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'The Emperor's Children,' a Winning Novel from Messud

Fiction writer Claire Messud has twice been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. Our book critic says Messud's just-published novel, The Emperor's Children, might just be the one to propel her out of the "finalist" category and win her the gold.

05:02

Other segments from the episode on August 15, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 15, 2006: Interview with Lawrence Wright; Review of Claire Messud's new novel, "The Emperor's Children."

Transcript

DATE August 15, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Journalist Lawrence Wright discusses his new book, "The
Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," about Osama bin
Laden and the circumstances that led to the formation of al-Qaeda
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Few Westerners have probed the personalities, principles and operations of
al-Qaeda like our guest writer, Lawrence Wright. He spent nearly five years
researching his new book, interviewing more than 600 people, including members
of al-Qaeda and related jihadist groups, as well as friends and relatives of
Osama bin Laden. His book, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to
9/11," explores the development of al-Qaeda, as well as the efforts of the FBI
agents to crack the organization before it carried out the September 11th
attack. Lawrence Wright spent two years teaching at the American University
in Cairo in the late 1960s. He's authored six previous books and has written
for The New Yorker and other publications. He also co-wrote the screenplay
for "The Siege," a 1998 film starring Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington about
the nation's reactions to a band of Islamic terrorists.

Well, Lawrence Wright, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, Osama bin Laden is
known to a lot of people as a man who really made his bones in Afghanistan in
the 1980s, recruiting and leading Arabs in the fight against the Russian
invasion there. Your book looks at that in some detail. How significant was
bin Laden and his Arab recruits? How significant was their role in their war?

Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It was utterly insignificant. In fact, they were an
obstacle to victory, if anything. The Afghans were mystified by these
death-seeking Arabs who came seeking martyrdom to Afghanistan when the Afghan
people really were seeking liberation, so they had completely different
objectives. The Arabs when they arrived had no idea that the Soviets might
actually be defeated. They were only looking to engage in jihad and find
their way to paradise, so oftentimes they would rush into battle and
complicate things immensely and get killed in great numbers as they did, but
they really contributed nothing to the eventual outcome, which was the
withdrawal of the Soviet forces.

DAVIES: However, their exploits were, in fact, sold in the Arab world as
pretty remarkable, right?

Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, they--bin Laden in particular was a wonderful spinmeister,
and after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the entire Soviet
Union fell apart, and so the mythology just grew that, you know, this band,
this legend of--this small band of men that rushed in to defend Islam and then
slay the mighty superpower so thoroughly that it completely disappeared, that
grew up around bin Laden, and he did a lot to create that mythology himself.

DAVIES: Now there was this--also this character Abdullah Azzam who was a
Palestinian cleric who became involved in recruiting Arabs from other
countries to go fight in Afghanistan and he told some really tall tales, I
gather, about what he and his Arab compatriots were doing in Afghanistan.

Mr. WRIGHT: Abdullah was really the godfather of the jihad. He went around
the world and especially, he went to Jeddah, which was bin Laden's hometown,
and began talking about this war and telling tales of miracles that occurred
in Afghanistan, of fighters who would find bullet holes in their clothing but
weren't wounded, or those who actually died, their blood would never stop
pouring and their bodies would never putrefy and their--green birds would
surround them and sing songs of paradise, and all of these tales became a part
of the legend that lured these young men to this magical place, Afghanistan.
As it happens, actually Azzam would pay people to bring him these stories, and
so the more lurid they were, sometimes, the more they would get paid and no
doubt they got bigger and bigger as the years passed by.

DAVIES: Now, even though bin Laden and his fellow Arab fighters weren't
effective as a military force and were often left out and ignored by the real
Afghan fighters, you write that bin Laden himself began to develop a vision of
maintaining a core of Islamic fighters for future efforts. What exactly was
he conceiving of?

