TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. My guest, Lawrence Wright won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 book, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."
That same year, he premiered his one-man show, "My Trip to al-Qaida, in which he talked about the process of writing the book and the moral dilemmas he faced dealing with sources who were affiliated with al-Qaida and other jihadists groups.
Now, Wright's one-man show has been adapted into an HBO documentary, directed by Alex Gibney. That film, "My Trip to al-Qaida," will debut tonight.
Lawrence Write is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at NYU Law School. He started researching terrorism in the '90s.
In fact, he co-wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film, "The Siege," which is about a series of jihadist terrorist attacks on New York. The film was cited as a reason for a terrorist attack on a restaurant in a Planet Hollywood chain in South Africa.
"The Siege" starred Bruce Willis as Major General Devereaux, who gives orders to seal off Brooklyn and put all young men of Arab descent in a prison camp. And Denzel Washington as FBI Special Agent Anthony Hubbard, who objects to Devereaux's orders. In this scene at the end of the film, Hubbard has come to arrest Devereaux for torturing a citizen. He's come with armed FBI agents.
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Mr. BRUCE WILLIS (Actor): (as Major General William Devereaux) Order your men to lower their weapons, Hubbard.
Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Anthony Hubbard) I can't do that, General.
Mr. WILLIS: (as Devereaux) Do it now.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (as Hubbard) The law states...
Mr. WILLIS: (as Devereaux) I am the law. Right here, right now, I am the law. Order your men to lower their weapons, Agent Hubbard.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (as Hubbard) You have the right to remain silent, General. You have the right to a fair trial. You have the right not to be tortured, not to be murdered, rights that you took away from Tariq Husseini. You have those rights because of the men that came before you who wore that uniform.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new film.
Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (Author, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11"): Thank you, Terry. It's good to talk to you again.
GROSS: Now, I didn't realize you wrote "The Siege" until I saw your movie, "My Trip to al-Qaida," and I certainly didn't realize that the movie was used as the rationale for the bombing of the Planet Hollywood in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1998. And what was that rationale? Was this an al-Qaida bombing?
Mr. WRIGHT: It was a radical, Islamist group in South Africa that was sympathetic to al-Qaida. But al-Qaida, at the time, was kind of little known. The reason that they attacked the Planet Hollywood is that one of the stars of the movie, Bruce Willis, was one of the investors in that restaurant chain.
GROSS: And he's the heavy. I mean, he's the (technical difficulties) who puts...
Mr. WRIGHT: He's the bad guy.
GROSS: Who puts Muslims in Brooklyn in basically, you know, a concentration camp and declares martial law. So yeah, go ahead.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I mean, there's so many disturbing ironies in this. But, you know, we're in the middle of a huge controversy right now in America about the role and place of Islam in American society. And that was kind of the first instance where Americans confronted Islam, and it was Muslims that were reacting to the siege, portraying an Arab terrorist.
And I was thrown in the middle of this controversy as one of the authors of this movie and told by some of the Arab-American interest groups that I would be responsible for any anti-Muslim activity that happened in the U.S., which really didn't happen.
But the controversy stirred up a reaction all over the world. And so when the trailers were being shown in the U.S., a bomb went off in this Cape Town restaurant. And the group claimed credit because of "The Siege." They said that they had done this because they saw the movie as an attack on Islam.
And they killed two people. A little girl lost her leg. It was a very wrenching experience for me. And, you know, I never really quite gotten over it. You know, the fact that I had written, and people had died because of it, that's one of the things that's very hard to live with.
GROSS: But what's amazing is, I mean, the attack was based on the trailer. The movie, the movie stands for not imprisoning Muslims, not torturing Muslims, keeping the Bill of Rights for everybody. And that is so clear if you actually see the movie.
So, like, your movie was so misinterpreted and ended up with someone's death and someone's maiming. So did that stymie you as a writer, making you think that whatever you write, someone's going to misinterpret it, and it might actually lead to catastrophe?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you certainly realize that when you're, especially in the movie business, you're engaging people's subconscious in a way you may not always realize.
