The Road to 9/11

Also in the LRB, James Meek reviews The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida’s Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright.

In 1995, in Sudan, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri put two teenage boys on trial for treason, sodomy and attempted murder, in a Sharia court of his own devising. Of the two boys, one, Ahmed, was only 13. Zawahiri, the partner in terror of Osama bin Laden, had them stripped naked; he showed that they had reached puberty, and therefore counted as adults. The court found the boys guilty. Zawahiri had them shot, filmed their confessions and executions, and put video copies out to warn other potential traitors. His Sudanese hosts were so outraged that they expelled Zawahiri and his group immediately.

It does not exonerate Zawahiri that the boys really had, as Lawrence Wright explains, tried to kill him: Ahmed by telling Egyptian spies exactly when Zawahiri was going to come to treat him for malaria; the other boy, Musab, by twice trying to plant a bomb. The assassination attempts were part of the Egyptian government’s ruthless efforts to destroy Zawahiri and his organisation, al-Jihad, after al-Jihad came close to killing the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. ‘Ruthless’, in this instance, is a merited adjective. The way Egyptian intelligence recruited the boys – both were sons of senior al-Jihad members, and Musab’s father was the al-Qaida treasurer – was to drug them, anally rape them, then show them photos of the abuse and blackmail them. The boys were trapped; the photos could have led to their execution by al-Jihad as surely as their subsequent betrayal.

The story does more than illuminate the sheer vileness of the conflict that has been underway for decades between the death-loving hardcore of Islamic revolutionaries and the allies of European and American governments in the Islamic world. It underlines the centrality of Egypt to the origins and perpetuation of the conflict. One of the darker choruses of this excellent work of journalism is the success that three of those allied governments, the Saudi Arabian, Pakistani and Egyptian, have had in diverting the fundamentalist warriors away from their original prime target – them – and towards the West.