Ten powerful pieces first published in The New Yorker recall the path terror in the Middle East has taken from the rise of al-Qaeda in the 1990s to the recent beheadings of reporters and aid workers by ISIS.
With the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright became generally acknowledged as one of our major journalists writing on terrorism in the Middle East. This collection draws on several articles he wrote while researching that book as well as many that he's written since, following where and how al-Qaeda and its core cult-like beliefs have morphed and spread. They include an indelible impression of Saudi Arabia, a kingdom of silence under the control of the religious police; the Syrian film industry, then compliant at the edges but already exuding a feeling of the barely masked fury that erupted into civil war; the 2006-11 Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, a study in disparate values of human lives. Others continue to look into al-Qaeda as it forms a master plan for its future, experiences a rebellion from within the organization, and spins off a growing web of terror in the world. The American response is covered in profiles of two FBI agents and a chief of the CIA. It ends with the recent devastating piece about the capture and beheading by ISIS of four American journalists and aid workers, and how the US government failed to handle the situation.
Suffering, violence, and tense intrigue run through these dispatches from the frontlines of the "war on terror," culled from the author's New Yorker articles. Pulitzer-winning journalist Wright (Thirteen Days in September) investigates every facet of the shadowy conflict, including Washington officialdom, terrorist cells, and the lives and deaths of the war's victims, from Syria to lower Manhattan. The pieces include profiles of al-Qaeda mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri as his militancy is forged under torture in Egyptian prisons; FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan, who used sympathy and cagey questioning rather than waterboarding to get information; and Egyptian Islamist Dr. Fadl (as he's commonly known), a leading theorist of jihad who renounced violence in 2008. Quieter but equally searching pieces explore the plight of Syrian filmmakers walking a tightrope between expression and government co-optation; the author's experience training journalists in Saudi Arabia, where they are stifled by theocratic dictatorship; and the heartbreak of families of five American hostages held by ISIS. Wright mixes engrossing procedural writing on organizing and fighting terrorism with vivid firsthand reportage. (Surveying veiled Saudi women, he writes, "It felt to me that all the women had died, and only their shades remained.") He writes with empathy for every side while clearly registering the moral catastrophes that darken this pitiless struggle.