And, you know, the truth is that there was a campaign already organized to attack the next movie that had an Arab terrorist in it, and this happened to be the next one in line.
And it wasn't a stereotypical movie by any means. We had spent a lot of time consulting with some of the same groups that later attacked the movie to make sure that we got things straight.
It was - and, you know, it was the first movie that I know of in America that had an Arab-American hero, played by Tony Shalhoub, who is an Arab-American and had never been able to get a part as an Arab-American before. All those things are, you know, disturbing ironies about it.
But the way the movie was portrayed, the way it was misrepresented, you know, it was very shocking to me. But it educated me about how dangerous this whole business is, what a witch's brew is stirred up by people who have an interest in creating those kinds of controversies.
GROSS: So how deep were you, in 1998 when "The Siege" was released, in your research of al-Qaida?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, al-Qaida was barely on the horizon when I started my research, which was, well, let's see. The movie came out in 1998. I think I started working on the research in '96. And al-Qaida was essentially unknown, and even to American intelligence, just barely, barely registering.
But it began to be felt by some of the people that I was interviewing in the counterterrorist community in New York, for instance. And I became, you know, very aware of the fact that there were these Islamist groups on the horizon.
Then, you know, before the movie came out, around the same time as the trailers appeared, al-Qaida had its first attack on American interests, which were the embassies in East Africa, where 224 people were killed. That was in August of '98. And the Cape Town bombing in reaction to the trailers of "The Siege" happened shortly after that.
And then, of course, you know, al-Qaida declared itself it had already declared war on America. But, you know, so few people took that seriously even in the intelligence community.
So the movie simply reflected the anxiety of some members of the intelligence community who thought this could be dangerous, and we should take them seriously.
GROSS: I found it so interesting that you, who wrote what many consider to be the or one of the definitive books on al-Qaida, "The Looming Tower," started off writing about terrorism in fiction, you know, in a film. And that led you to this vast reporting project.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, certainly the experience of writing the movie introduced me to the subject, and then and of course, I had lived in the Middle East. I had taught for two years at the American University in Cairo when I was a young man. So I had some experience in that part of the world.
Those two things were very influential in making me think: Now I want to know what really happened. I had pre-imagined something like 9/11. So when this event happened, and it was so creepily similar to events that we portrayed in the movie, I felt compelled to go out and it was really kind of a mission, in a way, to find out what had really occurred.
GROSS: One of the most obvious problems that you dealt with in your research about al-Qaida, you talk about in "My Trip to al-Qaeda," and you write about it in the acknowledgements for the book "The Looming Tower," and the problem is when your sources are jihadists and intelligence operatives, how do you know who to trust? And how much faith can you put in testimony by witnesses who've already proven themselves to be crooks, liars and double agents?
So what are some of the guidelines you set for yourself in figuring out how do you know who to trust, and how do you know what to trust of what they tell you?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, I think journalism is a flawed profession, but it has, you know, if it's practiced correctly, it has a self-correcting mechanism, which is, you know, the rule of, you know, journalism is: talk to everybody.
And in the course of writing my book, I interviewed 600 people, and I didn't get everybody, but I got a lot of people. But the other thing is some of those sources I interviewed dozens of times, and I find that the more people you talk to, you know, you get a broader range of opinion and facts and so on than you can possibly get from any small group. But then you can go back and check things that don't square with what you heard before.
So if someone told me, you know, I did this, and someone else says he wasn't there, then you go back to that source that said that they did that, and you ask them further questions. You either find out that they have no way to explain the discrepancy or there's a more interesting response than you thought you'd ever get.
I think, you know, those you try to check with documents. You always, you know, try to attain the veracity from other people that you know to be fairly straight shooters.
All of these things are important. But oftentimes, you're being steered, and so you have to correct it by talking to the people that have an interest in not supporting that particular line of story to see who has the most plausible explanation for events.
GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright. His film, "My Trip to al-Qaida," debuts tonight on HBO. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, and he's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." Now he has a new documentary film called "My Trip to al-Qaeda," and it's a film based on his one-man show about the writing of this book and the research for this book.
So, one of your best sources was bin Laden's brother-in-law, the late Jamal Khalifa. He was murdered or assassinated. And you say he understood bin Laden better than anyone. He had married bin Laden's favorite sister. What are some of the insights you got about bin Laden from talking to his brother-in-law?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, Jamal Khalifa was a delightful person. He had a wonderful, light sense of humor. He was always kidding. But at the same time, he was very earnest. And, you know, he had fought in the jihad with bin Laden. He was a high school teacher. You know, he had a very charismatic way about him.
And all these likeable qualities made me realize why bin Laden liked him. And in a way, through my own response to Jamal Khalifa, I could sort of identify an element of bin Laden's personality that actually it was a little uncomfortable to me because I could see the human side of al-Qaida. I could see why people might be drawn to bin Laden because of the nature of his friend.
GROSS: Did he defend jihad to you?
Mr. WRIGHT: He defended jihad against the Soviets. But he, not only to me but publicly, distanced himself from bin Laden, and he actually asked me if he could talk to the FBI to clear his name. And I said I knew a lot of FBI agents, and I would try to set that up.
So I did try and tried for actually several years. And I was finally told by a source that the FBI was forbidden by the CIA to actually make that contact with Jamal.
GROSS: Did you feel comfortable in that role of intermediary as a journalist?
Mr. WRIGHT: No. It's awkward. It's you know, a journalist is not supposed to play that kind of role. But on the other hand, you're thrown into these situations, and someone's life is on the line. As it turned out, it really was on the line. And you're asked to do something like that, and there's nobody else who can play that role.
So I did it. And I'm not ashamed of it. I wish that the FBI had talked to him. They would have learned a lot. I learned a lot. He was a tremendous source. But, you know, they declined that opportunity.
At one meeting, in an Iran study I was a part of, some very notable al-Qaida scholar mentioned, in a room full of people in the intelligence community, that Jamal Khalifa was a member of the Shura Council of al-Qaida, which is nonsense. But I think that kind of accepted wisdom is what got him killed.
GROSS: By which side? Which side do you think killed him?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, his family thinks that U.S. Special Operations killed him, and I don't know that that's true. But nobody was arrested in that killing, and it was ostensibly a robbery, but all that was taken were his computers.
GROSS: Boy, it must be really difficult to be in the middle of all of this.
Mr. WRIGHT: What I guess the most interesting part to me is it takes you into deep water that you're sometimes really not prepared to be in because you're asked to get information from people who have the information.
Well, the people who have the information oftentimes have blood on their hands, or they have a completely different perspective about the way the world should be than you do. And sometimes that leads to real conflict.
It wasn't always possible for me to behave in the professional manner that I like to comport myself. You know, especially in those first months after 9/11, I found myself engaged in really acrimonious, angry discussions.
GROSS: Give me an example.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, I went to Egypt right after 9/11, and it was a very sore moment in Egypt's history, and I was still grieving and angry.
And I had a conversation. I was there for three months. And the last day I was there, I had really been I thought the next time somebody wags their finger under my nose, I'm going to snap it off. I was really at the limit.
And I had an interview with one of the chief people in the Muslim Brotherhood who had just gotten out of prison. I guess his patience was pretty thin, too.
GROSS: And that's a very radical Islamist group.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. We had a furious, furious argument with each other. And A, I don't think it did anything, maybe cleared the air about what we really thought. But and then, you know, actually I went back a year later, and we had a more civil discussion.
But, you know, that's the I would never do that, Terry. I never behave like that as a reporter. It was just, you know, the times were raw.
GROSS: What was the argument about?
Mr. WRIGHT: He started his discussion with a description of American history in the Middle East, which was so full of lies and misinformation. And I started imagining how he was standing in, you know, in the mosque disseminating this completely false view of America's role, not that America's innocent or has its hands entirely clean. That's not at all true. But you don't need to go out and make up lies like he was doing. It still makes me mad. I can feel it. I'm getting mad all over again.
