Review

Is al Qaeda Still Relevant?

As another 9/11 anniversary approaches, a new film looks backward at the rise of al Qaeda -- and one man's struggle to understand it.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly nine years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States still has 100,000 troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan, and another 50,000 holding down the fort in Iraq. One hundred seventy-six inmates remain at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. A number of disturbing near-misses — the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the Times Square fizzle, and various other plots — have put the threat of terrorism back in the news. In a Gallup poll conducted in late August, 47 percent of Americans surveyed said that terrorism would be "extremely important" to their vote for Congress this year, with another 28 percent rating the issue "very important."

Yet there’s also a sense that terrorism has faded as a political issue as the economy and general dissatisfaction with Washington have crowded out all other concerns. The intense debates on the op-ed pages and in the blogosphere of the war on terror’s go-go years have quieted. The military tribunals in Guantánamo have evoked little public interest. Anti-Islam fervor may be rising, but terrorism just doesn’t seem to elicit the passions it once did. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine outgoing Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria, always a reliable barometer of conventional wisdom, writing this sentence in, say, 2008 — "Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat?" — and barely making a splash.

Enter My Trip to al-Qaeda, a new documentary by filmmaker Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar in 2008 for Taxi to the Dark Side. Gibney’s latest film, which premiers Sept. 7 on HBO, is an adaptation of a one-man play by Larry Wright, the New Yorker writer and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, which remains the definitive account of 9/11, the events leading up to it, and the cast of heroes who tried in vain to stop it. In My Trip to al-Qaeda, Wright has become the protagonist, telling the story of his quest to understand what motivates Islamist radicals to take up arms.

Wright initially hoped to change subjects after finishing The Looming Tower. "I was so sick of terrorism; I just wanted to write a musical comedy," he told me in an interview. But when he pitched André Bishop, the artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater, on the musical idea, Bishop just "rolled his eyes," Wright says. So, remembering a solo staging of Stations of the Cross that he admired, Wright switched gears and sold Bishop on a one-man play about al Qaeda. An hour later, he had signed up Rhonda Sherman, the New Yorker‘s director of special projects, as a producer, and Greg Mosher as the play’s director. (Wright is now working on another one-man show based on his Nov. 9, 2009, New Yorker article on the Gaza war. "I’ve gotten typecast as the Grim Reaper," he jokes glumly.)

My Trip to al-Qaeda is centered on a live performance of the play, with Wright standing on a sparsely furnished set meant to evoke his home office in New York, with its old-fashioned boxes filled with index cards. Gibney made a few adjustments for the film, such as making the screen behind Wright somewhat bigger than the original stage set and transforming it into a jumping-off point for further exploration. And so we see incantatory clips from al Qaeda martyrdom videos, footage from one of Wright’s trips to Cairo, and rare photographs of the most intimate rituals of the hajj in Mecca.

"I wanted it to be a kind of magic portal," Gibney says, using not only real-life imagery of al Qaeda and the Middle East, but also first-person material on Wright’s life. "To understand it, you had to know a little bit about Larry. … Yes, he’s a journalist; yes, he’s an experienced writer; but he’s also a citizen trying to come to grips with these things. He’s not a stentorian expert trying to lecture you from on high."

Wright’s drive to comprehend 9/11 led him to conduct hundreds of interviews, all meticulously documented on those index cards, and took him on several trips to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that birthed al Qaeda. As Wright puts it, the group is "really an Egyptian organization with a Saudi head on it" — Osama bin Laden.

Wright had spent time in Egypt as a young man, teaching English at the American University in Cairo (AUC). A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he wasn’t interested in changing bedpans, as many dissenters seeking alternative service were obligated to do. He first tried to get a job at the United Nations, where a helpful official instead gave him a list of American institutions abroad. AUC’s New York office was right across the street, and 30 minutes later, they asked if he could leave that evening. "No," Wright said, "but I can leave tomorrow."

"I called my parents the next day and told them I was going to Cairo for two years," Wright says. He taught his first class the following morning at 9 a.m.

That was 1969, not long after President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dreams of pan-Arab socialism were discredited by his failure in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel, and before thousands of Egyptians went to work in the booming Persian Gulf oil fields, while absorbing that region’s more conservative brand of Islam. It was also before Nasser’s policies left a legacy of stagnant economic growth, choking congestion, and political repression that still haunts the country today.

When Wright returned to Egypt 33 years later to conduct interviews for The Looming Tower, he found the country profoundly changed. One could still watch black-and-white films from the liberal pre-Nasser era on television and find ancient taxi drivers nostalgically crooning songs by Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez. But it was a much darker, angrier place than he remembered — especially as the second Palestinian Intifada roiled the streets. By the end, "I had had so many Islamists waving their finger in front of my nose that I thought I was going to snap it off," he says. "It was hard to keep my composure."

But the heart of Wright’s experiences came in Saudi Arabia, where in 2003 he landed a position with the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, mentoring the paper’s young journalists for three months while working on his book. "I had all these young reporters teaching me more about their country than I could ever have learned as a reporter," he says. It was an amazing stroke of luck — one that allowed him to fly under the radar of the Saudi security services and interview a wide circle of family members and friends of the 9/11 attackers. "Instead of ‘journalist’ I was ‘expat worker,’" he explains, "and because of that I was largely overlooked."

One of the film’s most memorable moments is Wright’s comparison of Saudi Arabia to a hypnotized chicken — an analogy that apparently offended Saudi diplomats. Like the chickens he used to torment growing up in rural Oklahoma, spinning them around and then setting them on the roof of the barn, where they froze in abject terror, "Saudi Arabia is in a kind of social coma," Wright says; Saudis remain traumatized by the changes that they’ve seen happening around them and by the violence of their own history. "I’m not making fun of Saudi Arabia," he insists. "I’m trying to express this sense of paralysis that is characteristic of
that society."

Although it airs the week of Sept. 11, My Trip to al-Qaeda, coming more than four years after The Looming Tower was published, nonetheless seems oddly timed. Al Qaeda’s top leaders are holed up somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, apparently too harried to issue more than the occasional online missive. Their Iraq branch was largely defanged by the Sunni Awakening. The jihad has moved to new battlegrounds, such as Yemen and Somalia, but the group and its regional affiliates seem incapable of mounting spectacular, mass-casualty attacks. A new U.S. administration has largely continued what worked — quiet counterterrorism operations, intelligence sharing, and pinpoint drone strikes — and moved away from what didn’t: military invasion and occupation, over-the-top rhetoric, and "enhanced interrogation techniques."

That shouldn’t inspire complacency, cautions Gibney, but it ought to allow the United States to put more sustainable policies in place. "The problem is that terror is not going to go away," he says. "The war on terror was a phrase that suggested that this would end, that there’d be a final battle and democracy would win and terror would lose."

"I think that al Qaeda will end eventually," Wright muses. "Eventually it’s going to die out because it has no successes and it has nothing to offer. It will fade, but I think the template of what it’s created will be with us forever."

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