By Abhinav Pancholi
The main premise of the miniseries, The Looming Tower, based on Lawrence Wright’s non-fiction book of the same name, is that Mohammad Atta of Egypt and his band of Saudi fidayeen aircraft hijackers could have been nabbed before they could carry out the 9/11 attacks had there been more trust and cooperation between the CIA and the FBI. Perhaps there was no proper appreciation of the magnitude of the danger that AL Qaeda posed to the US.
Agents of FBI’s counter-terrorism unit (I-49) while investigating the USS Cole Attack (October 2000) in Yemen were befuddled to note that an alleged mastermind, a one-legged Khallad, transferred some funds to Malaysia. The CIA, specifically their counter-terror unit, Alec Station, had already covered and gathered intel about this alleged Malaysian meeting in which Khalled was seen with two hijackers, Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi. But in order to maintain primacy over information, they simply blocked the sharing of photographs and other details with I-49. Had the two agencies cooperated with each other on this, Ali Soufyan, the Lebanese-born I-49 agent and others could have made the connection between USS Cole, Al Qaeda, Malaysian summit and the inordinately large number of Arab pilot trainees in US.
Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi came to US in January 2000 and only by August 2001, could FBI launch a manhunt against them, but had the CIA cooperated, the two could have been intercepted before 9/11 and the big tragedy averted. That was not to be. Even during the hearings before the 9/11 Commission, George Tenet (CIA Director), Condoleeza Rice, and top Alec Station operatives admitted that they failed to apprehend Mihdhar and Al-Hamza, the known Al Qaeda operatives as they freely entered the US, out of mere bona fide oversight. That they hd kept eyes on them, and still the duo managed to give Alec Station a slip was not revealed before the Commission.
The CIA was wary that sharing intel with FBI might result in arrest by the latter of many low-level operatives of Saudi and Yemeni origin, destabilise the House of Saud and lead to its overthrow. The House’s close proximity to the Bushs was well known. Any danger to the House of Ibn Saud was perceived as extremely antagonistic to long-term US interests in the region. The feeling was that the US was anyways at war, and that this should be proclaimed in unequivocal terms, and emphasis must be placed on the elimination of Usama bin Laden and top AL Qaeda leadership, and not on arresting the foot-soldiers of the movement and thereby make needless low-intensity noises.
After the Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, Bill Clinton authorised Operation Infinite Reach in which cruise missiles were struck at Kosht camp (Afghanistan) and a pharma factory/leather plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The plan was to demonstrate to Al Qaeda and the world that the US accepted the gauntlet of war against the terrorists and its determination to act decisively against its enemies. CIA favoured a muscular response to FBI’s legalistic one.
The Bush administration was more intent on North Korea, Iraq and Iran and somehow did not place UBL and AQ very high on their list of priorities. Bush and Condoleeza Rice even objected to the detailed initial briefings supposed to be given by Richard Clarke and other senior officials. In a telling scene in the miniseries, after 9/11, Condy is even heard suggesting to George Tenet that Rumsfield wanted Saddam Hussian to be connected with the Twin Tower bombings. Was it the stuff of dreams or worst nightmare for the public officials is anyone’s guess!
Jeff Daniels plays John O’neill, chief of I-49, who foresaw that terrorists would someday attack WTC again to try and accomplish the job left incomplete in 1993. Beset with personal and debt problems, John fights his way in D.C.to get other agencies to share intel with FBI. He investigated the WTC bombing 1993, Khobar Tower Bombing in Saudi Arabia 1996 and USS Cole attack in Yemen in 2000. Because of his acerbic and pushy nature, he burnt many bridges and even rubbed the Ambassador to Yemen, B. Bodine the wrong way. Finally, an internal enquiry proved certain wrongdoings on his part and John was forced to resign. Ironically he became the head of security on WTC and was at work in the North Tower when the planes rammed into the towers. Jeff Daniels is a natural in the role.
Tahar Rahim plays Ali Soufan, the Arab speaking Lebanese-American and I-49 agent, with aplomb. Ali took a leading part in USS Cole investigations and while in Yemen after John O’neill’s departure was a hair breath away from solving the 9/11 riddle. Later he investigated the 9/11 as well, and had a major role in Guantanamo too. His knowledge of Arabic and Islam helped him in establishing rapport with the operatives and vital gleaning information from them. He also represents the liberal and literal meaning of Islam in the mini-series as against the AQ foot-soldiers, most of whom have never bothered to read the Holy Quran.
Alec Baldwin plays CIA director, George Tenet, while Michael Schtulbarg plays Richard Clarke, National Coordinator for Security. The actors playing Mohammad Atta, Condoleeza Rice, Martin Schmidtt and Arabic characters have good jobs. Direction and screenplay are of the highest order. The tone and tenor of the show unfolds at a perfect pace to keep the viewer hooked. One never gets lost in the brightness of events, and the focus is maintained throughout on the rift between the FBI and the CIA. The beauty of Americans is that unlike Europe, they dunt get much defensive about their aggressive and manipulative role in global affairs. This is a damn good show, and I hope they make a sequel to this one.
The show also obfuscates the answers to some main jihad-related questions. Ali Soufan in a scene claims that the mention of the promised seventy-two virgins for the martyrs is made in the Hadith, and not in the Holy Quaran itself. Now it’s a fact that Quran doesnt specifically mention the number, but definitely discusses the pleasures of fowl, flesh and fine to be enjoyed by martyrs in Paradise. There is no gainsaying in brushing this fact under the carpet. Ali Soufyan also talks about one of Prophet’s wife who was a Jew, but converted to Islam. She was asked by Mohammad to tell her detractors that ‘Aaron is my father, Moses my prophet and Muhammad is my husband.’
The miniseries delves deep into the rise of UBL and AL Qaeda through the 90s, origins of their enemity with the USA and the hijacking of Islam by extremists who misguide the less literate coreligionists and use them as foot soldiers of jihad. In hindsight, 9/11 looks like a self-inflicted tragedy by the Americans, who, drunk in the arrogance of their invincibility could not forsee an attack of such a huge magnitude by non-state actors on their own soil.UBL and Ayman Al-Zawahiri succeeded because they dared to conceive and execute what the Americans deemed impossible.
Abhinav Pancholi, IRS, Kolkata. The author is an avid sports lover with a passion for literature.
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