GROSS: Do you ever worry when you're arguing with a jihadist that you will end up hurt, physically hurt?
Mr. WRIGHT: No. I just don't think about those things. And this guy is not a jihadist. He's a Muslim Brother. And, you know, that's a different matter.
The mainly, I follow the Blanche DuBois philosophy of always trusting in the kindness of strangers. If you think too much about that sort of thing, you can't do your job.
GROSS: So give us a sense of something that you learned from bin Laden's late brother-in-law that you don't think you otherwise would have been able to find out that helped you understand what was going on with al-Qaida.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, for one thing, you know, first of all, Jamal and Osama bin Laden decided together that they were going to be polygamists out of religious principle. And in the course of that ongoing discussion, bin Laden offered Jamal his favorite sister, Sheika(ph). And so Jamal did marry Sheika, and he had three other wives.
But of course, I desperately wanted to talk to Sheika, but she, as a conservative Saudi woman, would of course never see me or, you know, talk to me.
But Jamal agreed to interview her for me. So every fourth night, he would go spend the night with Sheika, and he would take a list of my questions, you know, about Osama growing up and, you know, did he like girls, I mean, the craziest questions that only a sister would know.
And he would interview her, and then the next morning we would talk.
GROSS: So what did you find out about bin Laden, bin Laden's formative years from the second-hand interviews with the sister?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, and other people that knew him really well. He was always a very, very pious young man. You may recall the misunderstanding after 9/11 of this young playboy that spent all this time in Beirut, you know, kicking up his heels.
None of that ever happened. He was very religious when he was young, and he became extremely religious in his early adolescence. He was affected by a gym teacher in the private school that he attended in Jeddah. Back then, he was wearing a sport coat and jeans in his, you know, school attire.
And, but this is a Muslim Brother teacher from Syria, who began to turn his attention toward politics. And that's I think the seed of when bin Laden began to awaken to the person that we know him to be now.
GROSS: My guest, Lawrence Wright, will be back in the second half of the show. His documentary, "My Trip to al-Qaeda," debuts tonight on HBO. It's about the process of researching his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." His new documentary, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," is about the process of writing the book and the moral ambiguities he's faced interviewing sources who are members of jihadist groups. The film, which is adapted from his one-man show, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," debuts tonight on HBO.
I want to talk with you about another source who, you know, was a source for your research on al-Qaida, and his name is Yasser al-Sirri.
Mr. WRIGHT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And he is in England now where he has political asylum. Why did he need political asylum?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, because he was convicted in absentia of murdering a 12-year-old girl in his attempt to kill the prime minister of Egypt. He was one of Ayman al-Zawahiri's colleagues in this terrorist group that they had in Egypt called al-Jihad. And he was able to obtain political asylum in England because he had a death penalty.
GROSS: So how did he become a source?
Mr. WRIGHT: His name had arisen in some of these court suits and I had been reading quite a lot of newspaper accounts in the Arabic press about Ayman al-Zawahiri's associates. And so I tried tracking him down and there were a number of them living in London and Birmingham at the time, so I - through a third-party, I arranged to meet him. He's a real historian of the movement, and so it's not just a matter of curiosity. And he has a, you know, a trove of information and associations that very few people have, so from a reporter's point of view, he was absolutely invaluable.
GROSS: Now Zawahiri, who you have mentioned as the number two in al-Qaida and the kind of like the intellectual fuel of al-Qaida, so Yasser al-Sirri was very close to him. What are some of the things you learned about jihad and al-Qaida from talking to al-Sirri?
Mr. WRIGHT: The - one of the things that I learned early on with him is that al-Qaida was really an Egyptian organization with a Saudi head on it. It was Zawahiri and his group of men that he had assembled since he was 15 years old when he started his cell to overthrow the Egyptian government. He had created a cadre of people around him and transplanted much of that to Pakistan during the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets. So when they met bin Laden and found this wealthy young Saudi with some dreams of restoring Islam to its proper place in the universe, Zawahiri and his men surrounded bin Laden and enabled him, but also sort of captured him.
