No Comment, Six Questions — September 6, 2010, 6:51 am

My Trip to Al Qaeda: Six Questions for Lawrence Wright

Author Lawrence Wright has gained acclaim for his penetrating studies of Arab terrorists, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al Qaeda. His work, regularly featured in The New Yorker, has included The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and the screenplay for The Siege, a 1998 film that forecast America’s reaction to a terrorist attack with uncanny precision. Wright’s one-man play about his personal experiences in writing The Looming Tower and related works, entitled My Trip to Al Qaeda, will premier on HBO on Tuesday, September 7 at 9 p.m. in a film directed by Alex Gibney. I put six questions to Wright about his new film.

1. My Trip to Al Qaeda chronicles your journeys deep into the Arab world, to Cairo and Jeddah. Would it be fair also to describe it as an internal voyage—Larry Wright struggles with his need to be analytically objective on one hand, and yet also deal with his rage over the stubborn stupidity of Al Qaeda leaders, their acts of barbarity against innocents, their perversion of religion, as well as a measure of rage against American political leaders who betrayed the nation’s values in the name of a struggle against terrorism?

lawrence_wright_10_2007__873

While I was researching The Looming Tower I never intended to play a role other than that of the objective reporter. But, like all Americans, I was grieving and angry because of the attacks. Sometimes those feelings erupted with a heedless intensity that caught me by surprise. There were some awful moments; in particular, I recall a furious argument with one of the leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after I had heard one too many lectures from Islamist propagandists. Even more disturbing, I suppose, were times when I felt a sense of fellowship with people I knew had blood on their hands. For me, it was a journey into a land of moral complexity, one that often left me grasping for certainties that weren’t readily at hand.

2. What drove you to develop this as a one-man play, rather than a more conventional format, like a polemical essay?

In 1991, I saw Anna Deveare Smith perform her one-woman show, “Fires in the Mirror,” about the Crown Heights riot, and I was riveted. I’ve always loved theater, but I never imagined it could be married to journalism. Then, a few years later, David Hare, the British playwright, asked to use a line I had written in The New Yorker for his one-man show about Jerusalem, “Via Dolorosa” (he wound up deciding not to use it). Both of those precedents were in my mind when I decided to do this play.

Actually, for a reporter, this feels very natural. I think our job is to act as a witness for our community. We go out and learn what’s going on, then we come back and make a report. It must have been like that when humans were sitting around campfires. Someone goes over the hill to see what’s there, then he returns to tell the others. When I’m standing on the stage, seeing the lights reflected on the faces of the audience, I feel that kind of intimate contact.

3. You start the HBO version with President Obama’s speech in Cairo. Of course, just last week polling showed that the initial surge of enthusiasm for Obama in the Arab world has subsided, and skepticism is now setting in. Has Obama delivered on the promise of that speech? If not, what did he fail to do in the first eighteen months of his presidency?

The Arabs are taking Obama’s measure by what he accomplishes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is, really, nothing so far. Obviously, this is an intractable conflict that has defeated many stout attempts by past administrations, but it’s not insoluble, and anyone who cares about this ongoing tragedy has a right to be frustrated at the absence of powerful initiatives and fresh ideas.

4. You talk about Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden’s brother in law, who was murdered in January 2007. What do you think of Khalifa, his relationship to Al Qaeda, and the circumstances of his death?

Jamal is a complicated figure for me. I really liked him. It was difficult to maintain objectivity around him; he was too spontaneous and full of fun. The fact that he was bin Laden’s best friend made me see a side of the terrorist leader that was all too human. Jamal had distanced himself from bin Laden and had publicly condemned him in the Arab press. Moreover, he had asked me for help in clearing his name. He wanted me to contact the FBI to set up an interview for him. I did so, but the Bureau refused to meet him in Saudi Arabia. Jamal told me that he had cleared the meeting with the Saudi Interior Ministry, so I don’t think that was the obstacle. I was later told by a source in the Bureau that the CIA had nixed the idea.

Because of his closeness to bin Laden, and his kinship, Jamal knew many people in Al Qaeda. I don’t think he was ever a part of it. He was always really candid with me. He even interviewed his wife on my behalf. As a very conservative Saudi woman, bin Laden’s sister would never talk to me, but Jamal stayed with her every fourth night (he had three other wives), and he would bring my questions with him. That was incredibly helpful. Because he was such a terrific source, and such a likeable personality, it’s possible that there were aspects to his relationship with bin Laden that I overlooked. But I don’t think so.

I’ve gone through the FBI and Justice Department documents on Jamal that I obtained through FOIA requests, and there’s absolutely nothing in there that implicates him. And yet, many analysts in the intelligence community assumed that, because he was bin Laden’s brother-in-law, he must have been entangled in Al Qaeda. Once I heard a well-known writer, who teaches counter-terrorism to international police agencies, declare that Jamal was on the Al Qaeda shoura council. That was wrong and ridiculous, but it may have gotten Jamal killed. I think he was assassinated by American Special Forces on the mistaken assumption that he was an Al Qaeda operative. I can’t prove it. He was murdered in Madagascar. No one was arrested in the killing.

5. At several points you analyze the rhetoric of Al Qaeda and you point to their strange juxtaposition of two concepts: “humility” and “humiliation.” How are these concepts employed and what do you learn from the contrast?

mttaq_final_poster

Humility is a highly valued character trait in Islamic culture. When bin Laden’s followers praise him, they often invoke this quality. The fact that bin Laden is from a wealthy family makes this aspect of his personality all the more appealing.

Humiliation, on the other hand, is imposed from the outside. It is one of the most common words in bin Laden’s vocabulary. For many Muslims who resonate with the term, their humiliation may be cultural or religious in nature – the sense of Islamic societies being overpowered by Western values, mores, and political dictates.

But it is also true that a number of Muslims have been physically humiliated. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for instance, the number-two man in Al Qaeda, the doctor always at bin Laden’s elbow, was imprisoned for three years in Egypt following the Sadat assassination. Like many of his companions, he was brutally tortured. I think the particular appetite for carnage that sets Al Qaeda apart from other terrorist organizations was born in the humiliation such men suffered in those prisons.

6. One of the most jarring points in your narrative is an encounter with FBI agents who demand to know why you’ve been calling a number in Britain and ask about your daughter. Tell us what happened and what significance you attach to the incident.

In the movie, I talk about two members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force who came to my office to ask about phone calls that I made to a number in London. It belonged to a solicitor who represented some of the jihadis I had been interviewing. During the course of the conversation, they asked who “Caroline Wright” was. That’s my daughter. She was a university student at the time, not living at home. None of our phones were registered in her name. The only way I could imagine that they got her name was by listening to my phone calls.

There’s another instance that I didn’t mention in the movie. Before this episode, I had been told by a source at the Counter-Terrorism Center that my source had seen a summary of a telephone interview I had with Zawahiri’s cousin in Cairo. At the time, I figured that the Egyptians had covered the conversation and supplied it to the CIA. On December 16, 2005, when the New York Times revealed that the NSA was illegally wiretapping Americans, I thought otherwise.

I’m glad the JTTF came to my house to clear this matter up, but it’s an example of the danger of awarding government such extraordinary powers. A simple misunderstanding such as this could easily have led to having Caroline’s name placed on an FBI link chart, only two steps away from Al Qaeda.

One day, Al Qaeda will fade away, but we will still be left with the swollen security state that we’ve created to fight it. That’s another challenge we haven’t begun to face.

Trailer
Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today