In 2006, after Lawrence Wright published his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, all he wanted to do was write musical comedies. Instead, he drafted a one-man play called My Trip to Al Qaeda, in which Wright starred, three years ago, as himself, a journalist grappling with the moral and ethical murkiness that attends reporting on terrorism in its nihilistic, post-Trade Towers incarnation. Tonight, the Alex Gibney-directed documentary version of the play premiers on HBO. (Gibney should be praised for transforming what’s essentially a talking-head production into a convincing—and compelling—cinematic experience.) In the documentary, Wright recalls some of the 600-plus interviews he conducted while researching his book, everyone from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law and a figure Wright is clearly still trying to understand: the personable and well-liked Khalifa, who may or may not have been involved in bin Laden’s campaign, was murdered by undiscovered assailants in Madagascar in 2007. I called Wright at his home in Austin, Texas last week to talk about My Trip to Al-Qaeda, the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policies, and the documentary’s harrowing conclusion: Al Qaeda can’t destroy America. Only we can.
You wrote My Trip to Al-Qaeda after finishing The Looming Tower. What is it that drew you back to the subject of Al-Qaeda and terrorism? Well, I can’t really get away from it. It’s really the central story of our times. Moreover, after spending five years working on the book, it just became so ingrained, so much a part of me. As much as I’d like to distance myself from some of the morals and emotions that are attached to covering the subject of terrorism, it’s really very difficult to do.
Did writing the play and turning it into a documentary help you to sort out these conflicting morals and emotions? Well, that was really the reason to do it in the first place. People had been asking me all along—what was it like? What did it feel like talking to those people? The truth is, I hadn’t really sorted them out, those feelings. Writing a play and exploring it in a documentary was a way of coming to terms with how I’ve been affected and how I’ve changed. It was also a way of looking at how the country has changed as well. Certainly since 9/11 the country has gone through a lot of turmoil regarding its response to those attacks. We’re still trying to come to terms with what happened to us and what kind of people we are as a result.The prognosis on how it’s going to turn out is not clear.
Have you come any closer to answering your own question, “Who am I when I’m talking to Al-Qaeda?” I try to be an objective journalist. It’s what I have been trained to do; I respect the profession and the craft enormously. Sometimes it was really difficult for me to hang onto the persona I like to engage when I’m acting as a journalist, which is the neutral, engaged, sympathetic listener. The feelings of grief and anger, the sense of loss, all of which every American had felt—they were really on high boil with me, especially when I was traveling in the Middle East shortly after 9/11. Sometimes these feelings would just erupt. They were very difficult to control.
Is there a particular instance you can tell us about when it was especially difficult to pretend sympathy? I had been in Egypt for three months shortly after 9/11 and there was a lot of cultural denial of responsibility there, especially then, and a tremendous amount of anger at the US. Bear in mind, this is a country I knew very well—I had lived there for two years and I had a great fondness the people and the culture. The sense of betrayal was another one of those emotions that for me was hard to manage. On my last day there, on my first trip after 9/11, I was interviewing one of the leaders of the Muslim Brothers who had just gotten out of prison. His temper was as short as mine, so we had a very, very bitter conversation, a yelling and screaming-type match. I rarely do that kind of thing. I never as a journalist…I try never to lower my guard so much that I really lash out. But I couldn’t help myself. I was just fed up.
Going back a little bit, I’m curious why you decided to turn your play into a documentary. When I’m doing the play, there’s an intimacy about standing on a stage and talking to an audience that feels like what it must have been like for the very first reporters. If you imagine how this whole odd career got started, just envision a group of people sitting around a camp fire and somebody goes over the hill to see what’s there and he comes back and tells everybody what he saw. Well, it feels a little like that when you’re standing onstage and you see light reflected off glasses rims and you can barely see people out there but you’re making your report. It feels very much like I’m a member of the community that has been delegated to find out what happened. But it’s a small group each night. You can reach a few people, but you reach them very deeply. With the movie, the experience is entirely different. The range of subjects you can cover is greater and the size of the audience is immensely greater. It has assets and liabilities like all forms of expression have, and I like being able to test myself in different media.
I was struck watching the documentary how unafraid you are to connect yourself to the Islamic fundamentalists you interview, even through the film’s structure and editing. I wondered if you were trying to make a larger point about empathy being a possible way forward. I think it’s essential to understanding the mentality of the culture we are in conflict with, that we imagine ourselves, imagine human reactions—for instance feelings of shame, anger, and humiliation. If we can identify those kinds of things and where they’re coming from in other people, then we’ll have a better and easier chance of dealing with them.
I’d love for you to unpack something you say in the documentary: “It would be naive to say torture never succeeds, of course it does, torture is a powerful deterrent.” Torture was used extensively in Egypt in the 1990s when groups such as al Jihad Al Islami or the Islamic group were waging war on the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people and the government responded in a really savage fashion. It matched the cruelty of the Islamists that were conducting their campaigns against the government. They got answers out of the torture and drove them out of Egypt. So there was a huge deterrent factor. But at the same time, the government lost its credibility with the people. It created the appetite for carnage that’s so characteristic of Al-Qaeda, and so unusual for most terrorist groups, who are usually interested in theater and not blood.
Your friend, an Egyptian playwright, says, “The US is now a Middle Eastern country and you’re going to have to think very old thoughts.” What might those “very old thoughts” be? For one thing, conspiracy thinking. Why is it that so many believe that the United States was behind 9/11, or Mossad? Thoughts that are completely supported without any evidence—you have to be able to confront those kinds of thoughts and understand where they’re coming from and why they’re thinking such things. As you see, since 9/11 we have plenty of conspiracy thinkers in the United States whose line of reasoning is not much different than that.