They - bin Laden was somebody that a lot of people had an interest in. But it was Zawahiri and his group that surrounded him and saw him as the golden goose, and...
GROSS: Literally because he had money in his family, that kind of golden goose?
Mr. WRIGHT: He had money. He had - I wouldn't say charisma, so much as a mystique. What was intriguing about bin Laden to so many of these men who were there, is that he was a rich kid from a very - and he was a Saudi, which has a tremendous amount of prestige in the Muslim world, and he came from an extraordinarily prominent family. And then to find a person like that living in a very humble existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan made an impression on people. So he drew people to him without really having to do very much. I mean people were already intrigued by the idea of bin Laden even before they met him.
GROSS: But you make it sound like Zawahiri and his people were in a way using bin Laden.
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, I believe they were. And I think that bin Laden also used them very cleverly. But initially, especially when bin Laden was, you know, unused to running an organization like that, had no real people to call upon, Zawahiri already had the organization. He already had the commanders in place. And so they grafted themselves on to this new organization that bin Laden wanted to create. The military commander, the chief of staff and all the central people in the Shura Council were Egyptians.
GROSS: So was Yasser al-Sirri, who was close to al-Zawahiri, was he still a jihadist when you were talking to him and he was living in London where he's working as a car instructor - driving instructor?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, ostensibly, he was a driving instructor and, you know, the jihad days were behind him. It's difficult to know where sensibilities lie and, you know, there were other people that I met in London as well whose views were even more radical than Yasser's. And I don't think that Yasser would've acted out again in London but there were plenty of people there that probably have and would be happy to do so again.
GROSS: We've been referring to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is the number two in al-Qaida and is it okay to call him like the intellectual behind it?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. Sure.
GROSS: Yeah. And he was a doctor before he became a jihadist.
Mr. WRIGHT: Right.
GROSS: So one of your resources for "The Looming Tower," and you talk about this person in your documentary film, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," one of your sources was a cellmate of Ayman al-Zawahiri while Zawahiri was in prison in 1981, accused of being part of a plot to assassinate the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. So what did you learn about what prison was like? You say that understanding that prison experience in Egypt is kind of essential to understanding al-Qaida. So what did you learn from your source that really helped you understand why that prison experience was so important in shaping Zawahiri, who ended up shaping al-Qaida?
Mr. WRIGHT: Zawahiri was picked up after the Sadat assassination in 1981, along with hundreds of other Islamists and he was charged with a small - a gun carrying charge, but he was only peripherally involved in the plotting of the assassination. But he spent three years in prison. And most of those prisoners, including Zawahiri, were tortured and brutally so. During that period of time, Montaser al-Zayat is the source that you're talking about. He's an Islamist lawyer who was Zawahiri's lawyer for some time. The prison became a great debating society. And a lot of the questions that were posed by these men were why did we fail? You know, what was the error in our thinking that led to us, you know, being here in prison and not living in an Islamic state, the one that we imagined?
And so, many of the ideas that were percolating there, boiled into al-Qaida. And the - there's one thing that wasn't really I think voiced as an idea, but the torture that they endured, in my opinion, is what really gave them an appetite for revenge. And the bloodletting that is so characteristic of al-Qaida, and really is very unusual for terror groups which are mainly interested in theater, I think it was born in the humiliation that those men felt in those Egyptian prisons.
GROSS: What kind of torture?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there's, you know, the basic torture, which was simply that you would be handcuffed and, but with your hands behind your back, and then your wrists suspended from a door jamb and you're left there to hang on the door for hours and hours. Some of the guys I talked to still couldn't shave and couldn't, you know, couldn't bring their hands together very easily, and that was really common.
