From Islam to jihad to portraits of the mastermind, a select 9/11 bibliography
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
TWENTY YEARS IS not that long for hindsight. Our understanding of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 and their prolonged aftermath will doubtless seem inadequate, perhaps embarrassingly so, 50 years or a century hereafter. At the same time, while perspective is broadened with the passage of time, the sense of proximity to the events on that Tuesday two decades ago is sharper today than it will be 50 or 100 years later. Many of us have lived through 9/11 and saw the world change with it.
Never before had a victim nation evoked such instant global sympathy and also frittered it all away so quickly. Looking back, September 11th, 2001 per se seems to have built a vacuum around itself, mythified by its otherworldly images, while the largescale changes it wreaked on global affairs have persisted in defining the geopolitical and socio-cultural discourses. It would be a mistake to say we are in the denouement today, even after the shambolic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, but if America is the tragic hero in this 20-year cycle which has apparently returned to square one, then we have seen hubris (“shock-and-awe”, “overwhelming force”), hamartia (America’s repeated attempts at nation-building in its own image in Afghanistan and Iraq; believing Iraqis would welcome the US with open arms), peripeteia (the Russian warning “You’ll get the hell kicked out of you” in Afghanistan; the removal of Saddam Hussein leading not to a democratic Iraq but instead civil war and the entrenchment of Al Qaeda and later the birth of the Islamic State), and anagnorisis (the recognition that it all went belly-up). We are still awaiting the final reconciliation, the purging of our emotions in catharsis.
9/11 spawned a vast literature. It fundamentally reshaped culture. Fiction had to re-imagine and reinvent itself. But fiction lies beyond the scope of this essay where we take a look at some of the works of non-fiction that informed, educated and enlightened us, and helped us understand what had happened on a September morning on the US East Coast 20 years ago as well as most of what happened afterwards. Some of these books may still be around a century later as seminal works of investigation and narrative-building by journalists, as memoir by officials often in the thick of things, and as socio-political analysis by commentators with ‘domain knowledge’. Beginning in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the books are still coming out. Politics and geopolitics have changed a lot in these 20 years. America is no longer the same. And yet, even when coloured by the prejudices of today, it’s a rare occasion when a new ‘9/11 book’ does not offer at least one new insight. Which brings us to a clarification: 9/11 books need not pertain to the events of September 11th, 2001 and the American response, or its two-decade-long direct consequences. Some of the most illuminating books to emerge from the rubble of the twin towers look at radical Islam going back in time and how it reacted to US action which itself was a response to it. In time, the books would inevitably focus on how America itself changed, putting the spotlight on the ideals it went to war spouting, and what it did to those ideals. Here are 10 of the most insightful and/or influential books that opened our eyes.
GHOST WARS | Steve Coll
Fully titled Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004), Steve Coll’s book is the right place to begin since it looks at the immediate and larger backstory of how and why 9/11 happened. Looking at the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion, Coll’s implication is that America’s abandonment of Afghanistan (we would call it the first abandonment now) once the Soviets left and the mujahideen had no more US interests to serve—effectively bequeathing Afghanistan a civil war and leaving it at the mercy of the ISI— was a mistake that deprived Washington of the ability to shape the course of events. Nevertheless, intelligence, no matter how unreliable, was not lacking, and the CIA and FBI sent in plenty of warnings that were often eerily close to what would happen on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. One of the memos, as early as the mid-1990s, had warned that Wall Street, the Capitol and the White House were high-risk targets and that civil aviation could be employed as a means of terror. Al Qaeda had struck the US thrice already: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombing of US embassies and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. But no one took the threats seriously, except in the circles that produced the intelligence.
THE LOOMING TOWER | Lawrence Wright
Published in 2006, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 took the origins of Al Qaeda further back to Sayyid Qutb’s journey to the US in the middle of the last century and how it changed him and led to the birth of Islamic fundamentalism. Qutb’s self-convinced anti-Western Islamism and his identity, along with some members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as perhaps the first martyr of radical Islam (he was hanged in August 1966) charted a direct line to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al- Zawahiri through the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad. But Wright’s book was also one of the original eye-openers as to how the disregard for intelligence (not intelligence failure), complacency (American hubris again) that the threat was “too bizarre, too primitive and exotic”, the infighting between rival agencies and departments, lack of communication and bureaucratic obfuscation and an overall state of denial led to 9/11.
THE LONGEST WAR | Peter Bergen
CNN’s Peter Bergen’s The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden was published just last month. Bergen, also the author of Holy War, Inc. (2001) and Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (2012), had come out with The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda in 2011 which marked a point of departure in his own oeuvre, moving away from his focus on Al Qaeda to a more politically tinged narrative on the mistakes of the George W Bush administration and their fallout on the War on Terror. Nevertheless, The Longest War is a compelling overview of the aftermath of 9/11 which not only investigates the failure to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan but also looks into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and how these never lived up to their marketing pitch.
JIHAD | Gilles Kepel
French political scientist Gilles Kepel’s Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam was originally published in 2000 but translated to English only after 9/11 in 2002. One of the most important works on political Islam ever written, Jihad looks at the turbulent 1960s and the militant upheaval of the 1970s in the Middle East. Kepel argued that the Islamist objective of establishing a global caliphate is based on a strict reading of the Quran and that it cannot reconcile itself with the democratic West. This clash, engendered by “entrenched Salafism” ultimately aims to destroy Europe by inflicting on it a civil war. In 2017, Kepel published Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West, the same year he had a public spat with Olivier Roy when he took the latter to task for his theories that ignored the link between terrorism and Salafism.
