The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida’s Road to 9/11 
by Lawrence Wright.
Allen Lane, 470 pp., £25, August 2006, 9780713999730
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In 1995, in Sudan, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri put two teenage boys on trial for treason, sodomy and attempted murder, in a Sharia court of his own devising. Of the two boys, one, Ahmed, was only 13. Zawahiri, the partner in terror of Osama bin Laden, had them stripped naked; he showed that they had reached puberty, and therefore counted as adults. The court found the boys guilty. Zawahiri had them shot, filmed their confessions and executions, and put video copies out to warn other potential traitors. His Sudanese hosts were so outraged that they expelled Zawahiri and his group immediately.

It does not exonerate Zawahiri that the boys really had, as Lawrence Wright explains, tried to kill him: Ahmed by telling Egyptian spies exactly when Zawahiri was going to come to treat him for malaria; the other boy, Musab, by twice trying to plant a bomb. The assassination attempts were part of the Egyptian government’s ruthless efforts to destroy Zawahiri and his organisation, al-Jihad, after al-Jihad came close to killing the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. ‘Ruthless’, in this instance, is a merited adjective. The way Egyptian intelligence recruited the boys – both were sons of senior al-Jihad members, and Musab’s father was the al-Qaida treasurer – was to drug them, anally rape them, then show them photos of the abuse and blackmail them. The boys were trapped; the photos could have led to their execution by al-Jihad as surely as their subsequent betrayal.

The story does more than illuminate the sheer vileness of the conflict that has been underway for decades between the death-loving hardcore of Islamic revolutionaries and the allies of European and American governments in the Islamic world. It underlines the centrality of Egypt to the origins and perpetuation of the conflict. One of the darker choruses of this excellent work of journalism is the success that three of those allied governments, the Saudi Arabian, Pakistani and Egyptian, have had in diverting the fundamentalist warriors away from their original prime target – them – and towards the West. It’s been a remarkable feat; not only have the rulers of those three countries deflected Islamic revolutionaries by simultaneously repressing them, making concessions to them, and rechannelling their anger abroad, but they have gained additional support from the very Western countries which are now experiencing the consequences of that anger.

Wright argues convincingly that, although bin Laden would subsequently claim America had always been his enemy, he was ready at one stage to turn his ire on the venality, concupiscence and hypocrisy of the ruling royal family of his native Saudi Arabia. Why did the Saudi authorities give him such latitude in the late 1980s to criticise their ally, the United States? Because it was preferable to his attacking them. The Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan would not have become the breeding grounds of narrow-minded Islamic radicals they were, and are, without the passive and active support of branches of the Pakistani government. Why has there been such support? Partly because those Pakistani officials wanted to keep Iran and Russia out of Afghanistan, partly because some of them are fundamentalist Muslims themselves, but also because it deflects the tip of the jihadi spear away from Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi towards Kabul, New York and London.

The long and brutal struggle between Islamic revolutionaries and governments in Egypt, going back to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 and on through the execution of Sayyid Qutb in 1966, was a crucible for the theorising which led to the events of 11 September 2001. The prisons of Egypt became a networking venue for jihadis. It was there that the Egyptian jailers made their investment of cruelty in Zawahiri which he would later pay back a thousandfold. It is clear from Wright’s work that the struggle in Egypt, not the wider world, took precedence for the doctor; that Zawahiri may have believed the narrow, Nile-confined geography of populated Egypt made it hard for insurgents to operate; but that he put the goal of Islamic revolution there to one side, in favour of closer co-operation with bin Laden, only when he had no choice.

It was after an attack on Egyptian interests in 1995 – a suicide bombing at the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan, just after al-Jihad was expelled from Sudan – that Zawahiri first established the theological underpinning of suicide attacks. Eighteen people, including two suicide bombers in a truck, died. Zawahiri justified the attack by arguing that, since the Egyptian government was un-Islamic, and everyone who worked in the embassy worked for that government, they all deserved to die; innocent Muslim bystanders or children caught up in the explosion were sad but necessary collateral damage.

