The cloudless sky filled with coiling black smoke and a blizzard of paper – memos, photographs, stock transactions, insurance policies – which fluttered for miles on a gentle south-easterly breeze, across the East River into Brooklyn.
Debris spewed on to the streets of lower Manhattan, which were already covered with bodies. Some of them had been exploded out of the buildings when the planes hit. A man walked out of the towers carrying someone else’s leg. Jumpers landed on several firemen, killing them instantly.
The events of 11 September 2001, which form the savage climax to Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, still retain the power to shock. Given the millions of words that have poured out since then, another account of the "road to 9/11" might seem unnecessary. But Wright's brilliantly constructed narrative is head and shoulders above the rest. He knows important parts of the Muslim world (including Saudi Arabia) at first hand, he understands the motors of Islamist militancy, and he has been indefatigable in tracking down jihadists, spies, government officials, assorted experts and the friends, wives and lovers of some of the key players - anyone, in short, with a scrap of information to add to his dauntingly broad canvas. Moreover, he is a fine writer with an eye for the telling detail. Even those who think they know the story intimately will feel they are reading it anew.
The device that Wright exploits to skilful effect is to frame his narrative around the lives and characters of five contrasting individuals. He begins, as others have, with Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian activist "whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad". Qutb not only articulated a dark vision of war against an amoral west and "apostate" Muslim governments, but also became - after he was hanged in an Egyptian jail in 1966 - the first important martyr for the new cause.
It was "Qutbism" that animated many of the young Arabs who, in the 1980s, flocked to fight holy war in Afghanistan against the occupying Soviet army. These men included two of the central figures in the story of 9/11 - a radical Islamist doctor from a distinguished Egyptian family, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a young Saudi fundraiser and cheerleader for jihad, Osama Bin Laden. These were the two jihadists, wholly different in character and background, who went on to form al-Qaeda under the impetus of the Soviet defeat. "They were not friends but allies," notes Wright. "Each believed he could use the other, and each was pulled in a direction he never intended to go."
In sharp contrast are two figures from the other side of the ideological divide: Prince Turki al-Faisal, the shrewd, urbane head of Saudi intelligence (now his country's ambassador in Washington), and the brilliant, profane, conflicted FBI official John O'Neill, who played a central role in the hunt for al-Qaeda - only to die in the twin towers inferno.
The story is a gigantic jigsaw in which there are still many gaps and puzzles. In some cases Wright comes up with new information: for example, about Bin Laden's height (he is just over six foot, not the giant he's often said to be) and his health (he may be suffering from a glandular disorder called Addison's disease). But overall Wright's contribution is in adding a wealth of fresh detail, so that essential features of the story stand out with a new clarity. One is the fallibility of al-Qaeda and its leader. Wright shows convincingly what others have merely asserted - that Bin Laden's military (as opposed to fundraising) activities in Afghanistan were negligible and sometimes comically inept. The more experienced Afghan fighters viewed the Arab volunteers as tourists at best and a dangerous nuisance at worst, their thirst for martyrdom leading them into acts of reckless folly. Moreover, certainly at the start, Bin Laden suffered from what one fellow Arab describes as "fear of bodily participation" - in plain language, a degree of funk that often made him physically ill on the eve of battle. As for the alleged victories of Bin Laden's international brigade, these owe more to the fighters' myth-making abilities than to actual military achievement.
Bin Laden undoubtedly possesses charm and charisma for those who succumb to his spell, but he also comes across as surprisingly weak and lacking in political acumen. The abrupt zigs and zags of his political evolution - from anti-Soviet activist to Saudi dissident to symbol of global jihad against the American "crusaders" - owe more to others, especially Zawahiri, than to his own powers of thought and decision-making. Given the mythology that surrounds al-Qaeda - built up by the movement itself, by successive US administrations and by the western media - the low points in the story are all the more telling. When Bin Laden and his men, together with his wives and children, were forced out of Sudan in 1996 and returned virtually penniless to Afghanistan, it was a moment of personal crisis for Bin Laden (by then stripped of his Saudi citizenship) and for the organisation that he had to set about rebuilding virtually from scratch. Indeed, so grim was life in Afghanistan for Bin Laden and his companions that Wright never quite manages to explain how they recovered sufficiently to become capable of pulling off the attacks of 9/11. Part of the explanation seems to be that after the group's first major success, the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998, al-Qaeda stood at a new pinnacle of prestige in the Muslim world. Money, and recruits, came flooding in.
But if al-Qaeda often emerges as all-too fal lible, there are also cock-ups aplenty on the American side. Wright must have worked hard to get FBI and CIA officials, past and present, to talk to him, and at length. One of the dominant figures they tell him about is John O'Neill - "an adulterer, a philanderer, a liar, an egotist and a materialist", but also a driven, self-made man, the son of an Irish-American cabbie, who single-mindedly pursued al-Qaeda at a time when US policy-makers by and large were failing to take it seriously. The idea that 9/11 might have been prevented had the CIA shared vital in formation with the FBI is not new, but Wright develops it to shocking effect. The barrier of mistrust and jealousy between them - known to operatives as the Wall - fatally hobbled the efforts of O'Neill and others to prevent an attack on US soil that they felt, but could not prove, to be inevitable.
What makes this book even more like a well-crafted novel is the array of vividly characterised bit-players: the obsessive Bin Laden-hunter Michael Scheuer, banished to the CIA library for being (so his boss told him) "burned out"; the strong-willed US ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, as stubborn in defence of her turf as was O'Neill, in pursuit of his quarry; Ali Sou fan, the clever young Lebanese-American agent snapped up by O'Neill; not to speak of the many women in O'Neill's complex yet rigidly compartmentalised love life.
This is not primarily an analytical study; it is an attempt to provide, despite pitfalls and the gaps in the jigsaw, as definitive and fluent a narrative as our present knowledge allows. It nevertheless offers valuable insights into what drives young men to fight and die in holy wars. Here, for example, is Wright's description of the Arab recruits who joined al-Qaeda in Sudan in the 1990s:
Their motivations varied, but they had in common a belief that Islam – pure and primitive, unmitigated by modernity and uncompromised by politics – would cure the wounds that socialism or Arab nationalism had failed to heal. They were angry but powerless in their own countries. They did not see themselves as terrorists but as revolutionaries who, like all such men through history, had been pushed into action by the simple human need for justice. Some had experienced brutal repression; some were simply drawn to bloody chaos. From the beginning of al-Qaeda, there were reformers and there were nihilists. The dynamic between them was irreconcilable and self-destructive, but events were moving so quickly that it was almost impossible to tell the philosophers from the sociopaths. They were glued together by the charismatic personality of Osama Bin Laden, which contained both strands, idealism and nihilism, in a potent mix.
The library of books on al-Qaeda is by now vast and cavernous, but no other work succeeds so well in telling its extraordinary story or capturing its elusive character.
Roger Hardy is a BBC analyst specialising in Middle Eastern affairs