In an effort to illustrate key players and notable relationships in the Middle East, U.K. data journalist David McCandless and UniversLab created the following interactive network diagram. Despite being force-directed, the only thing it communicates clearest of all is the fact that:

Middle East is a confusing place

As sad as it may be, there’s no shortcut or easy way for us to understand the religious, social and political cleavages of the region. After many unsuccessful attempts at finding a dummies guide to the Middle East, I finally resort to making a series of small steps. With “102 Minutes” finished in the previous week, “The Looming Tower” – a historical look at how al-Qaeda came into being and various events that led to the September 11 attacks – seems like a pre-sequel.

Unlike other books in which unfamiliar religious concepts like jihad, fatwa, jahilyyhia… and the complexities of Islamic ideologies turn readers away from the very first pages. “The Looming Tower possesses all the immediacy and emotional power of a novel” thanks to Lawrence Wright’s talent in drawing a fascinating picture of main characters, constructing a seductive narrative, and situating the events he describes in a large cultural and political context. This 2007 Non-fiction Pulitzer winner was so engrossing that I couldn’t bear to put it down.

Reading “The Looming Tower”,  I’ve got to see America society from perspective of a intellectual Islamist “Sayyid Qutb”, understand why he gradually converted to an extreme Islamic ideology and how his writings made a tremendous impact on the Muslim world. Most of al-Qaeda’s founding members manifested the thoughts of Qutb and set their mission on putting his vision into action. They orchestrated terrorist attacks such as 9/11, supported fighters in civil wars throughout the Muslim world, and fostered an extreme, anti-U.S. discourse that has indoctrinated a generation of radicals.

Drawing heavily on more than 500 interviews, Lawrence Wright offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Osama Bin Laden (founder of al-Qaeda) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (his deputy and successor).  The author also details the lives and careers of several key-players in the “white” side such as Prince Turki al-Faisal (former head of Saudi intelligence) and John O’Neill (former FBI counterterrorism chief).

People who read “102 Minutes” would never forget the poor collaboration between Police and Fire department of New York city on their rescue mission. After reading this book, they would be further angered and at the same time saddened by the failures of the CIA, FBI. and NSA to share information which contributed to al Qaeda’s success in pulling off its plan.

The rest of this post is more like my personal summary of this book, and some good quotes.

1. Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb – one of the most significant modern Islamic thinkers – spent the better half of 1949 studying curriculum in Greeley, Colorado. Arriving in America with a crisis of faith, he soon condemned America as a soulless, materialistic and spiritual wasteland that no Muslim should aspire to live in.

“Here in this strange place, this huge workshop they call ‘the new world,’ I feel as though my spirit, thoughts, and body live in loneliness”

Then some other events such as President Harry Truman’s decision to recognise the provisional Jewish government and the assassination of Hassan al-Banna (Qutb’s contemporary and intellectual rival) further drove his conversion to the Muslim Brothers.

2. Muslim Brothers

The Society of Muslim Brothers was founded in Egypt in 1928 by the Islamic scholar and school teacher Hassan al-Banna. For many years it has been the largest, best-organised, and most disciplined political opposition force.

Muslim Brotherhood demonstration, Amman, August 8, 2014 (Photo Credit: Reuters)

In 1950, racked by corruption and assassination the Egyptian government ruled without popular authority. Muslim Brothers steadily acted in the interest of people and attracted more than one million members from Egypt’s low-middle class.

Despite the official Muslim Brothers commitment to the use of peaceful means, it’s often linked to extremism and violence because of “Secret Apparatus”, a political wing resulted from the ideological conflict within the organisation: those subscribing to non-violence and those adopting a more radicalised narrative.

3. Muslim Brothers and Qutbism

Muslim Brothers, fuelled by Qutb’s ideology, wanted to build a theocratic Islamic government and impose Islamic values on all aspects of life, so that every Muslim could achieve his purest spiritual expression. The ideology was extreme in the aspect that it strongly opposed Western influence and jahiliyya (the world of unbelief that existed before Islam). The two obstacles had to be removed through the practice of jihad, intended in both the greater sense as “internal battle” and in a lesser sense as “armed struggle”.

The mushrooming rise of political Islam today has roots in Qutb’s famous book called Milestones.

In 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser led a group of nationalist officers in the armed forces of Egypt and Sudan to overthrow the monarchy, seized control of the government and ended the British occupation of the country. “For the first time in twenty-five hundred years, Egypt was ruled by Egyptians”. However, Nasser’s political dream was of modernisation, egalitarian and prosperity which had little to do with Qutb and Muslim Brothers’ aspiration.

