The Looming Tower


“The Looming Tower” digs deep into Islamist terrorism, its roots and its evolution up to the momentous day of 9/11. What makes the book fascinating to me, is the story of the core leaders’ “breaking bad” process from their early youth to their final crimes;three men who were instrumental to the formation of  the most extreme Jihadi groups.

Sayyid Qutb(1906-1966), Egyptian, Islamic author and theorist, member of the Egyptiam Muslim Brotherhood

Ayman Al-Zawahiri(1951), Egyptian, Surgeon and current Emir of Al-Qaeda.

Osama Bin Ladan(1957-2011), Saudi Arabian/Stateless, former Emir of Al-Qaeda.

I am going to summarize the first half of the book which describes the links between Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Palestinian and Afghan movements and specifically the above mentioned individuals. I loved this part of the book because it connected a lot of fragmented information I had about the region I grew up in and care a lot about. This part is dedicated to the years that shaped the Jihadi Ideology, prior to the strategic planning for the attack on twin towers.

The second half is the detailed account of the attack’s planning and recruitment, in parallel with FBI and CIA’s investigations of Al-Qaeda, which is super interesting too.

1-Sayyid Qutb


In the late 1940s, Qutb was a fervent Egyptian nationalist and anti-communist, but not yet a fundamentalist. His political and social criticism of the British occupation of Egypt and the King Farouq’s submission, was starting to annoy the government. Before they could arrest him, his friends arranged for his departure to the US to continue his education. Sayyid was in his forties at the time and single. He stated that he couldn’t find a suitable wife among so many immodest women and abstained from sex, as the mere force against salvation. He was often challenging his own motivations and identity, to make sure if he wanted to be a true Muslim or a sinful westerner. The journey to the United States was his final test to shape that firm identity.

He felt lonely in the US, finding himself more sophisticated that Americans who liked to talk about money and Hollywood stars all the time. He was appalled by sexual freedom he observed in New York city and found it to be the root of cultural corruption. Later, in his year-long stay in Greeley, Colorado, he was first charmed by the puritan community he found there. Their abstinence from alcohol and their love for their families and gardens seemed decent. But again, it was also a college town where the majority of students were assertive females, whom Qutb didn’t appreciate. He was also shocked by the racism against African-Americans.  He observed that although considered a religious country, materialism was the real American god and the soul had no value. Basically, instead of liberalizing, his American experience radicalized him. His American friends however never noticed the resentment. He reserved his criticism to be published safely back home, where his radical writings would change the minds of Muslim masses about the United States. His criticism was not directed just to the US, but to modernity. “Modern values, secularism, rationality, democracy, individualism and mixing of the sexes had been infecting Islam since the start of colonialism. he intended to show that Islam and modernity were completely incompatible. Separation of religion and state was the barrier to the divine unity of humanity and god. Islam was total and uncompromising.”

When he went back to Egypt, the country was in bad shape. Government corruption and humiliation of the war with Israel had made the ruling system unpopular. Qutb became a member of the “Muslim Brotherhood” immediately. The brotherhood seemed to be the only organization actually caring about the Egyptian people. They built hospitals and schools, even their own army to fight Israel. Their founders rejected the secular ideas of government and politics and they had created their own “society”, based on Islamic “Sharia”. But the main reason they found so much support and membership in Egypt’s lower middle class, was the fact that they effectively opposed the British Occupation. They had a secret apparatus section too that carried out the more violent operations. As early as 1948, they operated numerous attacks on movie theaters and police and judges assassinations.

However, when Gamal Abdel Nasser ceased the government in 1952 through a military coup, Muslim Brotherhood had little part in it. Both the Nasser’s “Modern Arab Socialism”organization and Muslim Brotherhood felt their organizations righteous to rule. “In a story that would repeat again and again in the middle east, the contest quickly narrowed to the choice between a military society and a religious one.” Nasser prevailed in the beginning and appeased to Muslim Brotherhood by inviting them to the advisory council. But the vast doctrine difference between the two left little room for compromise. For example when Nasser was negotiating a treaty with the British to end the occupation, Qutb published an article urging Egyptians to Jihad against them.

