining Lie, a chronicle of the Vietnam War.

For five years Wright traveled to the Middle East and Europe, and around the United States as well, interviewing hundreds of people and collecting thousands of pages of documents and previously recorded interviews with major players in this drama leading up to the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001.

In a broad stroke, what Wright discovered, if it's not the Clash of Civilizations (between Islam and the West) as political scientist Samuel Huntington has been criticized for claiming, is at the least a head-on collision of values between self-anointed soldiers of an extreme form of Islam and anything and anyone not aligned with their narrow view of how the world should work.

Along the way, Wright reveals:

That Osama bin Laden is neither the billionaire al-Qaeda financier (in fact, he may be broke) he's been made out to be, nor is he military and criminal mastermind. Charismatic? Perhaps. Made mythic by his own self-promotion and by the Western press? Likely.

That in the hands of zealous religionists explained in Eric Fromm's True Believers, men like Sayyid Qutb, bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (to name but a few), Islam is tortured, twisted and shaped to serve their personal, murderous philosophies. In Wright's reporting, these men are embodiments of the modified bromide "My mind's made up. Don't confuse me with my religion."

That the foreign intelligence gathering and federal law enforcement attempts to track and stop al-Qaeda are as deeply flawed and fractious as was John O'Neill, who became the chief bin Laden hunter and died in the World Trade Center attacks.

Parts of Wright's work have been seen in recent television programs, one a CNN news two-hour special on bin Laden, and the other ABC's somewhat fictional, six-hour made-for-TV movie, The Path to 9/11.

That's eight hours of watching that couldn't touch the historical depth and personal narrative force of Wright's Tower. If his book has a flaw, it's that some of his accounts are incomplete and at times the book feels rushed, as if it were hurried to print to meet the five-year anniversary of 9/11.

That said, Wright's effort involves so many characters (put a sticky note at the eight-page index of the 86 major players), breaches 50 years of fermenting radical Islam and ends in 2002 in the mountainous region of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. This reader was left asking for more.

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© 2006, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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