The Looming Tower

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Chapter 1: The Martyr (29 pg., 1 hr 13 min)

Summary: Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian national whose writings inspired al-Qaeda and other Sallafist-based terror groups, travels to America in the wake of World War II, is horrified by the nation he encounters and returns to Egypt further emboldened to promote an archaic vision of Islam.


  • How perspective changes understanding

Chapter 2: The Sporting Club (31 pg., 1 hr 19 min)

Summary: The early life of Ayman Al Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor and philosopher, who turns to Radical Islam out of disgust with the Egyptian secular government and the increasing inequalities in his native country.


  • Islam as an international force
  • Anti-semitism
  • The Muslim Brotherhood
  • Impact of colonialism on political radicals
  • Judicial torture as a tool for information and punishment

Chapter 3: The Founder (28 pg., 1 hr 11 min)

Summary: The early life of Osama bin Laden and the rise of his family in relation to the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a dominant force in the Middle East and world affairs.


  • The role of natural resources in transforming nations
  • The process of becoming a religious or political radical
  • The evolution of Salafism (including different forms, such as Wahhabism)
  • How sexual expression and gender relations are shaped by religious expectations
  • Impact of Modernism (including pop culture) in shaping economically emerging nations

Chapter 4:Change (17 pg., 42 min)

Summary: Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family who was educated in the United States, returns to Saudi Arabia to assume command of the Foreign Liaison Bureau (the Saudi intelligence service) and becomes a hero for helping to end the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979.


  • America’s support for Israel
  • The Saudi Royal Family in Saudi society
  • How rapid industrialization impacts social and religious life
  • The impact of the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979
  • How American education impact foreign royalty

Chapter 5: The Miracles (25 pg., 1 hr 3 min)

Summary: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan conspire to recruit Arabs from across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to join the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Bin Laden becomes a leader in this movement, helping to redefine the concept of jihad in a manner that promoted a Salafist view of Islam and the rest of the world.


  • Origins of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
  • The role and impact of foreign nationals fighting in civil wars
  • The role of America in Pakistan and Afghanistan
  • The rationale for and success rate of CIA covert operations
  • Impact of economic deprivation in fueling religious and political radicalism

Chapter 6: The Base (26 pg., 1 hr 7 min)

Summary: As the Afghan war against the Soviets drags toward a close, Zawahiri uses the mujahideen recruits to create al-Jihad, a group dedicated to overthrowing the secular government in Egypt, while Bin Laden begins to envision that the Arab mujahideen could provide the basis for an Islamic army that could help destroy that major world powers who threaten Islam.


  • The evolution and application of Takfir as a religious doctrine
  • Identity crisis as a force in shaping religious or political leaders
  • How the withdrawal from Afghanistan impacted the USSR and America
  • The perception of an inevitable clash between Islam and the West
  • Afghanistan as a divided nation

Chapter 7:Return of the Hero (20 pg., 50 min)

Summary: Bin Laden returns to Saudi Arabia, a land of increasing social changes and political tensions. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, followed by the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia and subsequent war against Iraq in 1991 led Bin Laden to issue verbal attacks against America and the Saudi royal family, and to finally leave the Arabian Peninsula.


  • The relationship between America and Saudi Arabia
  • The relationship between the Saudi royal family and the muttawa
  • How government repression fuels radicalism
  • Women in Saudi society
  • The Iran-Iraq War and its legacy

Chapter 8: Paradise (15 pg., 35 min)

Summary: The Afghan Civil War, that resulted from the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, continues while Bin Laden creates a base of operations for al-Qaeda in Sudan and America engages in humanitarian operations in Somalia.


  • The other jihads of the 1990’s - Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Kosovo
  • America’s relationship with Yemen
  • America’s relationship with Sudan
  • Nostalgia and politics in America and Islam
  • The Salafist movements beyond al-Qaeda and al-Jihad (e.g. Hamas, GIA, Ansar Al Islam, etc.)

Chapter 9: The Silicon Valley (13 pg., 31 min)

Summary: In the wake of the (failed) 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Zawahiri arrives in the United States to rally Muslims (and money) to al-Jihad and al-Qaeda, though increased attacks against the Egyptian government result in the marginalization of al-Jihad.


  • American charities and Radical Islam
  • Martyrdom
  • The effect of the Cold War’s end on the FBI and CIA
  • Suicide bombings
  • Using religion to justify killing civilians

Chapter 10: Paradise Lost (17 pg., 42 min)

Summary: The American and UN mission in Somalia quickly unravels, as al-Qaeda provides men and weapons to help support militants who attack American forces. Bin Laden faces some dissent within al-Qaeda, and deals with increasing alienation from his Saudi homeland.


  • Operation Restore Hope and its legacy
  • Algeria, the GIA, and other militant forces in the Maghreb
  • Terrorists hopes and attempts to acquire nuclear weapons
  • African civil wars (1990’s - today) and their impact on the international community
  • Radical Islam and the Sudanese Civil War

Chapter 11: The Prince of Darkness (12 pg., 29 min)

Summary: FBI agent John O’Neill works to build a counter-terrorism task force with Bin Laden as a specific target, while Bin Laden targets Saudi Arabia for its criticism of him and its relationship with America.