The Islamic prohibition on suicide was tougher to overcome, since the Prophet himself had foretold eternal damnation for one of his warriors after he killed himself rather than suffer the pain of battle wounds. Zawahiri reached back into distant history for the case of a group of Muslim martyrs who had been offered a choice by their idolatrous captors of renouncing their faith, or dying. They chose death. Their apparent breach of God’s word was accepted by other Muslims at the time as heroic martyrdom, because it was for the sake of God’s word that they died. ‘With such sophistry,’ Wright remarks, ‘Zawahiri reversed the language of the Prophet and opened the door to universal murder.’

Zawahiri finally set Egypt aside to concentrate on bin Laden’s war against America only in 1997, when Egypt as a whole turned against his methods in revulsion. The catalyst was an attack by a group of Zawahiri allies on tourists at Luxor. A small group of jihadis in police uniforms crippled any tourists within range by shooting them in the legs, then strolled from injured person to injured person, finishing them off with shots to the head. Some of the dead were mutilated with knives; one Swiss woman saw her father’s head being cut off. A flyer reading ‘No to tourists in Egypt’ was found inside the eviscerated body of a Japanese man. Most of the 62 victims were Swiss; others included four Egyptians and three generations of a British family – grandmother, mother and five-year-old daughter.

Wright gives prominence to the life of Qutb, whose Milestones had enormous influence on the Islamic revivalist movement. Published in 1964, it is a contradictory, self-referential, anti-semitic tract that calls for war against the non-Islamic world to establish a universal Islam, following which the conquered – or, as Qutb puts it, liberated – will be free to believe what they wish. Qutb insists that the world – not only the non-Islamic world, but the Islamic world itself – is in a state of Jahiliyyah, or defiance of God’s sovereignty. In the jahili world, instead of the ideal synthesis of worship and governance that God provides through the Koran, men blasphemously worship and are governed by each other. The most subversive aspect of Milestones, from the point of view of secular, multicultural governments and peoples, is its insistence that personal belief in and worship of God is insufficient to avoid Jahiliyyah. You can be as devout as you like, but if you tolerate and obey jahili institutions, you are defying God. It is a strong prescription, especially when you consider that Qutb greatly admired the scientific and cultural achievements of jahili Europe, and believed a future Islamic civilisation would surpass them.

Qutb wrote Milestones after spending a period in the US, from 1948 to 1950, during which his proud, sensitive, shy, classical-music-loving personality was assailed by what he saw as the lewd heartiness of America’s women and the materially rich, spiritually poor lives of its people in general. He was propositioned by a scantily clad, drunk young woman in his stateroom on the crossing out; scandalised by a nurse in Washington who told him what she looked for in a lover; shocked by a feminist teacher in Colorado who declared that there was no moral element to sexual relations; repelled by a minister who delighted in the libidinousness of a church dance; disgusted by the crude violence of American football; appalled to see a black man being beaten in the street; horrified by the ‘primitive Negro’ sounds of jazz; and dismayed by prodigious drinking at student parties. He saw the abundance of churches as a sign of hypocrisy rather than piety. ‘The soul has no value to Americans,’ he wrote. ‘There has been a PhD dissertation about the best way to clean dishes, which seems more important to them than the Bible or religion.’

Wright is not the first to have identified the origins of 9/11 in Qutb’s issues with sex in Greeley, Colorado, in 1949. But there is enough evidence even in Wright’s own book to suggest that his characterisation of Qutb’s influence – ‘the story of al-Qaida had really begun in America, not so long ago’ – is a little glib. The Muslim Brotherhood already had a million members and supporters when Qutb left for the US, and the movement’s founder, al-Banna, was no stranger to the concept of Jahiliyyah. The notion that the doom of the Twin Towers was an arc which began in America as well as ending there is hard to resist for an American storyteller, even if it is only partly true. Yet there is no doubt that Qutb influenced bin Laden and Zawahiri; Zawahiri’s uncle was Qutb’s pupil and protégé, and, at the trial which led to his execution, his lawyer. Qutb’s death had a profound effect on the teenage Zawahiri.

Alongside a detailed account of bin Laden’s early years, Wright delves deep into the life of Zawahiri, the devout, bookish, middle-class Cairo lad who helped form his first Islamic revolutionary cell in 1966, when he was 15 years old. The cell became one of the building blocks of al-Jihad (also known as Islamic Jihad).