Mr. WRIGHT: Originally, he was an anti-communist. His goal was to drive the
Soviets out of Afghanistan and then on through central Asia, and also he was
particularly attached to his ancestral homeland, Yemen, which had a communist
government at that time. So his conception was that he was going to create a
Muslim--specifically an Arab--foreign legion. It could be on-call, to go
wherever in the world Muslims were oppressed, especially by communists. And
when the Soviet Union then proceeded to fall apart, there was bin Laden with a
small army but no enemy.

DAVIES: Now, he makes his way back to Saudi Arabia after the Russians retreat
in 1989. What is his status in the country then?

Mr. WRIGHT: He was a really paradoxical figure. Saudi Arabia is a place
where, you know, the royal family really hoards all the glory. You know,
there are no photographs, no portraits of anyone other than the leading
princes. All the hospital wings are named after them, the streets and so on,
so if you're not royal, you may be rich but you're really not anyone. You're
just living--you're a guest in the house of Saud, and here came this young man
who was rich, who was glamorous, who was ambitious, who had a small army at
his disposal, and he became Saudi Arabia's first celebrity, which was a
category they hadn't had to contend with before that.

DAVIES: Did he see himself then as a jihadist or was he a guy who was going
to raise his children and stay with his wives?

Mr. WRIGHT: After bin Laden came back to Saudi Arabia in 1989, he settled
down. He was investing in companies in Jeddah and Medina, and something
happened, though, that disrupted that kind of peaceful idyll. In 1990 Saddam
Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Iraqi army was poised on the Saudi border.
And, of course, the kingdom was in a panic about what to do, and bin Laden
went to the defense minister and proposed that he would use his organization,
al-Qaeda, to defend the kingdom, along with several hundred thousand
unemployed Saudi youth and the bulldozers and caterpillars that were at his
disposal at the Saudi Bin Laden company. Of course, the Iraqi army had a
million men. It was one of the largest tank corps in the world, and the
defense minister just laughed at him, and the king, you know, then invited the
Americans to come save them from the Iraqi threat. Bin Laden was really
offended by this, offended by his treatment, offended that the Saudis would
turn into heretics and apostates, as he saw the Americans, and bring them onto
the Holy Land of Saudi Arabia where as the prophet said on his death bed,
`There should be no two religions in Arabia.' He saw this as a huge offense
against Islam.

DAVIES: So Osama bin Laden comes into conflict with the royal family of Saudi
Arabia because he condemns them for their invitation of US troops. It
eventually reaches the point where he has to leave and makes his way to Sudan.
How did he come to resettle in the country of Sudan?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, Sudan had just gone through an Islamic revolution and led
by this philosopher-king named Hassan al-Turabi, and Turabi had sent
emissaries to bin Laden to invite him to come to Khartoum because he knew that
bin Laden was very rich and involved in the construction business and he
wanted someone like that to come invest in Sudan. At the time, the Sudanese
government opened the country to anyone who said he was a Muslim, and
consequently a number of different terrorists groups who were unwanted in
their own countries began streaming into Khartoum, and it became a haven for
the PLO, the PFLOP, Abu Nidal group. You know, every known terrorist group
seemed to have a foothold, if not a headquarters, in Khartoum, and it was into
this nest of, you know, very dissident factions that bin Laden arrived in
1992, bringing this kind of straggly band of al-Qaeda fighters from
Afghanistan and other points to reassemble there and set up camps.

DAVIES: But the remarkable thing is, as you describe it, he ends up sort of
finding a happy pastoral life. He invests in several businesses, and at one
point says, `I'm through with fighting.'

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, he loved farming. He loved the kind of scientific side of
it, too. He was involved with genetic experimentation with seeds. He
probably boasted that he grew the largest sunflowers in the world and that
they should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. He would actually carry
sunflowers around to show people how big they were. So he was very entranced
by his business life but especially the agricultural life.

