The church dance that snowballed
A masterful new work on al-Qaeda and 9/11 explains how a loser cult has metastasized
MARK STEYN | Sep 21, 2006
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, U.S. and Afghan troops in "eastern Afghanistan" -- a vague delineated land that doesn't necessarily stop at the Pakistani border -- captured a man called Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Well, he was the head of Hezb-i-Islami -- or, latterly, one faction of it. And for a while he was prime minister of Afghanistan, and an opponent of the Taliban, and then an ally of the Taliban. And in recent years he's been Iran's Mister Big in the Hindu Kush. He's believed to be the guy who smuggled Osama's son, Saad bin Laden, and various al-Qaeda A-listers out of Afghanistan and to the safety of the ayatollahs' bosom. He's an evil man who knows a lot of high-value information, if you can prise it out of him.
He made his name in the eighties, when there were so many Afghan refugees in Peshawar that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, decided to streamline operations and make the human tide sign up with one of six designated émigré groups in order to be eligible for aid. Hekmatyar headed one of the two biggest, with some 800,000 people under his banner. He also has the distinction of being the commander of Osama's first foray into the field. In 1985, bin Laden and 60 other Arabs were holed up in Peshawar doing nothing terribly useful until they got the call to head across the Afghan border and join up with Hekmatyar's men to battle the Soviets near Jihad Wal. So off they rode, with a single local guide. They arrived at Hekmatyar's camp at 10 in the evening only to find the Soviets had retreated and there was no battle to fight.
"Your presence is no longer needed," Hekmatyar told Osama's boys. "So go back." So the neophyte warriors shot a few tin cans off fence posts, handed in their weapons and caught the bus back to Peshawar: mujahedeen tourists who'd missed the show.
This poignant vignette occurs in Lawrence Wright's masterful work The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road To 9/11. I picked the book up a couple of weeks ago without much enthusiasm, mainly because of a growing suspicion these last five years that a "human interest" view of current events is bound to be misleading. Osama himself seems merely an extreme embodiment of larger globalized trends he's barely aware of. The praise the New York Times heaped on Wright for his portrayal of John O'Neill, the "driven, demon-ridden FBI agent who worked so frantically to stop Osama bin Laden, only to perish in the attack on the World Trade Center," suggested one of those artificially novelistic accounts too obviously aimed at getting a sale to Miramax. And most of the Wahhabist fellows over on the other side are too irrational for the psychological demands of fiction: it would surely be as unsatisfying as reading a detective novel where every character's insane.
But I was wrong. The human comedy in The Looming Tower is very illuminating. Bin Laden, for example, emerges not as the fearless jihadist and scourge of the Soviets but as a laggard and faint-heart with a tendency to call in sick before battle and, if pressed into service, to pass out during it due to his blood pressure. The "nap" he took during the battle of the Lion's Den in 1987 is spoken of by awed al-Qaeda types as evidence of his cool under fire, but it seems more likely he just fainted. In Afghanistan, the local lads were hard and brave, the Arab volunteers they dismissed as "useless." Had the Americans funded the mujahedeen directly, the Afghan resistance of the 1980s might have remained a conventional war of liberation against the Soviet invaders. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, facing the Congressional oversight of post-Watergate Washington, chose instead to run the operation through third parties and plumped for the Saudis' Prince Turki and the ISI. And next thing you know, a more or less straightforward nationalist resistance has become jihad central. The deeply sinister Prince Turki(full disclosure: he's not big on me, either -- "The arrogance of Mark Steyn knows no bounds")used bin Laden's money to attract to Afghanistan a bunch of freaks and misfits from the Arab world and beyond, and their natural tendency to self-glorification did the rest: from the Soviet point of view, the Lion's Den was an inconsequential tactical retreat; to Osama's boys, living in the heightened pseudo-religiosity of jihadism, it was an exhilarating victory, a moment when(as Wright puts it)"reality knelt before faith." When the Soviet empire fell apart a few years later, the bin Laden crowd genuinely believed it was they who had inflicted the fatal blow with their famous triumph at this rinky-dink no-account nickel 'n' dime skirmish the Commies had barely noticed. So their thoughts naturally turned to what they might do for an encore. And, having taken down one superpower, they figured the next move was pretty obvious.
Wright's book is a marvellously vivid recreation of a kind of sustained unreality. My talk-radio pal Hugh Hewitt calls it a "genealogy," and I think that's a very good way of putting it: The Looming Tower is a family tree of jihad, the chain connecting some weirdsmobile in Cairo with another in Riyadh and then Islamabad and then Hamburg and London and pretty much everywhere. One thing it demolishes is the lazy leftist trope that the "root cause" is poverty. The penniless yak herds aren't the problem. The very first words of the very first chapter are "In a first-class stateroom on a cruise ship bound for New York . . ." It's 1948 and inside the first-class stateroom is Sayyid Qutb, the first of a grand parade of privileged middle-class Westernized Muslims for whom a mis-wired encounter with the modern world is enough to make them hot for jihad. There's a sad inevitability when al-Qaeda's head honchos are ready to give up on 9/11 because they haven't any Muslim Westerners who can pull it off, and just at that moment a Hamburg engineering student called Mohammed Atta shows up. In the jihad, somebody always shows up, somebody middle-class and prosperous and educated and perfectly assimilated except for an urge to self-detonate on the London Underground.
It's tempting to think history might have turned out a little differently had that drunken floozy on the ship not come on to Sayyid late one night or the nurse in George Washington University Hospital not been showing quite so much cleavage. But reading of Qutb's sojourn in America in the late 1940s you begin to wonder whether the girl really did come on to him or if the nurse truly disclosed to him the particulars of what she sought in a lover. His disgust at the lasciviousness of America is vaguely reminiscent of the old joke about the spinster who complains that the young man across the street strips naked in full view every night: when the cop says he can't see anything, she explains you have to climb up on the wardrobe and crane your neck up over the skylight. If you're looking for it as assiduously as Qutb was, you'll find it everywhere.
The title of Wright's book comes from the Koran's fourth sura, the one Osama quoted in a speech on the eve of 9/11:
"Wherever you are, death will find you,
Even in the looming tower."
In an Islamist grievance culture, the tower doesn't have to be that tall to loom. The tragedy in Wright's book is that across little more than half a century a loser cult has metastasized, eventually to swallow almost all the moderate, syncretic forms of Islam. What was so awful about Sayyid Qutb's experience in America that led him to regard modernity as an abomination? Well, he went to a dance in Greeley, Colo.: "The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips . . ."
In 1949, Greeley, Colo., was dry. The dance was a church social. The feverish music was Frank Loesser's charm song Baby, It's Cold Outside. But it was enough to start a chain that led from Qutb to Zawahiri in Egypt to bin Laden in Saudi Arabia to the mullahs in Iran to the man arrested in Afghanistan on Sept. 11. And it's a useful reminder of how much we could give up and still be found decadent and disgusting by the Islamists. A world without Baby, It's Cold Outside will be very cold indeed.
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