Al-Jihad was one of three underground groups dedicated to the overthrow of the secular Egyptian government and the establishment of an Islamic state. The largest, oldest and most moderate, mixing politics with violence, was the Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder al-Banna was assassinated, probably by the Egyptian government, in 1949. In the 1970s, a second organisation, the Islamic Group, emerged as a force on Egyptian campuses; the socialist and secular nationalist fashions of the previous decade yielded, beards sprouted, and women students veiled up. The Islamic Group came to be led by Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, blind since childhood. Sheikh Omar and Zawahiri met and plotted together in prison. Their clandestine organisations were similar: small, suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, ready to use extreme violence, striving for an Islamic Egypt under Sharia law. In fact, they found co-operation difficult, partly because of personal jealousies, partly because Sheikh Omar’s was ultimately a more tolerant route to global Islam than Zawahiri’s. Yet Sheikh Omar trod an ominous trail which prefigured Zawahiri’s subsequent descent into gore. At one point he issued a fatwa justifying the murder of Christians, to make it possible for his young foot-soldiers to fund their jihad by killing and robbing Coptic businessmen with a clear conscience. In 1993, in New York, his followers detonated a massive van bomb in the basement car park of the World Trade Center, gouging a 200 foot-wide crater and killing six people, but failing to topple the structures. Sheikh Omar was subsequently arrested and jailed in the US; he had been applying for political asylum in America, while at the same time issuing a fatwa permitting his followers to rob banks and kill Jews, and making speeches in Arabic denouncing Americans as ‘descendants of apes and pigs’.

For all the hideous moments recorded in this book – the image of a woman struggling underneath the fallen engine of a Boeing on a Manhattan street is particularly haunting – the most intriguing and in some ways chilling mystery remains the fate of the fourth remarkable Islamic revolutionary leader at the centre of this history, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. It is known that this Palestinian religious scholar studied with Sheikh Omar in Cairo; it is known that he inspired bin Laden; it is known that he aroused the jealousy of Zawahiri. What remains unknown to this day is who was responsible for his assassination in Peshawar in 1989. The murder of Azzam – who, with bin Laden’s financial support, turned the international effort to defeat the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan into a pan-Islamic jihad – marked a turning point in the saga of the Islamic revolutionaries.

Azzam was a devout Muslim who had contempt for secularists. He helped found Hamas as an Islamic Palestinian counterweight to Yasir Arafat’s secular PLO. To drum up support for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan he issued a fatwa declaring jihad in Afghanistan a religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim. Saudi Arabia’s chief cleric backed him up with a fatwa of his own. Azzam toured the world, preaching of divine miracles on the battlefield – of the perfumed corpses of martyrs and birds turning aside Soviet bombs. He was a hero to young Arabs. It was Azzam who popularised the lurid rewards awaiting the martyr in Paradise which later lay at the heart of al-Qaida; Azzam who, on 11 August 1988, with the Soviets already beaten in Afghanistan, called the meeting which formally created an organisation called al-Qaida.

At that stage, however, al-Qaida could have been anything; Azzam’s vision of the future of jihad after Afghanistan differed subtly from bin Laden’s and profoundly from Zawahiri’s. Azzam’s idea was for a wide guerrilla war to win back lands which Islam had once held, from Soviet Central Asia to Bosnia and even Spain. He feared that the mujahidin would instead begin to fight against each other, that Muslim would fight against Muslim. He opposed Zawahiri’s dreams of fomenting a cycle of terror and repression in Egypt. He didn’t want to kill women and children. He was worried about the dark, heretical doctrine that Zawahiri had seized on in Afghanistan – takfir, or excommunication.

In a Kuwaiti-backed Red Crescent hospital in Peshawar, which became his base during the years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Zawahiri fell in with other Arab doctors who had been influenced by an outbreak of takfir heresy in Egypt in the 1970s. Essentially, takfir is a means to justify the killing of anyone who disagrees with the takfiri’s own narrow interpretation of Islamic right conduct. Zawahiri and the other takfiris got round the explicit Koranic prohibition on killing anyone, except as punishment for murder, by pointing out that the Prophet said anyone could be killed for turning away from Islam. According to Qutb, anyone co-operating with jahili institutions was turning away from Islam; therefore anyone living in Jahiliyyah was fair game. Democracy was jahili, for example; ergo, anyone who voted could be – no, should be – executed.