DAVIES: So what brought him back to jihad?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there were several things, but I think the main thing was
the presence of the American troops in his home country. He saw that as such
an insult, and he was inflamed by that. He spoke out against the presence of
the Americans and he was also supporting the Egyptian groups that were in
Sudan who were waging a war on their native country and the Egyptians
complained repeatedly to the Saudis, and this kind of pressure eventually
caused the king of Saudi Arabia to revoke bin Laden's citizenship and that was
another insult. So a series of personal slights led him to conclude that he
was going to turn again to terrorism. And at about that time, a probable
cause came along in the famine in Somalia, and there was an international
relief course, including American troops who were there to try to alleviate
the suffering of all these people in Somalia. Al-Qaeda theorists looked at
the--what they call the invasion of Somalia as an attempt to capture the horn
of Africa. And so bin Laden dispatched al-Qaeda trainers to help the Somalis
in resisting this foreign occupation, as they saw it. And he may well have
trained the people that shot down the Black Hawk helicopters the Americans
were killed in in Mogadishu. So the turn towards terrorism actually took
place in those otherwise idyllic years in Sudan.

DAVIES: Lawrence Wright's new book is "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the
Road to 9/11."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: My guest is journalist Lawrence Wright. His new book is "The Looming
Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

You know, the retreat of the American forces from Somalia has been cited as
another example in which Islamic fighters stood up to the United States and
forced it to retreat. You said earlier that Osama bin Laden had done a job of
spinning his role in Afghanistan. Did he exaggerate his role in Somalia as
well? How did he describe his role and the role of his compatriots in
Somalia?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, he often takes credit for things that he doesn't really
deserve, and then sometimes he denies having done things. But in Somalia,
they seem to have had very little to do with the actual fighting. They
probably did have something to do with some of the training of the Somali
tribesmen. But bin Laden took credit for having shot down, or at least having
sponsored that, and shot down the Black Hawk helicopters, and the lesson he
drew from that was that just a small strike against the Americans will send
them running. They were not a frightening foe. All they had to do was kill a
few servicemen, and then they would drag their tail out of there as quickly as
they can.

DAVIES: You mentioned earlier that he was involved with Egyptians in Sudan.
Now these were Islamic fundamentalists who had for decades been fighting
against the secular government of Egypt. Right?

Mr. WRIGHT: That's correct, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a medical doctor, who
had started a cell to overthrow the Egyptian government when he was 15 years
old.

DAVIES: And they also--the other Islamic groups in Egypt staged some
spectacular and bloody attacks on tourist shrines in Egypt, too, right?

Mr. WRIGHT: You know, the war in Egypt is one of the most savage
experiences, you know, in the '90s. It was--they were not just al-Jihad,
which was Zawahiri's group. There was Gama'a al-Islamiyya, which was led by
their spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. And between the two groups,
they were responsible for the murder of hundreds and hundreds of people in
Egypt and dozens of foreign tourists, especially at the shrine of Luxor in
1997, where 57 tourists were shot down and butchered. It was just an
appalling rampage of terror that turned the Egyptian people against them so
thoroughly that it actually permitted the government to behave--the government
rounded them up and put them in concentration camps. Anybody that was even
suspected of being sympathetic or saying anything sympathetic for the cause of
the terrorists was thrown in prison. Young men were--I mean, women were drawn
out in the streets and stripped naked and told, `If your son is not here next
time, you'll be raped in the street.' It was really barbaric warfare on both
parts, but it ended with all of the Egyptian elements of Zawahiri's people
being rounded up and eventually the terrorists inside Egypt declared a truce
and until recently that has not been violated.

DAVIES: Now, did the role of the Egyptians in Sudan, in some of these
atrocities, is that what prompted the government of Sudan to ultimately decide
it had to expel al-Qaeda?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. The international pressure was just way too great on the
Sudanese, and so--and the Americans were very engaged in trying to get bin
Laden out of there. This was unfortunate. It was a real strategic error on
the part of the Americans because we had, at that time, no indictment. The
Sudanese actually offered to turn him over to us but what were we going to do?
We didn't know anything about his involvement in Somalia, and we might not
have been able to get a conviction on that in any case. He had not yet really
done any of his terrorist actions against Americans. We only knew of him as
an Islamic financier who was backing some of these groups. So the Sudanese
told us, `Listen, we have him under control here. We know where he is. We
know what he's doing. You know, if we send him away, he might be a lot more
trouble.' And they were so right about that.