In 1954, after Nasser escaped a public assassination from Muslim Brothers, he and his military comrades decided to crush all aspects of the organisation. Qutb was sentenced 15 years and imprisoned in hospital because of his deteriorating health.

In 1966, The trial of Sayyid Qutb and 42 of his followers lasted for 3 months. Qutb was executed by hanging.

“The government refused to surrender his corpse to his family, fearing that his grave would become a shrine to his followers. The radical Islamist threat seemed to have come to an end. But Qutb’s vanguard was already hearing the music”

4. Ayman al-Zawahiri

Al-Qaeda’s current leader grew up in one of the most prominent families in Egypt. “The Zawahiri clan was on its way to becoming a medical dynasty”.

Zawahiri’s uncle was Qutb’s personal lawyer and one of the last people to see him before his execution. Therefore it’s easy to understand how the young rebellious Zawahiri got greatly influenced by Qutb’s death and helped to form an underground cell (“al-Jihad”) devoted to overthrowing the government and establishing an Islamist state at the age of 15.

When Zawahiri got close to 30 years old, there were a trembling political earthquake in the Islamic world. The 1979 Iranian Revolution (the first successful Islamist takeover of a major country which showed that the Islamists’ dream was eminently achievable) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Zawahiri, as a trained surgeon travelled to Pakistan to tend to the Afghan refugees and during several trips across the border into Afghanistan, he had the chance to witness the courage of the Afghan holy warriors “mujahideen”.

In 1981, Anwar Sadat (President of Egypt)’s peace agreement with Israel quickly led to his assassination during the annual victory parade. Although Zawahiri did not hear about the plan until a few hours before the gunning took place, he got arrested.

The President brokered a seemingly impossible peace, then died in a barrage of gunfire.

“One line of thinking proposes that America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt. Human-rights advocates in Cairo argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Sayyid Qutb and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri”

In prison, Zawahiri came face-to-face with the emir of the Islamic Group, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman (“the blind Sheikh”). Despite having a common goal of bringing down the government, the two differed sharply in their ideology and tactics and therefore an extreme rivalry was inevitable.

After his release in 1984, Zawahiri went to Saudi Arabia and practiced medicine in Jeddah where society dominated by a handful of names, one of which was bin Laden.

“Zawahiri had fled Egypt because the guilt of betraying his friends weighed so oppressively on his conscience. By testifying against his comrades while he was in prison, Zawahiri had lost his claim to leadership of al-Jihad. He was looking for a place where he could redeem himself and where the radical Islamist movement could gain a foothold”

After many ups and downs, Zawahiri’s al-Jihad was dying at the end of 2001 and got absorbed into Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, creating an entity formally called Qaeda al-Jihad.

“The name reflected the fact that the Egyptians still made up the inner circle; the nine-member leadership council included only three non-Egyptians. But it was bin Laden’s organization, not Zawahiri’s”

5. Osama bin Laden

“One cannot understand the scale of the son’s ambition without appreciating the father’s accomplishment”

Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden was a “rags to riches” legend. From an illiterate dock worker in Yemen, he became a multi-billionaire Saudi businessman with Saudi Binladin Group as one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world.

Forging close relationships with the royal family, Mohammed got many important government contracts such as refurbishing the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (all three holiest spots of Islam).

The Great Mosque of Mecca (Grand Mosque) is the largest mosque in the world

The Prophet’s mosque established and originally built by the Islamic prophet Muhammad

The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque, but a Muslim shrine. Like the Ka’ba in Mecca, it is built over a sacred stone.

Osama bin Laden was the only child of Mohammed and his fourth wife Alia Ghanem. When Osama got 4 or 5 years old, Mohammed divorced Alia and awarded her to one of his executives.

The young Osama enjoyed watching western TV shows and playing soccer. He went to the most prestigious school in Jeddah and experienced a religious and political awakening in his fourteenth. A Syrian gym teacher who was a member of the Muslim Brothers explained to him the 6 Day War with Israel, the one that humiliated many Muslims who had believed until then that God favoured their cause. “Restore the fervor and purity of the religion that had made the Arabs great, and God would once again take their side”.

In high school, Osama joined the Muslim Brothers and later in university met Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, another member of the Brotherhood who would become his closest friend.

In terms of Islam ideology, at first Osama completely agreed with with Hasan Hudaybi (the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers) on his tolerant and accepting view of Islam: no Muslim could deny the belief of another so long as he made the simple profession of faith “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His messenger.” However his view later shifted to the narrow and judgemental Qutbism.