Azzam, who had done more than either bin Laden or Zawahiri to further the Islamic cause in Afghanistan, and who opposed takfir, nonetheless fell victim to it. There is no evidence that Zawahiri had a hand in his murder; Wright doesn’t suggest that he did. He says this of the day Azzam died: ‘Earlier that Friday, on the streets of Peshawar, Azzam’s main rival, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been spreading rumours that Azzam was working for the Americans. The next day, he was at Azzam’s funeral, praising the martyred sheikh, as did his many other jubilant enemies.’

It is possible to see the events of 9/11 as a synthesis of all these ideas: the application of Zawahiri’s takfir and suicide heresies to Qutb’s Jahiliyyah America, by men holding dear Azzam’s vision of the martyrs’ reward, their prime target influenced by the obsessions of Sheikh Omar’s followers. Yet of all the countries in the jahili world, why America? The answer seems to lie in the quixotic mind of bin Laden himself.

What would the stern moralist Qutb, or for that matter a psychoanalyst, have to say about the family history of Osama bin Laden? He is one of 54 children whom his fantastically wealthy, self-made father had by 22 wives. His father found his mother, Alia – wife number four – in a small Syrian village, and married her when she was 14. When he was still a small boy, Osama’s father divorced Alia, and ‘gave’ her to one of his employees to marry. Shortly afterwards, Osama’s father died in a plane crash. When he was 17, the young bin Laden went to the same village where his father found Alia, and met and married his first wife, Najwa, who was also 14. He solemnly resolved to practise polygamy, eventually taking four wives.

Though Wright never avoids bin Laden’s responsibility for the deaths of thousands of civilians, his portrait of the master terrorist is oddly engaging. Where Zawahiri comes across as a cold, treacherous, jealous exploiter of others, bin Laden is vain, naive, generous and idealistic – which, combined with the fact that he is a mass murderer, makes him the more sinister character.

Most of the few thousand Arabs who went to Afghanistan for jihad never actually took part in the fight against the Soviets. Bin Laden desperately wanted to, and did, but his early efforts to form and lead an Arab legion into battle were embarrassing failures. Azzam and others tried to persuade him to abandon his legion and let his fighters be dispersed across the front, but bin Laden was stubborn in his desire to be at the head of his own cohort of Arab warriors. This allowed him to make absurd claims about his leading role in defeating the Soviet superpower when, in a skirmish near Tora Bora in the spring of 1987, he and his Arabs scored a single victory.

Not that bin Laden was a coward. He and his fighters were under mortar and napalm bombardment for weeks on end. There are different accounts of the final battle, which ended in local Soviet retreat, but bin Laden was close enough to the Russians for the bullets to whistle past and the rocket-propelled grenades to explode by his head as he stuck his finger in the bag of salt he carried for his low blood pressure, and sucked it. It was bin Laden’s Egyptian military expert, Abu Ubaydah, who masterminded the tactical side of the victory. This didn’t matter; it was enough to allow bin Laden to bask in the glory of a great jihadi, taking the battle to Jahiliyyah, ready to embrace martyrdom. He convinced his fellow Saudis when he returned home; he convinced himself.

The familiar narrative of bin Laden’s course after Afghanistan has it that he genuinely believed he and his band of irregulars had spearheaded the defeat of a superpower; that he urged the Saudi government to put him at the head of a similar, larger host of local mujahidin to wage jihad against Saddam Hussein when the Iraqi dictator invaded Kuwait; that he was deeply offended by his government’s curt rejection of his plan, and outraged when they invited hundreds of thousands of jahili American troops to the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia to do the job instead; and that he vowed from that moment to defeat the Americans as he had defeated the Russians.

Wright does not contradict this version. But the picture that emerges from his account is of a more indecisive, whimsical bin Laden, ill-informed about the reality of America, conscious of a world of injustice and full of a sense of his own destiny but uncertain at what point the two would meet – the archetypal rebel without a cause. He had Zawahiri, who wanted his money and network, to shape his aims. The cadre that formed the future leadership of al-Qaida stemmed from a bodyguard Zawahiri gave bin Laden when he first spoke vaguely against America in the late 1980s.