DAVIES: Well, in the late '90s, Osama bin Laden is compelled to leave Sudan,
and he's been a man without a country. It's remarkable to read, you know, we
think of him as a rich and powerful guy, but he ends up making his way to
Afghanistan, and he's essentially broke and powerless, right?

Mr. WRIGHT: That's right. The Saudis had cut off his allowance from the
Saudi bin Laden group, his father's company, which was essentially the only
way he made any money. When he went to Sudan, he was worth about $7
million--that's about how much his portion of that company was worth. And he
had an annual allowance that sometimes amounted to as much as half a million
dollars. That was a substantial amount of money in Sudan, and so, at that
time, you know, the legend of him being a billionaire had spread around. He
was not anywhere near that, but when he left Sudan, all of his investments
were essentially stolen by the Sudanese government. He was almost penniless.
He may have had--one Sudanese intelligence officer told me that he might have
had about $50,000. But bin Laden's business manager, a man named Abu Rida
al-Suri, said he was penniless. So when he got to Afghanistan, he was--he had
to throw himself on the mercy of some of the old warlords that he used to
fight with.

DAVIES: And what kind of conditions did he and his--well, his wives and his
children who were there with him and his operatives endure when they first
settled in Afghanistan?

Mr. WRIGHT: There are stories of them eating nothing but raw pomegranates,
unripe pomegranates and stale bread, and drinking well water that had larvae
in it. They were living in a really, really impoverished and desperate state.
Actually, bin Laden always responded to those kinds of situations--privation,
stoic life--that was always what he sought, and when the Taliban offered him a
choice of places to stay, one that had utilities and air conditioning, and the
other which had nothing, it was called Tarnak Farms, he chose the place that
was really stripped of any kind of accoutrement of modern life, that he said
he wanted his people to be ready to bear anything.

DAVIES: And he related this to an episode in the life of the prophet
Muhammad, right?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, like many strict Muslims, bin Laden had always sought to
emulate the prophet in every respect, and so since childhood, he has fasted on
Mondays and Thursdays, and he attempts to sit in the way that we think that
the prophet sat and dress in the same clothing as much as possible. He's
always had a strong sense of what resonates with other Muslims. For instance,
the cave which seems odd and anomalous to the modern Westerner, the cave is a
richly symbolic place for Muslims because it's where the prophet went and
first heard the word of God, is where he sought refuge. The cave--you know,
stalactite imagery and so on is always present in Islamic art, so he had--it
was both his own personal drive, I'm sure, but it was also his attempt to
become an icon of pure Islamic thinking and life that led him to behave in
this fashion.

DAVIES: Lawrence Wright's new book is "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the
Road to 9/11." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

Writer Lawrence Wright spent nearly five years researching his new book, which
chronicles the rise of al-Qaeda and explores the personalities of Osama bin
Laden and other jihadist leaders. His book is called "The Looming Tower:
Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." Wright has written six previous books and
writes frequently for The New Yorker.

So he's in Afghanistan with his followers, with his family, and he's broke.
He's cut off from the wealth that his family's construction business had
generated in Saudi Arabia. What turns around his fortune? Where does he get
the money to once again become a threat and a force?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, first of all, he made an alliance with the Taliban. When
the Taliban were sieging--besieging Kabul and bin Laden had arrived, he
thought that they were probably communist. He had no idea who the Taliban
really were. But the Taliban took care of him for a while. You know, he had
old alliances in the Saudi kingdom and friends who would bring him some money,
and he didn't need much. This is one of the things about al-Qaeda that's so
striking is how cheaply they were able to operate. He sent several operatives
down to Africa to start a cell in Kenya and one in Tanzania, and they had to
earn their own living. They went into the fishing business, for instance.
And very, very marginal, but when he was able to bomb the two American
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August of 1998, that was, you know, a very
dramatic event, but our response to that event, to send 56 cruise missiles
over that did a lot of harm but no damage to al-Qaeda, that elevated him, you
know, in the eyes of many disaffected Muslims in the world, and it completely
restored his fortunes with him.

