London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A graduate of the American University of Cairo, Texas-based author Lawrence Wright shot to international fame in 2006 with his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which was widely hailed as a masterful account of the rise of the world’s most notorious terrorist organization and early American attempts to combat it.
The success of the book spawned a one-man show and an HBO documentary based on his experiences researching it. Wright, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, then turned to other matters, writing a controversial (but critically acclaimed) book on Scientology, Going Clear, which was released in 2013.
This year he returned to the field of international politics in the form of a play, Camp David, which made its debut in March at Washington DC’s Arena Stage theater. The play is a dramatization of the 13 days of secret talks between President Jimmy Carter, Israeli premier Menachem Begin, and late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, at the famous presidential retreat in Maryland in 1978, which lead to the Camp David Accords. It is to be followed by a book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, later this year.
Earlier this month, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Wright during a stopover in London about his new play, the most recent developments in international Islamic extremism, and his opinion of US attempts to combat the phenomenon.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The presence of citizens of Western countries in the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has brought the issue of radicalization in Europe and the US back into the spotlight. What’s your take on the situation?
Lawrence Wright: In Europe, there are communities of distinctive [minority] ethnic and religious groups. In America, it’s more mixed up. In Europe—all the Turks living in Germany and so on—you have different communities of Muslims who often don’t speak the language of the country they are living in very well, if at all. So if you have a young Muslim living in Belgium or France for instance, where you have a very high Muslim population, he may not speak French or German or Flemish; he may not even speak Arabic very well. He may never have been to his home country, Morocco or Algeria, so he’s lost, and his religion becomes his identity, and the more radical his faith the more he feels like he has an identity. But I also think that we are now seeing so much despair in so many Muslim countries and in the diaspora of Muslims in the West with the feeling that they haven’t succeeded or haven’t fitted in, and that breeds the kind of suicidal despair that we see in those young men who are killing themselves now.
Q: Which is more dangerous, Al-Qaeda or ISIS?
I guess what is really dangerous is the lack of alternatives [to them], because both of these are dangerous organizations, but they are not meeting the kind of resistance that [Middle East] cultures need in order to protect themselves from the plague of radicalism. There’s not enough immunity in the Arab and Muslim world right now. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are contending for territory over a big swath of land from Russia to Morocco.
Plus, ISIS has captured the imagination of so many young men who want to believe in [their cause].
Q: How long do you think these Islamist groups will last?
I don’t know. To be honest I thought this would have played itself out by now, but they have proved to be more durable than I thought, and I think the reason for that is that what gave rise to these movements hasn’t changed. Until the societies that gave rise to these movements make some reforms and some progress, we’ll continue to see radicalism spilling out over their borders.
Q: Do you think the US intelligence services are up to tackling them? There have been several cases in which terrorists declared to be dead by them have resurfaced.
I think we constantly overestimate our intelligence capacity, and it’s been proved again and again that we don’t know enough about the conflicts we have been engaged in.
Q: It has been widely reported that the CIA, FBI and other US intelligence agencies suffer from a serious shortage of personnel who can speak Middle-Eastern languages.
Language is a real problem. I don’t know if this has changed, but after 9/11 there were very few fluent Arabic or Urdu speakers, or Farsi, or any of those languages, who were native speakers [in US government service]. We have plenty of people who speak those languages in the US, every one of those languages are spoken in large communities [in the US], but the American intelligence community didn’t trust them. One of the heroes of my book is Ali Sifan, who was born in Beirut and is an Arabic native speaker, and now I don’t know if he could get a job at the FBI what with the prejudice that set in against foreign-born Americans, and that put us at a disadvantage.
Q: The Palestinian issue is often cited as one of the factors behind the radicalization of young Muslims. What do you think of the various efforts to tackle the problem, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement?
I think anything other than violence is better.
Q: The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is also held up as a source of radicalization. Do you think it will be closed anytime soon?
It has to close one day. It’s gone on way too long and it’s just become a political obstacle. There’s no real good reason not to finish dispersing those prisoners who have no reason to be there and then putting the others on trial.
Q: After writing such a well-regarded book on it, you are an expert on Al-Qaeda. Would you say that you understood it completely?
No, I certainly don’t, and everything is constantly changing, as you see today, in front of us.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about your play?
[It’s called] Camp David, and it’s about the 1978 summit between [former US President] Jimmy Carter, [former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and [former Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat, and they are the characters in the play, along with Rosalind Carter, Jimmy Carter’s wife. It is about three men, three very religious men, who came together and made the only durable peace treaty that has existed in the Middle East, and so it is about how that happened.
It ran for six weeks and on the opening night President Carter and Mrs. Carter came, and Mrs. Sadat. I was worried because [Carter] hadn’t read the play, and I didn’t know if he was going to like it or not. And there are my characters, my cast—they have the president [there] and they’re playing people who are out there in the audience, and afterwards at the curtain call President Carter and Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Sadat came up on the stage and embraced all the actors. Mrs. Sadat went up to Ron Rifkin, who played Begin, and she threw her arms around him.