In 1954, Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him, but failed. Nasser retaliated by hanging six members and imprisoning thousands in concentration camps. Qutb was one of the prisoners. Tortured and mistreated in prison, Qutb re-introduced the Takfir idea, by deeming his prisoners non-Muslim due to their behavior towards their Muslim behavior, hence giving real muslims permission to kill hum. Then he issued his ultra-radical doctrine from prison, “The Milestones”, a book that became the bible of Jihadis. ” The world divides in two camps: Islam and Jahaliat(the period of barbarity that existed before Muhammed). Pure primitive Islam or the doom of mankind are the only choices.” With the help of Saudi Arabia, Qutb led the regeneration of the Brotherhood’s secret apparatus to form another assassination plan, . His plot was revealed by captured members and he was sentenced to death. Before carrying out the execution, streets filled with protests and Nasser realized Qutb would be more dangerous dead than alive. He sent a message to Qutb that if he would appeal his sentence, he would spare him. But Qutb wanted to become a martyr and became one, inspiring thousands of young Jihadis to avenge him.

2-Ayman al-Zawahiri


Ayman was born in an old and prominent Egyptian family. His father’s family were all top rated doctors, judges and lawyers. They were also very influential in the most credible Islamic school in the world, Al-Azhar. His mother’s side was equally famous with opposition politics. One of Ayman’s maternal uncles was Qutb’s personal lawyer. Young Ayman heard repeatedly glorified stories of Qutb from his uncle. Ayman was a headstrong, self-righteous and rebellious against the authority in power. He was extremely disciplined and organized as a teenager, preventing him from acting impulsive and irrational upon his beliefs. At the age 15, he formed an underground cell dedicated to over-throw of Nasser government and initiating an Islamic state.

Around the same time(1967), Israel’s decisive victory in the 6 day war humiliated Muslims of the Arab world which made Arabs believed that God was on Israel’s side. They lost faith in their countries and governments. Mosques all over Muslim countries united their voices:” God had turned against the Muslims and the only way to get back to him was to return to the pure Islam.” The primary target for the Egyptian Islamist was then the Nasser impure and semi-religious regime first, and after establishing a pure islamic state, confronting the west and Israel.

Nasser’s successor, Anvar Sadat, desperate to make his rule legitimate, tried to make peace with Islamists. He freed all the Muslim brotherhood prisoners ignoring their radicalization influenced by Qutb and the threat they proposed to his government. “The Islamic Group” formed after Anvar Sadat’s support, and quickly radicalized most of Egypt’s schools and   campuses.

In 1980, Zawahiri, then a young practicing doctor was preoccupied with the problem of finding a secure base for Jihad, which wasn’t possible in Egypt. He volunteered to provide medical help to Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. He went back to Egypt after 4 months and became one of the leaders of the group “Egyptian Islamic Jihad”. In the meantime, in Egypt, Sadat’s peace agreement with Israel and his wife’s help to enforce a law granting women the right to divorce enraged Islamists. They responded by Takfiring him, meaning they characterized him as a heretic, therefore an open invitation to his assassination(Takfir doctrine later became a very common tool for extremists like Zawahiri to justify murdering muslims). Sadat then dissolved all religious student associations. Zawahiri started planning for a complete overthrow of the government, by recruiting Egyptian military officers like Al-Zumar.

In September 1981, “The Islamic Group” hired an assassin who shot and killed Sadat. The new government of Hosni Mubarak, arrested all the conspirators, including Zawahiri. They were then imprisoned in a 12th century dungeon and sadistically tortured. “Egypt prisons became factories for producing militants whose need for retribution(they called it justice) was all-consuming”. Under torture, Zawahiri pointed fingers to his friends, which was further humiliating for him. In 1985, after doing his term, Zawahiri moved to Jeddah, Saudi to work in a hospital as a surgeon. He had now officially turned into an extremist.