DAVIES: Give us a sense of what kind of a leader Osama bin Laden was. I
mean, he does not, from your account, to--appear to be a riveting orator, and
yet he somehow did inspire people. What kind of--how was he effective as a
leader?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, certainly in the beginning, he was not an effective
leader. He was under the spell of Abdullah Azzam, a very charismatic
commanding figure, but bin Laden always had this dream of creating this Arab
legion, and there was another man that saw in bin Laden the possibilities for
real leadership, and this man was Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who had
spent three years in an Egyptian prisons and had emerged a hardened
propagandist. He saw bin Laden and knew what to do with him, a little like
maybe Colonel Parker saw in Elvis. You know, I mean, he saw the possibility
here. He saw that this young man, at the time, had a lot of money. He was a
Saudi which has great standing in the Muslim world because they're seen as
being the most holy of people. And he was rich and here he was living in
these deprived circumstances fighting jihad. All of those things had not
occurred to bin Laden that they could become iconic but Zawahiri immediately
recognized their utility. He put them to use, so when bin Laden began to talk
about creating al-Qaeda, Zawahiri surrounded him with his own Egyptian
leaders, people that were military men, police men, technocrats, engineers,
the kind of people that could really put together that operation, and by that,
he really captured bin Laden and his dream and steered it into the
organization that it is now.

I would have to say I'm not intending to slight bin Laden and his leadership,
because if it weren't for bin Laden, we wouldn't have the al-Qaeda we have
now. Most of these groups, these jihadi groups, are nationalistic in focus.
It was bin Laden that decided to make this kind of international umbrella and
put them all under one tent and directed them mainly towards America.

DAVIES: It was around this time I believe that he issued his widely
publicized Fatwa in America, right?

Mr. WRIGHT: That's right. It was in 1996 that he declared war on America,
and then in 1998, he issued a Fatwa allowing anyone to kill Americans wherever
they see them. The emergence of America as the enemy is a little puzzling
because, you know, America had been so helpful during the jihad against the
Soviets. Although they never worked with the Arabs directly, they had
certainly helped the Afghan cause. And also, America was a very religious
country. It was tolerant of Muslims whereas, you know, the Soviet Union had
destroyed 50,000 mosques, so your contrast was quite stark. But I think that
bin Laden saw America as the leading edge of the West and of modernity. And
it was those things that he was fighting against. By picking the biggest
enemy, by picking the next superpower, he automatically elevated him and his
cause. If you turn your fire against America and then really do hurt it and
draw its attention, then it elevates you in the eyes of the world and
especially in the eyes of other Muslims that he was trying to recruit.

So all along the idea of the clash of civilizations was one that bin Laden
sponsored. He wanted to draw America in. He wanted to provoke it. He hoped
at the time that he could draw America into Afghanistan, and eventually, of
course, he did, and it turned out quite differently from what he imagined. I
think that perhaps Iraq is more what he thought Afghanistan would look like
when the Americans arrived.

DAVIES: You mean that when he began, when he first came to Afghanistan,
conditions were very sparse. After the successful bombings in Kenya and
Tanzania, money and recruits came in in a much larger scale, and you describe
an al-Qaeda which was quite a large-going concern and some of the procedure
they had--they actually had what--salaries? They had policies?

Mr. WRIGHT: Right. Paid vacations. A monthlong vacation and the
health-care benefits, and you get a round-trip ticket home each year. It was
all very bureaucratic. I--one of the things that bin Laden brought to the
world of terror is a lot of managerial expertise and kind of bureaucratic
overlay. You know, you had to fill out forms in triplicate in order to buy
new tires for instance. But all of this imposed a certain discipline that
hadn't been present in that kind of organization before.

DAVIES: I know that for this book you interviewed many people who are friends
and associates and relatives of al-Qaeda members. Tell us a little bit about
the life in the Afghanistan camp for Osama bin Laden's wives and children. Do
they live an aesthetic life or...

Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, yes, they did. You know, he had four wives at a time.
Altogether, he's had five, but when he got to Afghanistan he had three since
one of them had divorced him in Sudan. She couldn't take the life anymore.
She went back to Saudi Arabia. So he arrived back in Afghanistan in 1996,
penniless with 17 children and three wives. They--you know, in the popular
idea is that you couldn't listen to music, you couldn't have pictures on the
wall, and you know, there was no games and those sort of things, but bin Laden
actually bent the rules for his own children. He allowed his boys to have
Nintendo, for instance. He had calendars with pictures of horses, which
is--many see as un-Islamic. He--you know, his three different wives--they
live in the same compound. Two of them were, you know, quite devout, but his
first wife is Najwa, who is called Umm Abdallah because she's the mother of
his first son, Abdallah. She was actually--I mean, she married him when she
was 14 years old, and he was 17, and she must have expected that she was going
to live a life, you know, on yachts and in the Swiss casinos and shops on
Champs-Elysees and so on, but that must have been what she had in mind, and
here she was in Afghanistan. Whenever someone went out of the country to
Canada or the US or Europe, she would ask them to bring her cosmetics and
lingerie. She never gave up her dream of being young and beautiful. She
would often run laps around the compound in a tracksuit. It's a kind of sad
story about Umm Abdallah because bin Laden eventually remarried a 15-year-old
Yemeni girl and then Umm Abdallah had had it with him, and she left him and
went back to Syria.

DAVIES: My guest is Lawrence Wright. His new book is called "The Looming
Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: My guest is journalist Lawrence Wright. His new book "The Looming
Tower" chronicles the rise of al-Qaeda and the life of Osama bin Laden.

You know, how do you reconcile his tolerance of the accoutrements of Western
culture in a camp when he is at the same time, you know, inspired by such
religious zeal that he will cause the deaths of thousands of people to, you
know, to pursue an Islamic cause?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, he was always--I mean, he was very strict with his
children in terms of taking them out and exposing them to hardship but he
always had a kind of soft side, and he liked to go riding, he liked to play
games with them. He was never very interested in their education, although he
read to them sometimes. So I guess as a family man, he tried to impose a
certain kind of normality. In fact, I heard this repeated several times by
people who were family members in al-Qaeda that there was a kind of normality
about life even in extremely hard circumstances. You know, people had
weddings. They had meals together. They tried to make things feel fun and
normal. As strange as that may sound, I think in this--it's a very common
thing to try to form a community and allow children a certain degree of
flexibility because you're living in such really pressed circumstances.

DAVIES: During this time, bin Laden and this organization is responsible for
incredible savagery. There were the attacks--the bombings of the embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Where did the
idea for the 9/11 attack come from?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was, first of all, not a member of
al-Qaeda at the time he came to visit bin Laden in 1996. His nephew Ramzi
Yousef had been the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993,
which killed six people, and it really actually sent more people to the
hospital. It was a terrible incident. It doesn't seem so big in retrospect
but there were more people hospitalized by that than any other civil action
since the Civil War, so it was, you know, a very bad bombing, and it became
kind of legendary in these underground jihadi circles.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, his uncle, had fled the Philippines after the
Philippine police had caught on to their plotting to destroy these airliners
over the Pacific, and so he found his way to Afghanistan to try to sell his
vision of this airline plot, very similar to the recent one in Britain where
they were going to get on 12 American airliners, mix some chemicals together
on-board and blow them up over the Pacific.

So this is the scenario that he was trying to peddle to bin Laden, and bin
Laden at the time thought it was too complicated and yet he wanted Khalid
Shaikh Mohammed to join al-Qaeda, and he wouldn't do that at the time, but a
few years passed, and he did come back in and begin working with bin Laden.
They refined the plot over a couple of years. Started out with, you know,
`We're going to hijack these airlines in the Pacific,' but then bin Laden
started thinking about another alternative, which was to train these men to
actually be the pilots and to use the aircraft as weapons, not just as bombs.