GLOBALIZED ISLAM | Olivier Roy
Gilles Kepel, a well-travelled Arabist, had questioned Olivier Roy’s credentials since Roy did not speak Arabic nor connected Salafism to radical Islam. But leaving the right and wrong of that debate aside, Roy’s Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (2006) broke new ground in arguing that it’s not Islam that has been radicalised but rather radicalism that has been Islamised and in that, placed the radicalism of Muslim youth in the West in the context of the long history of youth radicalism, including the more recent terrorist misadventures of the Red Brigade in Italy or the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, what Roy calls “re- Islamisation” is an attempt by Muslim minorities in non- Islamic Western societies to assert their identity. At the heart of this Islamic revival is a sense of loss and nostalgia. In this, the pursuit of an unattainable ummah by Western Islamists, themselves uprooted or adrift, is different from the political objectives of mainstream Islamists in the Middle East. Roy’s argument that globalisation is at the root of it all can be traced back to his 1996 book The Failure of Political Islam.
AGAINST ALL ENEMIES | Richard A Clarke
Former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard A Clarke is perhaps best known for his lament that America never rises to the occasion till disaster has struck. The war between CIA and FBI, the Babel of a multitude of agencies all working mostly against each other, an indifferent White House that failed to heed warnings, have all been written much about. But Clarke’s 2004 insider view made for very sobering reading indeed. The failure to read a system that was periodically messaging alerts coupled with America’s inherent complacency to turn a disaster into catastrophe: if you ignore the warnings and underestimate your enemy, you tend to respond disproportionately, much in excess of what’s warranted, and create a bigger mess.
THROUGH OUR ENEMIES’ EYES | Michael Scheuer
Michael Scheuer is one of the more intriguing figures of the 9/11 aftermath, who went from a top-notch CIA operative and sharp-eyed critic to a conspiracy theorist whose fall from grace culminated in his most recent avatar as a QAnon advocate. The chief of the Osama bin Laden Issue Station (codenamed Alec Station) within the Counterterrorism Center in the late 1990s, Scheuer was reattached to the unit post-9/11 in an advisory capacity. His thesis—that America’s problem was not terrorism per se but Islamic insurgency and that its inability to grasp the origins and objectives of Islamists was the reason for its failures in the War on Terror— found admirers in bin Laden himself as well as Al Qaeda and ISIS. Through Our Enemies’ Eyes (2002), however, is not a curiosity but an influential book written by a professional with intimate knowledge of his subject who understood the importance of looking at one’s enemy the way the enemy saw himself, in order to understand and overpower him.
THE DARK SIDE | Jane Mayer
In the days and weeks following 9/11, the Bush administration gave itself “limitless” powers for the president to wage war on terrorism. In the process, legal checks and balances were erased, with the CIA, for instance, getting Justice Department backing to pursue what was later perceived as illegal means to its ends, including the infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” that led straight to Abu Ghraib. Jane Mayer’s 2008 The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals compiled the evidence of what went on behind closed doors with an encyclopaedic sweep of an illegal legal circus and presidential overreach that translated into bad decisions which ultimately not only hindered the pursuit of Al Qaeda but also diminished America’s global standing and hollowed out its moral posturing.
NIGHT DRAWS NEAR | Anthony Shadid
One of the original sins in American thinking when launching the War on Terror, both in the case of the necessary invasion of Afghanistan and the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, was that the people of the two countries would welcome Americans with open arms after the US had rid them of tyrannical regimes. While American ignorance about Afghanistan being a land of ambush—as the Russians had warned— came full circle with Joe Biden’s withdrawal and its devastating consequences, the Bush administration never considered what the average Iraqi might be thinking. Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War (2005) was an early book on the Iraq war but remains one of the rare American works that look at the invasion from the perspective of the Iraqis. While Saddam was good riddance, Iraqis did not want an occupying force to remake the country in its image without understanding it—and without consulting them. Thus, they never granted the stamp of legitimacy to the occupation.
TO START A WAR | Robert Draper
Published in 2020, Robert Draper’s To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq just missed the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It epitomises the paradox of a two-decade perspective on what is still an ongoing drama. The book is essential reading because of its scope and the candidness with which the players, most still around, open up to Draper about the backroom manoeuvrings and decision-making that informed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Among the more hair-raising anecdotes is Bush ‘confessing’ to religious leaders soon after 9/11 that he was finding it difficult to contain his “bloodlust”. Although Draper looks at the motives and actions of all the main characters, from Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he lays the blame for the invasion at the door of the Oval Office and its occupant. Fifteen years after Shadid’s Night Draws Near, here is confirmation from inside the administration about how self-deluded and arrogant it was and how it reacted in panic, foregoing logic and never bothering to look at the reality on the ground.
For every book included, there will be many more left out. One of these has just been published on August 31st— Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War. Whitlock takes us through three successive US administrations, two Republican, one Democratic, to show how changes in the party holding the White House or Congress made little difference to the subterfuge, self-delusion and self-justification that underlay the War on Terror. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has come at a time when the right and the wrong wars, one embarked on with the help of deceit and the other sustained by self-deceit, have long been conflated.
The US was once the champion of freedom, despite its unbecoming swagger, and in abandoning freedom to its fate in the streets of Kabul, it has shrunk in the eyes of not only its allies but also the very enemies now running amok once again in the place they had masterminded the 9/11 attacks from. More significantly, in the pursuit of justice turned into revenge, it forgot what it was fighting for. At the end of it, few of its larger geopolitical goals, most importantly the strategic containment of China, have been met. The ‘9/11 books’ have tried to make America look in the mirror for two decades and it is unlikely they will cease to do so now. Not when a new chapter has just begun.