Q: What is your next project?
That’s why I’m on vacation! I’m trying to think about what I would like to do next.
Q: What about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? Do you think banning it will be the end of the movement?
First of all, the Muslim Brothers prospered because it was the only way for many Egyptians to protest against the government, and then more radical movements came out of that. If you look at [Al-Qaeda leader] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, he hated the Brotherhood. There was the [Egyptian] government and then the Islamists who protested against it, and they were the only ones who had the nerve to stand against it. The Brotherhood was an underground organization that went into government, and now it will become an underground organization once more. If you take out the Brotherhood, if you have only the authoritarian government and the radicals, without the Brotherhood in-between, then I think you will see the number of radicals increase. The other thing is that the Brotherhood provides quite a lot of civic and charitable services and so on, which the government fails to do. You remember after the earthquake near Cairo in 1992, the government [of ousted President Hosni Mubarak] wasn’t there. So if the government were to take up the responsibilities the Brotherhood assumed on its behalf, then maybe it wouldn’t make such a difference. But if the government fails to do so and there is a void in terms of the care on offer for the people of Egypt, then I think more radical groups will emerge.
Q: Do you think there is more awareness in the West of Muslims and Islam today?
Yes, for sure. Look at London. When I first started coming here as a young reporter, I don’t think I ever saw a veiled woman, and now you see them everywhere, so people are very aware. A lot of that has to do with the fact that many Muslims have had to flee their own countries and try to establish lives in the West, and this has caused a lot of tension. On the other hand, they come to places where they can find employment when they can’t at home, and they are freer to be the people they want to be. Maybe that will eventually affect the populations in the country they left.
Q: In the course of your career you must have faced some difficult situations because of the fact you developed contacts among Islamist radicals. Did the FBI ever come to you and ask who you are talking to, and why?
I remember the first time I realized that somebody was paying attention to my telephone calls. I had a source in Alec station, a joint CIA–FBI station [to track Osama Bin Laden], and I had got a call from one of Zawahiri’s relatives, who wanted to know if Zawahiri’s children were alive, especially his daughters, because they didn’t know.
The relative asked if I could find out, so I said I could ask. I called Zawahiri’s case agent at the FBI, and he said they were dead, which was incorrect. So I called the relative back and I said, I’m sorry to tell you that the children are dead. So I made them feel grief they didn’t need to feel. Sometime after that, talking to my source at the Bin Laden station, I told him I had to make this unfortunate call, and he said “Yes, I saw a transcript of that on my computer some time ago.”
I thought, “Well it’s the Egyptians, they are monitoring Zawahiri’s family and then they passed it on to the CIA or whatever,” so that explains it. So that’s what I told myself. And then, some months later I get a call from the FBI in Austin where I live, and the joint terrorist task force wants to come and see me. I’ve talked to the FBI before to give them some background on the history of Al-Qaeda and so on, so I thought that’s what it was about.
They came to my house and one guy had a briefcase and he opens it up and he pulls out some material and says, “Do you know . . .” and he recites a number. I said, well it looks like a number in London. I looked on my computer and it was a number for [Jean] Gareth Peirce, the solicitor who represented a lot of the jihadists I was talking to. Because of the nature of the conversations I was having with her clients, she asked me not to talk to them. She didn’t want me to talk to any of them.
And then they ask, “Who is Caroline Wright?” and I say, “That’s my daughter,” and they think she’s the one who has been making these telephone calls. And then I started thinking about how the FBI works. They make charts of links. I call you, you call Hani Al-Sibai, and somebody else calls him, and eventually they make so many links and they say, “You’re three steps from Al-Qaeda,” so you’re inside the circle, you’re going to be put on the no-fly list, or they’ll be following you.
I said, “How did you even get my daughter’s name? Her name is not registered on my telephones,” and I realized they must be listening to my calls. As soon as I started asking about that they closed the briefcase and left the house. And then I began to think back about that call I had made with Zawahiri’s relatives, and I called my source again and asked, “Was that a transcript of my conversation, or a summary?” It’s an important difference, because in the US if an American citizen is involved in the conversation, you’re not supposed to identify him. So the fact that they identified me was one thing, but the NSA provides only summaries of the conversation and not transcripts. He said it was a summary, so it was obviously an NSA intercept of my conversation.
So that was the experience I had, and I have mixed feelings about it, because on the one hand they got everything all mixed up. I can understand that they would think I would be calling people in Al-Qaeda. I would love to be talking to people in Al-Qaeda, that’s my job, and it’s their job, but [the FBI] got it all mixed up so that’s the danger of this kind of thing. On the other hand, they did come to my house and clear it up.