DAVIES: As the 9/11 attack approaches, you describe bin Laden in Afghanistan
gathering his followers and retreating to a kind of a mountain hideout. I
guess this was Tora Bora, right, and bringing a satellite receiver and a TV
set because he knows the attack is coming. Most of those around him do not,
and you write that he and a number of al-Qaeda members are beset by vivid
dreams involving airlines.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. You know, these premonitory dreams were just rife. People
were imagining dreams of pilots playing soccer, for instance, and
dreams--actual dreams of airplanes hitting buildings. And there was a culture
in al-Qaeda where people would come to tell bin Laden or one of the other
leaders about their dreams, and they would just sit around and discuss them
and what kind of premonitory events these might presage, and bin Laden finally
told them, `No more dreams about airplanes.' He didn't want the plot to be
given away in this supernatural fashion.

DAVIES: Well, were these people who were having these dreams--did the people
who were having these dreams know about the plot?

Mr. WRIGHT: No, no, they were--the plot itself was very closely held, and
many people knew something was up, but the actual nature of the plot was--at
least according to bin Laden's rendition of it, was--the people who were
having this dream weren't aware that airplanes were actually going to be used.

DAVIES: You talked to a lot of, I guess, former friends, associates,
relatives of al-Qaeda members. How did you get them to talk to you?

Mr. WRIGHT: You know, it's taken five years. I spent a lot of time talking
to people who knew somebody and convincing them to introduce me to them.
That's the way, that, really journalism is done at all levels.

DAVIES: So, who were you able to reach? Were they bin Laden's wives, his
children?

Mr. WRIGHT: I spoke briefly to one of his children, and I talked to his
brother-in-law Jamal Khalifa, who was extremely helpful to me, and actually,
you know, in Saudi Arabia, you don't interview women, especially conservative
Muslim women. A man doesn't, anyway. So, I--Jamal did me the favor of
interviewing his wife for me. That was very helpful, and I used that
technique several times. There were people that wouldn't see me, but I
would--I would be able to send questions through an emissary that would take
them to them and then they would send back either typed responses or oral
responses that were delivered to me, and that way I was able to communicate
with some of the inner core. Then there are the disaffected people that are
very important, like Abu Rida al-Suri, who was a close friend of bin Laden and
his business manager in Khartoum. And he--I was introduced to him by Sudanese
intelligence, so it's serendipity sometimes, as in that case. And Abu Rida
has actually been a really good source for me.

DAVIES: The other thing I wanted to ask you, there was this recent revelation
in Britain of an apparent plot to produce explosions on airlines headed to the
United States...

Mr. WRIGHT: Right.

DAVIES: ...I wondering, as someone who has looked closely at al-Qaeda, what
you're looking at as news emerges of that alleged plot, what do you see?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, this may be connected to al-Qaeda or it may not,
but it looks like al-Qaeda. It's certainly from the al-Qaeda playbook. It's
a very complicated plot, which is probably what caused it to fail. The thing
that I note is that there was really good police work in this. This is--the
British have many more native speakers of Arabic in their forces. They're
much more involved in the community. I think rather than taking water bottles
out of passengers' hands at the airport, what we really need to concentrate on
this--in this country is becoming more integrated in our police services with
the Islamic and Arab communities, and that way we'll really be much more
protected than we will be by someone having to leave their contact lens
solution in the men's room. It's--I think scaring Americans is a--is not a
good choice about fighting al-Qaeda. That's what America--al-Qaeda wants us
to do.

I think that if we are accepting of a certain danger out there, that really we
can't change except by assiduous police work and by creating allies in the
Arab and Muslim world. That's the way we'll begin to defeat al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda itself has nothing to offer. There's no politics to al-Qaeda. It
only says that it wants to take over a country and establish the caliphate and
Sharia, which is the Islamic law. Well, Sharia is already in effect in Saudi
Arabia for instance, and several other Arab-Muslim countries. You can't go to
al-Qaeda and say, `What do you propose to do about unemployment, about female
education, about the Kyoto Treaty or anything?' They have no answers. They
haven't thought about it. It has nothing to offer the Muslim world, except a
chance for revenge, and if we eliminate the longing for that, then we've
destroyed al-Qaeda.