In 1989, al-Qaida seemed to be taking shape as the well-organised, takfiri Arab jihadist elite force bin Laden and Zawahiri wanted. It had a training camp near Khost in Afghanistan. New recruits swore an oath of loyalty to bin Laden, vowed secrecy, and signed up for a salary of up to $1500 a month, with a free return flight home, a month’s holiday each year and private healthcare. Yet three years later, in a way that suggests bin Laden had no commitment to anything resembling Azzam or Zawahiri’s vision, it had changed. Bin Laden and al-Qaida were in Sudan; Afghanistan had descended into civil war and Saudi Arabia was unwelcoming. Bin Laden seemed to find peace, and to transform himself into a Sudanese country gentleman. He bred horses. He entertained visitors at a guesthouse in Khartoum, slaughtering a lamb daily. He took his sons picnicking by the banks of the Nile. He dressed in the Sudanese way and carried a Sudanese walking-stick with a V-shaped handle. He grew prize sunflowers. He acquired vast tracts of land in exchange for building roads, and hoped to turn Sudan into a world granary. He preached peace in the Khartoum mosque. He was 34 years old. ‘He kept members of al-Qaida busy working in his burgeoning enterprises, since there was little else for them to do. On Fridays after prayers, the two al-Qaida soccer teams squared off against each other,’ Wright says. ‘Al-Qaida had become largely an agricultural organisation.’

And yet it was at the end of 1992 that al-Qaida, under bin Laden’s direction, took the first small step in its global terrorist campaign against the US, the campaign that would escalate through the attacks on US embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen to the conflagration in New York nine years later. What eventually tipped bin Laden towards war against America, when he had seemed so close to settling into a bucolic idyll in Sudan? As background, Wright offers the sense among the jihadis that America was the centre of Christianity, and that the Christian world had been winning the battle of faiths since the Islamic host began to be beaten back from the gates of Vienna on 11 September 1683. He points out that the al-Qaida men didn’t make a clear distinction between America the country and a more conceptual America, the wellspring of all that was modern, materialist, secular and therefore un-Islamic. Yet neither of these was new in 1992.

Bin Laden was certainly angry that US troops did not seem to be leaving Saudi Arabia, as had been promised. Wright suggests that what finally made him lean towards action was his paranoid misreading of a minor American military deployment, barely noticed at the time by the Western public, when a small number of US troops stopped off in Yemen, where bin Laden’s father was born, on their way to provide security for aid workers in Somalia.

To bin Laden, this was a step too far in America’s attempt to encircle his stamping ground. His war on America began with mutual ignorance, misunderstanding, the blood of innocents and bad religion. Reassured by his imam, Abu Hajer, that it was theologically sound to attack US troops, al-Qaida set off bombs in two hotels in Aden. They were the wrong hotels. An Australian tourist and a Yemeni hotel worker were killed. Abu Hajer came up with a 13th-century precedent to justify their deaths. The untouched US soldiers moved on to Somalia as planned. Because the troops left Yemen after the bombs, bin Laden was able to convince himself that al-Qaida had driven them out. It was Afghanistan all over again. And because no Americans were hurt, America did not even realise it had been attacked. So the great struggle began, amid al-Qaida rejoicing: ‘At a time when the United States had never heard of al-Qaida, the mission to Somalia was seen as a thankless act of charity, and Sudan was too inconsequential to worry about.’

Wright devotes much of the latter part of The Looming Tower to the story of John O’Neill, the senior FBI agent who saw the danger of bin Laden early, wanted to arrest him and put him on trial when colleagues in the CIA would have preferred simply to kill him, and who died in the World Trade Center when it was attacked in 2001. As late as 1999, O’Neill’s was a lonely voice in his own organisation when he warned of the menace al-Qaida posed to the American homeland. ‘He was insecure, deceptive and potentially compromised,’ Wright says. ‘He was also driven, resourceful and brilliant. For better or worse, this was the man America depended on to stop Osama bin Laden.’

For all O’Neill’s foresight, I get the feeling that Wright chose to follow the thread of his tragedy more for the sake of a readable, oppositional narrative than because O’Neill genuinely sat facing bin Laden across the chessboard of global terrorism, his counter-terror counterpart. Poignant as the irony of O’Neill’s death in the WTC was, it came about because he had left the FBI to take on the job of security chief there. And in any case Wright’s own account makes it clear that America could not depend on any single man or woman to stop Osama bin Laden: it was a task which, inescapably, depended on the co-operation of several organisations and hundreds of people. Bin Laden’s American opposite number was not a man, it was an institution, and the failure of that institution, as Wright makes eloquently clear, was more spectacular than any of O’Neill’s achievements.

