A World Expert on Terror, Right Here in Texas
Austinite Lawrence Wright chronicles almost fifteen years of terrorism in his latest book, The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.
Being a conscientious objector, like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is not a negative if it breeds a positive, as it has with the Austin writer Lawrence Wright. In 1969 Wright, a 21-year-old living in Dallas at the time, was opposed to enlisting in the Vietnam War. “I sent in a really lengthy, rather Jesuitical argument against fighting in Vietnam specifically,” Wright said. “I certainly would have fought in World War II. I’m surprised I ever got the conscientious objector status.” To satisfy the requirements of alternative service, Wright, needing a break from his own country, went all the way across the world to teach at American University, in Cairo, Egypt.
Wright mused that he didn’t even know which language they spoke there—it’s Arabic—though it would end up becoming essential to his future career as one of the foremost reporters on the Middle East. Evidence of this is on grand display in his best-selling book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Since then, Wright has published two books and numerous articles on various topics, written and in some cases performed in four plays, and, being a keyboard player on the side, formed a blues and rockabilly band, WhoDo (he and his band will perform in Austin on September 25). But he is now back on the terrorism beat with the release last month of The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, which he will discuss during a book-signing event on Monday at Austin’s BookPeople.
Wright didn’t expect to still be writing about terrorism fifteen years after 9/11, but he has come to realize that terrorism defines the age we live in. The Terror Years, a narrative history, considers the intertwinement of the militant terrorist group Al-Qaeda and its founder Osama bin Laden with the organization that would eventually become Isis and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The book is composed of ten magazine articles from roughly the past fifteen years that Wright wrote for The New Yorker, where, since 1992, he has been a staff writer.
“I spent a lot of time writing about the evolution of Islamic jihadist philosophies,” Wright said. “There’s a war inside radical Islam that many people aren’t really aware of—and the controversy that 9/11 generated within Al-Qaeda and then the subsequent theological battles between Isis and Al-Qaeda. It’s too lengthy to go into, but the book addresses it.”
One of Wright’s favorite pieces included in The Terror Years is “The Kingdom of Silence”, about his time in Saudi Arabia in 2003. The Saudis wouldn’t let him into the country as a reporter so he took a job mentoring young reporters at the Saudi Gazette, in Jeddah, bin Laden’s hometown. Instead of holing up in a hotel, interviewing people and networking over the phone, Wright lived in a middle-class Saudi flat and had a day job. He admitted his protégés ended up teaching him more about the country than he could have learned had he been actually reporting. “I loved that period of time,” Wright said. “I learned so much about Islam, about Saudi Arabia, and about the bin Laden family and the context in which bin Laden came to power.”
The story “Five Hostages,” meanwhile, was heartbreaking. He interviewed five families whose children were kidnapped in Syria and wrote about their efforts to bring them home. According to Wright, the U.S. government was “totally unhelpful and actually hostile” to these families, threatening prosecution if they paid the captors’ ransoms. But the rise in kidnappings appears to be a trend that may force the government to rethink the law currently prohibiting citizens from providing material support, or ransom, to terrorists. “There are more than a dozen Americans right now who are being held by various terrorist organizations,” Wright said. “So it’s not a contingency, it’s an ongoing problem.”
In the nineties, Lynda Obst, a Hollywood producer, approached Wright about writing a story on a woman in the CIA. Wright prospected ideas and came to the conclusion that a better antagonist in the post–Cold War era, might instead be in the FBI. He unpacked that conflict in his screenplay for the 1998 movie The Siege, which more or less prophesized the 9/11 attack. So when 9/11 actually did happen, Wright was prepared. For the New Yorker’s so-called “Black Issue,” published in the wake of the 9/11 disaster, Wright contributed a story to a larger narrative, melded together by editor David Remnick. It involved Kirk Kjeldsen, a reporter who entered the elevator of the World Trade Center just as the first plane hit. Wright chronicled Kjeldsen’s escape from the carnage and his journey back home to the Bronx. We can thank the New Yorker for its rich investment and long leash in enabling Wright’s intricate, painstaking reporting, including the hiring of a fact-checker fluent in Arabic almost expressly for Wright’s stories.