DAVIES: Well, Lawrence Wright, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: Lawrence Wright's new book is "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the
road to 9/11."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on the new novel by Clair Messud. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Claire Messud's new
novel, "The Emperor's Children"
DAVY DAVIES, host:

Fiction writer Claire Messud has twice been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner
Award. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says Messud's new novel, "The Emperor's
Children," might just be the one to propel her out of the finalist category
and win her the gold.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: They seem to have the world on a string. They're
youngish, good-looking and connected. Not too long ago they were all wry, Ivy
League English majors. Now they have the type of jobs that look great on
paper but don't always cover the rent: documentary film producer, editor,
book critic. Indeed, if they weren't the main characters in Clair Messud's
wonderful new novel, "The Emperor's Children," they'd be precisely the kind of
people likely to read it.

With her own beefy degrees from Yale and Cambridge, her award nominations for
her previous books and her marriage to the pre-eminent literary critic of our
time, James Wood, Messud is clearly of the culturally elite world she writes,
but happily, she's not bound by it.

"The Emperor's Children" is a fat, delicious and very smart comedy of manners.
Messud has thoughtfully overlaid this big, character-driven novel of how some
of us live today with a deeply informed echoing of literary history. Rather
than showing off her excellent education by writing a flashy metanovel about
everything and nothing, Messud reaches into her literary kit bag and reworks
classic dilemmas and characters via the novels of Wharton, Fitzgerald and
Waugh, to name a few. She complicates those familiar archetypes by unwinding
the illusions that wrap her characters in a sense of their own superiority.
By the end of this tale, "The Emperor's Children" have no clothes, although
one holdout, at least, remains blind to the naked truth.

The emperor of Messud's title is Murray Thwaite, a Norman Mailer-ish type of
new journalist who soaks himself in scotch and the admiration of the easily
seduced young. Murray and his wife Anabelle, live on the Upper West Side of
Manhattan, in a luxurious flat, as they would call it, that they share with
their 30-ish daughter, Marina, a beauty, who for years has been toying with a
book she's contracted to write about children's fashion. Marina is the kind
of woman who's been so stunted by her own golden good fortune that she's
capable of earnestly assuring her nearly attractive girlfriend Danielle that
she, Danielle, is lucky, because she'll never have to worry about whether guys
like her for her looks or for herself.

The third amigo, Julius, is a gay freelance critic whose most shameful secret
doesn't have to do with the sex or drugs he indulges in, but with the fact
that he's been obliged to sign up with a temp agency to pay his bills. While
at the outset of the novel, Julius still thinks he's hot stuff, here's how he
wisely marks the difference between himself and Marina.

(Reading) "It all came down to entitlement and one's sense of it. Marina,
feeling entitled, never really asked herself if she was good enough, whereas
he, Julius, asked himself repeatedly, answered always in the affirmative and
marveled at the wider world's apparent inability to see the light."

As I hope you can hear from that quote, a lot of the pleasure of reading "The
Emperor's Children" derives from its language, which entertains because of its
droll precision. For instance, Danielle, the most insightful and thus
inevitably most melancholy of the characters, reflects on growing up and
coupling as `a process of growing away from mirth.' Nominally content, she
thinks, one grew to fear jokes and their capacity to unsettle.

Throughout the course of the novel, all three friends grow less mirthful as
they fall for partners who are decidedly bad for them. Marina, most
gruesomely, hitches up with a slick intellectual lounge lizard from Australia,
who's starting a new magazine in New York that he pompously announces will
foment a revolution by debunking intellectual pomposity.

It's fast becoming a literary cliche that contemporary New York novels climax

with September 11. The fact that Messud is able to both sparely invoke that
horror and use it in the service of ironic plot resolutions attest to her
wizardry as a writer. The main characters in this superb novel may bring on
their own misfortunes by taking their distinction for granted, resting on
their laurels, but the hard-working Messud never makes that mistake.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Emperor's Children" by Claire Messud.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Davy Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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