You put forth the idea that bin Laden is a very cinematic personality who’s following a “script” for global Muslim resurgence, essentially, that by drawing the US into conflict we will overextend and overtax ourselves until we are eventually so depleted that we withdraw from the area entirely. Would you say this is what’s happening now in Iraq and possibly Afghanistan? Yeah, and you know, we’re engaged in a tangential way in Yemen. The goal was to draw us really deeply into the Middle East so that we overextend and lose our focus. In that sense, beginning to withdraw from Iraq, you’re encountering that inscription on the part of bin Laden. Iraq’s fate is still undecided. It could turn out to be a real disaster for either side. Bin Laden never wanted to go into Iraq because he realized it was mainly a Shiite country and was therefore not a prosperous hunting ground for Al-Qaeda. Al-Zarqawi forced the issue, and of course we invaded Iraq, so then it did become an Al-Qaeda training ground. But the two [Iraq and Al-Qaeda] are not a perfect marriage. Neither is it possible to say yet that we’ve succeeded in creating a stable democracy in Iraq. I think it’s very much in the balance right now.
Do you think the American idea of imposing democracy on these countries is a viable one? No. I think, most of all, that the people have to demand democracy themselves. We can’t create an appetite for democracy, it has to be already there. Also, these cultures—the truth is, we knew very little about them when we marched in with a tremendous array of assumptions about how they were going to react to our presence. History had many cautionary tales to offer but we ignored them.
Is Obama just the inheritor of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies, or is he dong anything different? So far, he has been enthusiastically carrying out the counter-terrorism policies of the Bush administration. The use of drone attacks has shot up sharply in Yemen and Somalia. There’s an expansion of the scope of counter-terrorist operations that can lad to greater conflict. He would like to get out of Iraq completely, he would like to diminish our role in Afghanistan, but it’s unclear if he’s going to be able to make very much progress in Afghanistan.
It seems that one of the central theses of My Trip to Al-Qaeda is that humiliation is an important source of motivation for Al-Qaeda. Is there anything Americans can do to ease that humiliation, or is it something that’s just going to have to exhaust itself? There are a number of sources of humiliation. One is physical humiliation. Some Muslim men really have been physically humiliated, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two in Al-Qaeda, the doctor who’s always at bin Laden’s side. He was tortured in prison in Egypt; there’s a level of humiliation there that would be hard to match. But there are other sources of it—joblessness, illiteracy, the sense of marginality that so many people in Muslim countries feel is always contributing to this sense of humiliation and despair. You can have any one of those feelings. Poverty is certainly a contributor to radicalism, so is illiteracy, so is political oppression, so is gender apartheid, religious radicalism. You can have a poor country that has no terrorism at all and you can have an oppressive country with no terrorism. You can go down the list, but when you begin to combine them, each of them leading to despair, then you have a mixture that’s very potent and likely to produce radical reactions.
I was interested in how you compare Saudi Arabia to a “hypnotized chicken.” Recently, there were student protests in the country, which were actually covered by Saudi news outlets. Could this be a sign that the chicken is waking up? Well, here’s how you wake up a hypnotized chicken in real life. When I was a kid, my cousin taught me how to hypnotize a chicken on the roof of the barn. You put the head under the wing and swing it around a dozen times and set it on the edge of the roof, and the chicken will just stand there. It’s very creepy. The way you wake him up is you push him off of the barn, and suddenly his wings open and he comes to. What’s happening in Saudi Arabia is that some chickens are getting pushed off the barn: Joblessness is very high, there’s a youth culture, there’s a tremendous amount of radicalness in the area, there’s also a lot of money…Saudi society is maybe the strangest experience of modernity of any culture in the world. Think about how poor that society was in the earliest part of the 20th century. Then comes the discovery of oil, and suddenly people that were living with practically nothing have extraordinary wealth. It was a tremendous, head-snapping cultural change that flowed to an abrupt stop because of the fear of too much change. Now people are critical of Saudi Arabia for making adjustments to modern life, but I think that they fail to remember how much that culture has already tried to accommodate.
Who do you think will succeed King Abdullah? Well, with a gerontocracy, unfortunately all of the contenders for the throne are old men with old ideas, and there’s a tremendous amount of rivalry inside the family. I would like to see a young and progressive figure come to power, but I credit Abdullah with being a very progressive force in Saudi Arabia, and he seems like he would be far more progressive than his immediate successor would be. I’m in no hurry to see him go.
You say that the sometimes best way to tell a story is impressionistically. The documentary ends looking backward at the Bush administration and the war on terror, ending the movie on a rather dire note. I was wondering if that was intentional, and if your feelings on the matter are in fact pessimistic ones. I am concerned right now, like with what we’re seeing with this mosque controversy, not just in New York but in varying place around the US. We’re in a tremendous amount of discord at the moment and it’s a very dangerous discourse that we’re involved in. The level of ill-tempered remarks and scaremongers and misrepresentation of cultures and character assassination—all of these things are very dangerous. People feel entitled now, apparently, to say frightening things in public that have terrible consequences, and I’m worried about how this controversy is going to manifest itself and develop over time. It’s far more dangerous, I think, than the people who are making these comments know. Islam has many problems and there are lots and lots of radical actors in their religion, but there are also people that are not that way, and to lump Muslims all together in one group and fail to distinguish people that have very moderate views from people that are very radical in their outlook, this undermines the whole possibility of any moderation in the relationship between the West and Islam.