3- Osama Bin Ladan


Osama was the only child of Mohammad Bin Ladan and his fourth wife. His Father was a self made Arab billionaire originally from Yemen, who made a fortune with his construction company by implementing Saudi Arabia’s most grand building projects. When Osama was still a young child, his father divorced his mother and married her off to one of his staff, as was his habit. According to his childhood best friend “Osama was a shy and calm boy, almost girlish.”. He loved watching western movies on TV. In his teenage years he changed though. Under the influence of a charismatic Syrian teacher, he went through a political and religious awakening. He stopped watching American shows and wearing western clothes, and became intensely passionate about Palestinian cause. He would wake up at 1 am to pray in addition to the 5 daily prayers. “Many young Saudis found refuge in intense religiosity, being exposed to so few alternative ways of thinking, even about Islam.”

At the age seventeen, he joined Muslim Brotherhood and married his fourteen year old second cousin. The members of Muslim Brotherhood were not plotting against Saudi government, but met secretly discussing the formation of a real Islamic state, somewhere in the world. In his first years at the university, Osama and his brotherhood friends met for soccer and horse riding in the dessert, they also read an discussed Saeed Qutb’s books and were greatly influenced by him.

Unlike his father, Osama was a caring and attentive father to his children. He was very stern to them too, going out of his way to toughen them up for the cruel world. he took them camping in the dessert and made them dig and cover themselves with sand and sleep under the stars. He also home-schooled all his children by hiring tutors to supervise all their schooling. Osama and his best friend pledged to practice “Fair polygamy”, at the time that polygamy was socially unacceptable in Saudi. Osama married his second wife in 1982, a highly educated woman with a PHD in child psychology. He eventually would marry two other women.

Still in university, Osama met Sheikh Abdollah Azam, a Palestinian Islamic scholar who was at the time preaching to recruit Muslims to help the Afghan Mujahideen in war against the Soviets. He was the warrior-priest type leader that Osama had been looking for. He was both pious and fierce, with his slogan being:” Jihad and the rifle alone, no negotiation, no conferences, no dialogues.” Azam had been to Afghanistan and had many tales about pre-modern Mujahideen troops defeating mechanized Soviets with the help of God’s miracles. According to his preaching, the struggle was between Islam and Jahelia(any system existing before or other than Islam). This was why Saudi and other Arab volunteers who couldn’t care less about Afghanistan as a country, joined this Jihad. He used Bin Ladan’s guest apartment for recruiting sessions. He was impressed by Osama’s humble lifestyle, who lived with minimum house furniture and didn’t even use his Air Conditioning. “On the other hand he would write a million Rials check for Mujaideen, if need be.”


Abdullah Azam

In 1985, Afghan Mujahidin consisted of many disorganized armed militias. ISI(Pakistan) and Saudi Arabia tried to organize them in 7 main parties. One of them was a Bin Ladan founded group headed by Afghan Abdorasoul Sayyaf, Called “Etehad Eslami”. Bin Ladan and Azam were also part of the group’s leadership. According to his subordinates at the time, Bin Ladan was not a charismatic leader. Overshadowed by Azam’s power and eloquence, Bin Ladan is remembered as shy and naive. When asked to talk for a group of Mujahidin, he talked about nothing but horses, one witness recalled.

Despite his leadership flaws, Bin Ladan was an excellent employer for young unemployed Arabs. He paid for their ticket and accommodation in Pishavar and paid them a handsome salary for their participation in Jihad. The main difference between Arab Mujahidin and their Afghan counterparts was that Afghans were fighting for their countries, but Arabs were there for martyrdom. Inexperienced Arab fighters were also quite a liability to Afghan mujaheddin, who found them useless in battle. In response, Bin Ladan started an Arab-only camp to prove their capabilities. After a few miserable defeats, Arab camp finally succeeded in one battle against Russians which boosted their confidence.

Around the same time, Bin Ladan met Zawahiri in Jedda and they immediately clicked. Each of them filled a need in the other. Zawahiri needed money and contacts, and Bin Ladan sought ideological direction, which Zawahiri as a seasoned propagandist supplied. Zawahiri joined Bin Ladan’s group in Afghanistan and from the beginning had ideological disagreements with Azam. Azam had an all inclusive vision of Jihad which was opposed to Zawahiri’s Takfeeri ideas. Azam was not trusted by Saudi government financiers to lead Arab Mujahidin, as much as Bin Ladan was. He was undermined and eventually assassinated in a car bomb. In 1988, Bin Ladan and Zawahiri founded Al-Qaeda together, based on their own idea of Islamic Jihad.


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