As a rule I am sceptical of the ‘they were warned, and yet they did nothing’ school of history. History, and journalism, do an excellent job of highlighting the telegrams and faxes and emails which land on the desks of those in power, making accurate yet strangely ignored predictions of some dire event which subsequently occurs. History, and journalism, do a poor job of recording the thousands of telegrams, faxes and emails which arrive on those same desks at the same time, warning of dire events that never happen.

Yet in the case of 9/11, the failures of US intelligence were so grotesque that scepticism is overcome. Some joint work by the NSA, the CIA, and Malaysian and Saudi intelligence surveilled a group of known al-Qaida operatives meeting in Kuala Lumpur as early as 1999. Had the meeting been bugged, not only 9/11 but the plan to blow up the USS Cole in Aden would have been thwarted. As it was, however, the CIA ended up with the names and photographs of the al-Qaida terrorists who would fly one of the hijacked planes on 9/11. Yet inter-agency rivalry and suspicion meant that they did not pass the information on to the FBI or the State Department.

An FBI agent working with the CIA asked if he could tell the FBI that one of the al-Qaida men, Khaled al-Mihdhar, had an American visa and might travel to the US. He was told he could not. The CIA learned that another of the men, Nawaf al-Hazmi, flew into Los Angeles in January 2000. Later the CIA learned that Mihdhar was with him. They were there to learn how to fly large jets. Still the CIA told the FBI nothing.

A year later, in the spring of 2001, a CIA agent called Tom Wilshire noted the link between Hazmi and another al-Qaida man who went by the nom de geurre of Khallad. They had been photographed together in Malaysia. Wilshire knew by this time that Khallad was one of bin Laden’s bodyguards and had masterminded the attack on the USS Cole. He also knew Hazmi was in the US. He asked if he could tell the FBI. His CIA superiors never got back to him.

Up to this point, the overcrowded in-tray theory of intelligence failures might just about have spared those involved from complete shame and disgrace. But it was in the summer of 2001 that the barriers between the CIA and the FBI reached truly absurd proportions: both agencies knew how important the material was, but the CIA refused fully to share it. The issue came to a head at a meeting between the two sides in New York on 11 June, when the CIA showed the FBI three of the photographs from the Kuala Lumpur meeting and asked if the Bureau agents recognised any of them. But they refused to say who the men were, or that some of them were already in the US, and they did not show the FBI the picture of the one man they would certainly have recognised, Khallad. The two sets of agents started to scream at each other. ‘The FBI agents knew that clues to the crimes they were trying to solve were being dangled in front of their eyes,’ Wright says.

Eventually, one of O’Neill’s most important FBI partners, Ali Soufan, one of the few US intelligence agents who spoke Arabic, was shown the photographs. It was 12 September 2001, and he knew O’Neill was dead. When it dawned on him that the CIA had known for more than eighteen months that two of the hijackers were in the US, he retched from the horror of it.

Long before these events, the US intelligence establishment (together with the British) deafened itself to revolutionary Islam’s loud message that it intended to change the world. Two prevailing narratives – of the West v. Soviet Communism, and of Israel v. the Arab world – overwhelmed understanding of another emerging one, in which most of Europe and most of America, together with the Soviet bloc and the secular intelligentsia of developing countries, were on the same side. Although this is not what it explicitly sets out to do, Wright’s book supports the conclusion that the direct struggle between revolutionary, counter-Enlightenment Islam and the post-Enlightenment world began some time before the Cold War ended – specifically, in 1979. That was the year of Iran’s revolution, in which, significantly, Islamic revolutionaries overcame not only the pro-American Shah but also their leftist counterparts; the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to protect its leftist regime against Islamic rebels; and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, was seized by a band of Islamic fundamentalists. It took Saudi forces more than two weeks to overcome the four to five hundred insurgents involved, who had demanded that Saudi Arabia isolate itself culturally and politically from the West, remove the royal family, expel all Westerners and stop selling oil to the US. Before the battle ended, women among the insurgents shot the faces off their dead male comrades to stop them being recognised. It was the first fortnight of the new Islamic year, the year 1400, the dawn of Islam’s 15th century. The rest of the world was still operating according to a different calendar.

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