The True History Behind The Looming Tower: How the Story Began

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The new Hulu series The Looming Tower is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, by Lawrence Wright — a book that TIME selected as one of the All-TIME 100 best nonfiction books, for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the rise of al-Qaeda and the lead-up to 9/11. In the following excerpt from the introduction to the 2006 book, see how the story began.

On Saint Patrick’s Day, Daniel Coleman, an agent in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation handling foreign intelligence cases, drove down to Tysons Corner, Virginia, to report for a new posting. The sidewalks were still buried under gray banks of snow from the blizzard of 1996 a few weeks before. Coleman entered an undistinguished government office tower called the Gloucester Building and got off the elevator at the fifth floor. This was Alec Station.

Other stations of the Central Intelligence Agency are located in the various countries that they cover; Alec was the first “virtual” station, situated only a few miles from the headquarters building in Langley. On an organizational chart it was labeled “Terrorist Financial Links,” a subsection of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, but in practice it was devoted to tracking the activities of a single man, Osama bin Laden, whose name had arisen as the master financier of terror.

Coleman first heard of him in 1993, when a foreign source spoke about a “Saudi prince” who was supporting a cell of radical Islamists who were plotting to blow up New York landmarks, including the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and even 26 Federal Plaza, the building where Coleman worked. Now, three years later, the bureau had finally found time to send him to look over the intelligence the agency had compiled to see if there was any reason to pursue an investigation.

Alec Station already had thirty-five volumes of material on bin Laden, consisting mostly of transcripts of telephone conversations that had been sucked up by the electronic ears of the National Security Agency. Coleman found the material repetitive and inconclusive. Still, he opened an intelligence case on bin Laden, largely as a placeholder in case the “Islamist financier” turned out to be something more than that.

Like many agents, Dan Coleman had been trained to fight the Cold War. He joined the FBI as a file clerk in 1973. Scholarly and inquisitive, Coleman was naturally drawn to counterintelligence. In the 1980s, he concentrated on recruiting communist spies in the populous diplomatic community surrounding the United Nations; an East German attaché was a particular treasure. In 1990, however, when the Cold War had just ended, he found himself on a squad devoted to Middle Eastern terrorism. There was little in his background that prepared him for this new turn—but that was true of the bureau as a whole, which regarded terrorism as a nuisance, not a real threat. It was difficult to believe, in those cloudless days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that America had any real enemies still standing.

Then, in August 1996, bin Laden declared war on America from a cave in Afghanistan. The stated cause was the continued presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia five years after the first Gulf War. “Terrorizing you, while you are carrying arms in our land, is a legitimate right and a moral obligation,” he stated.

He presumed to speak on behalf of all Muslims, and even directed some of his lengthy fatwa to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry personally. “I say to you, William, that: These youths love death as you love life. . . . These youths will not ask you for explanations. They will sing out that there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck-smiting.”

Other than Coleman, few in America—even in the bureau— knew or cared about the Saudi dissident. The thirty-five volumes in Alec Station painted a picture of a messianic billionaire from a sprawling, influential family that was closely connected to the rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He had made a name for himself in the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation.

Coleman had read enough history to understand the references in bin Laden’s war cry to the Crusades and the early struggles of Islam. Indeed, one of the striking features of the document was that time seemed to have stopped a thousand years ago. There was now and there was then, but there was nothing in between. It was as if the Crusades were still going on in bin Laden’s universe. The intensity of the anger was also difficult for Coleman to grasp. What did we do to him? he wondered.

Coleman showed the text of bin Laden’s fatwa to prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. It was droll, it was weird, but was it a crime? The lawyers puzzled over the language and found a rarely invoked seditious conspiracy statute from the Civil War era that forbids instigating violence and attempting to overthrow the U.S. government. It seemed a stretch to think that it might be applied to a stateless Saudi in a cave in Tora Bora, but on the basis of such meager precedent, Coleman opened a criminal file on the figure who would become the most wanted man in the FBI’s history. He was still working entirely alone.

A few months later, in November 1996, Coleman traveled to an American military base in Germany with two U.S. attorneys, Kenneth Karas and Patrick Fitzgerald. There in a safe house was a jittery Sudanese informer named Jamal al-Fadl, who claimed to have worked for bin Laden in Khartoum. Coleman carried a briefing book with photographs of bin Laden’s known associates, and Fadl quickly identified most of them. He was selling a story, but he clearly knew the players. The problem was that he kept lying to the investigators, embroidering his tale, depicting himself as a hero who only wanted to do the right thing.

“So why did you leave?” the prosecutors wanted to know.

Fadl said that he loved America. He had lived in Brooklyn and he spoke English. Then he said he had run away so he could write a best-selling book. He was keyed up and had a hard time sitting still. Obviously, he had a lot more to tell. It took several long days to get him to stop confabulating and admit that he had run off with more than $100,000 of bin Laden’s money. When he did that, he sobbed and sobbed. It was the turning point in the interrogation. Fadl agreed to be a government witness should a trial ever occur, but that seemed unlikely, given the modest charges that the government lawyers were considering.

Then, on his own initiative, Fadl began talking about an organization called al-Qaeda. It was the first time any of the men in the room had ever heard the term. He described training camps and sleeper cells. He talked about bin Laden’s interest in acquiring nuclear and chemical weapons. He said that al-Qaeda had been responsible for a 1992 bombing in Yemen and for training the insurgents who shot down the American helicopters in Somalia that same year. He gave names and drew organizational charts. The investigators were stunned by his story. For two weeks, six or seven hours a day, they went over the details again and again, testing his responses to see if he was consistent. He never varied.

When Coleman got back to the bureau, no one seemed particularly interested. Fadl’s testimony was chilling, they agreed, but how could they corroborate the testimony of a thief and a liar? Besides, there were other more pressing investigations.

From THE LOOMING TOWER by Lawrence Wright. Copyright © 2006 by Lawrence Wright. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

 

By LAWRENCE WRIGHT – Time

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