Wright's book may be the most important volume written about terrorism since 9/11. Aside from his eloquent writing (a rarity in the genre) and painstaking research, Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, brings to life the personalities that have animated the jihadist movement and helps the reader to understand how their ideas have had such violent force.
Wright's narrative begins with the influential Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who is introduced as a confused, middle-aged man aboard a ship in 1948 bound for New York, struggling with whether he should cling to his Islamic faith once he reaches America or "indulge those temptations all around me." Having resolved to adhere strictly to Islam, Qutb responded with disgust to the overt sexuality he found in the United States, seeing even a church dance as lascivious. Though his American travels radicalized Qutb, his most significant experience was imprisonment under Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egyptian regime. Qutb's prison writings would shape Muslim militants' thinking, and Wright shows how the harsh prison conditions Qutb suffered at the hands of fellow Muslims shaped his idea of takfir—leading him to conclude that his "jailers had denied God by serving Nasser and his secular state."
Today Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are the most recognizable faces of the jihad, and Wright offers a fascinating study of their personal histories. As a teenager, Zawahiri once refused a car ride from the Egyptian vice president; referring to Egypt's roundup of Islamists in 1954, Zawahiri told his brother, "We don't want to get this ride from a man who participated in the courts that killed Muslims." Bin Laden was also pious early in life, though he tried "not to be too much of a prig." Believing that musical instruments were haram, bin Laden "organized some of his friends into an a cappella singing group," even recording tunes about jihad.
Just as Wright brings Al-Qaeda's most influential leaders to life, he also illuminates the U.S. officials charged with thwarting their efforts—men such as the FBI's John O'Neill, a womanizer who "favored Chivas Regal and water with a twist, along with a fine cigar," and the CIA's driven, obsessive Michael Scheuer, whose response when the agency expected him to retire was, "Stick it in your ass." Personal conflicts, exemplified by the rivalry between O'Neill and Scheuer, would seriously hamper U.S. efforts.
The book culminates with 9/11, which occurred on O'Neill's second day as the World Trade Center's head of security. He was one of the approximately 3,000 victims that day. After walking outside in the chaos and calling both of his lovers, O'Neill was last seen alive entering the tunnel to the south tower.
Though Wright makes no policy recommendations, he shows that—contrary to the flawed assertions of some analysts—personalities matter, and a small group of people can profoundly change the course of history. He draws on a wealth of information derived from rare documents and interviews with sources that range from the lowest ranks of the jihadist movement to the highest echelons of U.S. government. His book provides an invaluable tool for understanding Al-Qaeda's origins and evolution.