When the Soviet had “its Vietnam war” with Afghanistan in 1979, Osama got involved in the Afghan cause due to the vast influence of Abdullah Azzam – a Palestinian theologian who had a doctorate in Islamic law. He couldn’t join the mujahideen in the early years of the war because of his mother and authorities, and therefore focused his support on financing the recruitment of Arabs to the war. The Saudi government also contributed $350 to $500 million per year for the Afghan jihad.

“If nonbelievers invade a Muslim land, it is fard ayn—a compulsory duty—for the local Muslims to expel them. If they fail, then the obligation expands to their Muslim neighbors”

In 1986, bin Laden financed the first permanent all-Arab camp at Jaji (Afghanistan), his first step toward the creation of an Arab legion that could wage war anywhere. His best friend Khalifa was furious at the needless risk and the waste of lives and their friendship broke.

“We came here to help the Afghans, not to form our own party!. God will ask you about every drop of their blood. And since I am your friend, I cannot accept that you stay. You have to leave, or else I will leave you.”

In 1987, the victory of Lion’s Den battle, although relatively unimportant in military terms, had been chronicled daily by a Saudi journalist whose reporting left an impression of bin Laden as a victorious military leader and attracted a number of followers to his cause.

In 1989, bin Laden returned to his hometown Jeddah with unexpected fame and certain unprecedented expectations of his future. Saudi Arabia at the time was facing the decline price of oil and a phenomenon of unemployment.

“Despair and idleness are dangerous companions in any culture, and it was inevitable that the young would search for a hero who could voice their longing for change and provide a focus for their rage. Neither a cleric nor a prince, Osama bin Laden assumed this new role”.

However, Bin Laden’s personal foreign policy towards South Yemen, the lonely campaign against Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and his opposition to the presence of American troops in Saudi annoyed the king. His intervention in the Afghan civil conflict negotiation also made him and Prince Turki deadly antagonists.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to Washington and London

In 1991 or 1992, he left to Khartoum (Sudan). Before getting expelled of the country in 1996, here bin Laden had the most peaceful and happiest time in his adult life. “He kept members of al-Qaeda busy working in burgeoning enterprises since there was little else for them to do. On Friday after prayers, the two al-Qaeda soccer teams squared off against each other”. Many times bin Laden told his friends that he was through with warfare and wanted to quit al-Qaeda altogether to become a farmer. However, it was his belief that America wanted to occupy the holy land prevented him from relaxing into the normal life.

In 1994, fed up with the violence spilling out of Sudan and that bin Laden was behind it, King Fahd personally decided to revoke bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship. Bin Laden’s eldest brother publicly condemned him and later seized his share of the company ($7 million). Sudan, after having received huge investment in various businesses now decided to wash its hand of bin Laden and made him suffered a net loss of more than $160 million moving back to Afghanistan.

Tora Bora a cave complex situated in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The cave was used by al-Qaeda and was the location of its commander Osama bin Laden’s headquarters.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban (“Students of Islamic Knowledge Movement”) managed to hold 90% of the country’s territory, however their policies — including their harsh treatment of women and support of terrorists excluded them from the world community. Taliban leader’s Mullah Muhammad Omar gradually voiced his support for bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s operations.

On August 23 1996, bin Laden officially declared war on the United States 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”

6. Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden

Each man filled a need in the other. Zawahiri wanted money and contact which bin Laden had in abundance. Bin Laden sought direction and Zawahiri as a seasoned propagandist supplied it.

Ayman al-Zawahiri (right), with Osama bin Laden in 2001 (Photo Credit: Ausaf Newspaper)

“You have the desert-rooted streak of bin Laden coming together with the more modern Zawahiri,” Saad Eddin Ibrahim observes. “But they were both politically disenfranchised, despite their backgrounds. There was something that resonated between these two youngsters on the neutral ground of faraway Afghanistan. There they tried to build the heavenly kingdom that they could not build in their home countries.”

Zawahiri constantly bin Laden with thoughts with takfiri tendencies and sought to undermine Azzam, the single great competitor for bin Laden’s attention who fiercely opposed a war of Muslim against Muslim. Not only Zawahiri, the Egyptians and the Saudis were also interested in bringing down Azzam. They slandered Azzam’s reputation with charges of theft and corruption and mis-management and later finished him off.

Bin Laden’s health, which had been so robust when he was a desert youth, had endured several blows in the harsh mountain environments. With Zahahiri as his doctor, the friendship got to become even more complicated by the fact that one placed his life in the hands of the other.

7. Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda solder and their organisation flag

Founded in Pakistan by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda has become the best known and most hated terrorist organization on the planet.

“There were many Islamist movements, all of them concentrated on nationalist goals, it was bin Laden’s vision to create an international jihad corps. It was his leadership that held together an organization that had been bankrupted and thrown into exile. It was bin Laden’s tenacity that made him deaf to the moral quarrels that attended the murder of so many and indifferent to the repeated failures that would have destroyed most men’s dreams”

“Most of the prospective al-Qaeda recruits were from the middle or upper class, nearly all of them from intact families. They were largely college-educated, with a strong bias toward the natural sciences and engineering. Few of them were products of religious schools; indeed, many had trained in Europe or the United States and spoke as many as five or six languages. They did not show signs of mental disorders. Many were not even very religious when they joined the jihad”

In 2011, with the loss of key leaders, culminating in the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s operations have devolved from actions that were controlled from the top down, to actions by associated groups and lone-wolf operators. Characteristic techniques employed by al-Qaeda include suicide attacks and the simultaneous bombing of different targets.

At present (2017), the leader of al-Qaeda has attacked new terrorist group ISIS for “madness” and “exceeding the limits of extremism” as the two terror groups continue to compete for territory and supporters around the world.

One of the fun-facts about al-Qaeda is that they love Casio watches, especially The Casio F-91W.

Osama bin Laden and F-91W on his wrist.

8. The Big Wedding

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed – the uncle of Ramzi Yousef who had bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 – came to bin Laden with a portfolio of schemes for future attacks against America, including one that would require training pilots to crash airplanes into buildings. At first Bin la Den declined, but several years later he decided to proceed the operation which was coded “The Big Wedding”

To carry out the operation, bin Laden chose cell members with that could easily obtain U.S Visa (e.g. those with Saudi Arabian citizenship), had good command of English and familiar with Western living then enrolled them into US flight school.

On Jan 6 2000, a planning took place in a secluded condominium in Kuala Lumpur. On Jan 15 2000, two cell members Hazmi and Mihdhar flown to Los Angeles. CIA was aware of both the meeting and the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the United States but they decided to withhold the information from other government agencies, which blocked the bureau’s investigation and allowed the 9/11 plot to proceed.

On Oct 12 2000 (nearly one year before the attacks), the U.S. Navy ship Cole, located off the coast of Yemen was attacked by suicide bombers. “We have to hit you outside so they won’t see us coming on the inside”

On Sep 11 2001, 19 men hijacked four commercial airlines loaded with fuel for cross country flights. John O’Neil, chief of the FBI’s counter-terrorism section in Washington, one of the few spotted the growing threat of al-Qaeda since its first days also lost his life at the World Trade Center (2 weeks after his resignation at the bureau into the new job on Floor 34, North Tower).

9. Osama bin Laden’s Will

A side of Osama bin Laden that rarely seen by public, when he expressed his appreciation towards his wives and advised his sons not to follow his path.

“My wives, may God bestow His blessings on you. You knew from the very first day that the road is surrounded with thorns and mines. You have given up the pleasures of life, your families, and chosen the hardship of living by my side.”

“My sons, forgive me because I have given you very little of my time ever since I have chosen the path of jihad…. I have chosen a perilous course, filled with all sorts of tribulations that ruffle one’s life…. If it were not for treason I would have triumphed.” He then advised them not to join al-Qaeda. “In that I follow the example of Omar bin al-Khatab, the commandant of the faithful, who directed his son Abdullah not to proceed to the caliphate after his death. If it is good we have had enough of it; if not, then Omar’s suffering was enough.”

10. The Situation Room

On May 1 2011, roughly 10 years after the 9/11 attack, President Barack Obama and Government staff watched the live feed of the commandos conducting a mid-night raid in Pakistan which ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“This was the longest 40 minutes of my life” – President Obama (Photo credit: Pete Souza)

Favourite passages from the book:

(Chapter 1 – The Martyr) There was little difference between the communist and capitalist systems; both, he believed, attended only the material needs of humanity, leaving the spirit unsatisfied. Islam, on the other hand, is “a complete system” with laws, social codes, economic rules, and its own method of government. Only Islam offered a formula for creating a just and godly society”.

(Chapter 2 – The Sporting Club) For everyone who tries, there is a reward. If he hits it right, he gets two rewards. But if he misses, he still gets a reward for trying

(Chapter 10 – Paradise Lost) It was almost impossible to tell the philosophers from the sociopaths.