  • The FBI as a crime fighting agency
  • Evolution of counterterrorism in the national security agencies
  • Renditions - normal and extraordinary
  • America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia
  • The Oklahoma City bombing and militancy in America

Chapter 12: The Boy Spies (12 pg., 29 min)

Summary: Zawahiri increases al-Jihad’s operations against the Egyptian government and Egypt retaliates in actions that decimate al-Jihad and force it to join forces with al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s increasing hostility toward America and its allies leads to his expulsion from Sudan.


  • What constitutes a weapon

Chapter 13: Hijira (15 pg., 37 min)

Summary: Bin Laden seeks to find a place for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which has recently come under the control of the Taliban who competes with al-Qaeda in its radical vision of Islam and the world.


  • The Taliban
  • Afghanistan and the opium trade
  • The Islamic Caliphate
  • The power of religious symbolism
  • The use of religion to justify mass murder

Chapter 14: Going Operational (9 pg., 21 min)

Summary: O’Neill and the FBI attempt to get involved with the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile Alec Station is established by the CIA as a joint task force on counter terrorism, but major barriers to cooperation between the agencies exist.


  • The barriers to inter-agency cooperation in national security
  • Iran and Saudi Arabia in competition for dominance in the Middle East
  • Saudi mindset as a barrier to American cooperation in the Arabian peninsula
  • Sharia law and its relationship with national legal systems
  • Intra-agency rivalries as a barrier to crime fighting and counter terrorism in America

Chapter 15: Bread and Water (19 pg., 47 min)

Summary: Bin Laden solidifies a relationship with the Taliban while Zawahiri leaves Afghanistan in an attempt to establish a new base for al-Jihad - only to end up in prison. He returns to Afghanistan more committed to Bin Laden. From there he directs the 1997 attacks at Luxor, Egypt.


  • What constitutes a “pure religion”?
  • Russia and radical Islam
  • Al-Qaeda and the Taliban - evolution of their relationship
  • Attempts to create a pure Islamic state - evolution and impact on nations
  • The targeting of tourist centers by terrorist groups

Chapter 16: “Now it Begins” (28 pg., 1 hr 7 min)

Summary: Bin Laden defies the Taliban’s Mullah Omar by increasing his public image through a series of interviews, and Turki uses the public dispute to put leverage on the Taliban to hand Bin Laden over to the Saudis. Meanwhile the CIA and FBI battle over plans to capture Bin Laden, while al-Qaeda carries out its first official attack on American targets: simultaneous attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.


  • How foreign terror suspects are brought to justice
  • The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan
  • The interrogation of suspected terrorists
  • Operation Infinite Reach - lessons learned
  • The Geneva Conventions and the targeting of civilians during war

Chapter 17: The New Millennium (15 pg., 36 min)

Summary: While Bin Laden solidifies his position in Afghanistan and builds the ranks of al-Qaeda, he fails to build a relationship with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein that would allow al-Qaeda to establish a foothold deeper inside the Middle East. O’Neill’s personal failings, meanwhile, threaten his position in the FBI, despite success in stopping attacks planned against the United States at the turn of the millennium.


  • America and the Taliban
  • The creation, and impact, of personality cults
  • Iraq and radical Islam
  • What circumstances support the success of terrorist acts, and what causes them to fail
  • Sleeper cells - creation, uses, and what supports their success or failure

Chapter 18: Boom (36 pg., 1 hr 29 min)

Summary: Al-Qaeda launches a successful attack in Yemen, blowing up the USS Cole, leading O’Neill and the FBI into the Arabian peninsula in an effort to prevent future attacks. Meanwhile the CIA gathers intelligence from an al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia that they refuse to share with the FBI.


  • Who joins a terrorist group and why?
  • Use of biological and chemical weapons by terrorist groups
  • The growth of Radical Islam in Europe
  • America’s relationship with Yemen
  • International cooperation as a tool for fighting terrorism

Chapter 19: The Big Wedding (32 pg., 1 hr 19 min)

Summary: Despite increasing warnings, the new Bush administration dismisses the threat of al-Qaeda, while al-Qaeda finalizes the plans for attacking the World Trade Center in New York. O’Neill is offered the role of Terrorism Czar on the National Security team, but instead quits public service, just before the attacks of September 11, 2001 occur.


  • The Bush National Security team
  • History and legacy of how America responds to intelligence about intended attacks against it
  • Bringing terrorists to justice
  • Understanding the mindset of a terrorist
  • Keeping America safe - The role and relationship between the different national security agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc)

Chapter 20: Revelations (13 pg., 33 min)

Summary: In the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, the CIA finally reveals the information it had been withholding from the FBI, allowing for a definitive identification of al-Qaeda as the group responsible for the attacks. America launches Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, driving al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but not destroying it or capturing Bin Laden.


  • Operation Enduring Freedom and its legacy
  • The Bin Laden Family - before and after 9/11
  • The Taliban since 9/11
  • Al-Qaeda since 9/11
  • How America remembers 9/11