It is extremely difficult to determine what specifically causes people to radicalize and become terrorists. Extensive research by multiple countries has pointed to a number of factors, though in and of themselves none are singularly to blame. Poverty, lack of employment opportunities, poor education, gender apartheid, and tyranny have been implicated. “All of these things I think of as tributaries in the river of despair that runs through the Arab and Muslim worlds,” Wright said. “There’s so much despair and so few chances to express oneself in the world. And terrorism offers these young, despairing Muslims an opportunity to make history. And that’s very difficult to counter.”
Wright’s outlook on the future of terrorism and its impact on the free world is grim. Despite reports that Isis is on the run, Wright estimates that there are 100,000 jihadists unbeknownst to us in the field right now that are linked with various organizations. And Al-Qaeda is far from extinct, with affiliates growing in Yemen, North Africa, and Pakistan. Wright is also concerned about the flood of refugees, not just from Syria but also Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Libya. He sees this pool as a huge repository of despair. “Western countries are fearful of letting them into their own countries,” Wright said, “but the status quo of leaving them alone is far more dangerous.”
It’s worth asking whether America is to blame for this state of fear that the country finds itself in. Many believe that we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, in 2003 following the 9/11 attacks, which created a sort of unintended security vacuum that allowed al-Zarqawi to begin to organize what was the precursor of Isis and the Islamic state. Wright thinks that the expenditure in that war, what he called an investment in creating misery and chaos, has been ruinous to the U.S. both financially and in terms of our safety.
“I think every American is anxious about another terrorist strike, and although we’re safer and we’re much more on guard, it wouldn’t be surprising if it did happen,” Wright said. “So we have to live with that. I fear that we’re in for a very long haul.”
BookPeople, September 19, 7 p.m., bookpeople.com
OTHER EVENTS ACROSS TEXAS
It’s Time to Panic
Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the country, with far-out movie offerings like Dog Eat Dog, by Paul Schrader, Elle, by Paul Verhoeven, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Tim Burton screened alongside wacky events such as Puke and Explode!—The FF Eating Contest, 100 Best Kills: The Miracle of Death, and what appears to be this year’s killer experience, the Satanic Panic Escape Room.
Alamo Drafthouse, September 22–29, fantasticfest.com
The Servin’ German
Dirk Nowitzki is a blitzkrieg of sports domination. In addition to his basketball prowess—with an inevitable slot in the Hall of Fame in his future—he has hosted many benefit exhibition games of baseball and soccer, and on Sunday he will expand his range with the Dirk Nowitzki Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic, featuring actors who play tennis players, like Ben Stiller, and actual tennis players, like Andy Roddick.
SMU Tennis Center, September 18, dnfoundation.org
Cause for Termination
Despite the best efforts of certain politicians, abortions are still very much a part of people’s lives in Texas. At “Out From Under the Rug: True Life Tales of Abortion”—part of Oral Fixation, a live storytelling series—people ranging from a Unitarian minister to an abortion provider to an abortion clinic counselor to a fifteen-year-old patient will discuss their individual cases in the court of public opinion.
Dallas City Performance Hall, September 21, 8 p.m., oralfixationshow.com
Get in Line
Great art can often begin with a simple line that magically transforms into something grand. That’s the basis of “Picasso the Line,” an exhibition at the Menil Collection made up of ninety works on paper using pen, pencil, charcoal, and collage. “Imagining Backwards: Seven Decades of Picasso Master Prints,” an exhibition that is ongoing across town, at the McClain Gallery, plays the part of a perfect accompaniment with fifty works emphasizing the artist’s work during the twenties and thirties.
The Menil Collection, September 16 to January 8, menil.org & McClain Gallery, September 16 to October 29, mcclaingallery.com
Shake It Out
William Shakespeare was such a boss that not only is his birthday still celebrated but so is his death. This year, marking four hundred years since he passed away, the Round Top Festival Institute will host “Shakespeare’s Legacy,” a day of lectures from experts including University of Texas professor Janine Barchas, a Jane Austen devotee who co-curated the exhibition “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” currently on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Round Top Festival Institute, September 17, 10 a.m., festivalhill.org