Some of the other torture was, you know, with dogs. And one of my FBI sources said that he had talked to an Egyptian intelligence officer who said that they used the dogs to rape the prisoners. And it would be hard to tell you how humiliating it would be to any person, but especially in Islamic culture where dogs are such a lowly form of life. It's, you know, that imprint will never leave anybody's mind.
GROSS: So since you think that the Egyptians who were in prison were radicalized because they were tortured, and this includes Ayman al-Zawahiri, you must've been like so disturbed when you found out about Abu Ghraib.
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, yeah, it's just - it was unbelievable to me. It just, you know, it was - and it flashed back, of course, to "The Siege" where we had a scene of torture, that, you know...
GROSS: There's the movie "The Siege," that you co-wrote that we were talking about earlier.
Mr. WRIGHT: Right.
Mr. WRIGHT: The, you know, in the movie, torturing a suspect is a plot point. And that was one of the ones that I was really dreading watching come to fruition because one by one, all these little points that we had written in the movie came to pass. And then Abu Ghraib comes along and you see the kind of pornography of torture that we used using many of the same techniques that the Egyptians had perfected.
I was, you know, it's crushing as an American to see us engaging in that kind of behavior. But what's even more worrisome is the loss of faith that so many people had in America for standing for something different. Even among the jihadis that I talked to, America always had a better reputation than their own countries, and especially their own intelligence agencies.
GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright. His film, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," debuts tonight on HBO. More, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11." His new documentary, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," is about researching the book. It debuts tonight on HBO.
Now, you talk in your documentary "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," about the Quran and what the Quran has to say about suicide. And you said that the Quran says, do not kill yourself and that the punishment for suicide is to spend eternity killing yourself with the same instrument you used to die. What insights do you have about how al-Qaida managed to make suicide a holy thing, where these, you know, beautiful things happen to you as a result of it and you become a hero in the eyes of the prophet?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it was actually Ayman al-Zawahiri who pioneered this. He was the very first to use suicide bombers, even before the Palestinians did, in his attempts on political figures inside Egypt. He even pioneered the use of martyrdom videos. And after 1996, when he had blown up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, killing mainly Muslims, a lot of other Muslims were very angry with him and, you know, wanting to understand how can you justify that? And so he wrote a response to their queries. He compared the suicide bombers to the martyrs of Christianity.
There weren't very many examples he could draw upon from Islam because of this absolute prohibition within the Quran. And it's really ironic that it was Christian martyrs that became the basis of his argument.
The notion is that you are a guided missile. And the idea that you're going to be sacrificing yourself for a cause that's greater than you overcomes this kind of prohibition. It's sophistry. It's - in my opinion, many people don't really pay attention to the argument. I think that the young men that are drawn into al-Qaida with a goal of committing suicide have other causes driving them than simply Zawahiri's legalistic argument about how you can kill yourself and get away with it.
I think that, you know, it's almost a total ban on the idea of suicide in Muslim countries. It's completely taboo. So if you are feeling despairing and you are the type of person that in another society might want to kill yourself, how do you go about that? Well, for one thing, al-Qaida offers you a route to paradise, at least they say so.
GROSS: So you think that a lot of people who join al-Qaida to become suicide bombers are clinically depressed?
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, I think there's no doubt about it. And, you know, the studies that have been done about the young men drawn into these groups typically show them to be fairly well-educated. You know, especially, you know, the early leaders of al-Qaida, you know, professional men, well-educated, some of them not even very religious. So, you know, what is it? You know, what are all the elements? And if you're going to try to pin down a single word about what is it that characterizes the drive into this kind of radical reaction, I think a word might be despair. Because there are many different rivers that lead into despair, you know, there's poverty. There's political repression. There's gender apartheid. You know, there's a sense of a cultural loss. There's religious fanaticism. All of these elements are present in many different Muslim countries in varying degree.
And, you know, the world is full of poor countries that don't produce terrorists. And the world is full of repressive governments that don't have violent insurgencies. But when you start mixing all these different elements together then you get a very combustible combination, and I think that's what you see in so many of these countries.
GROSS: And you think that some of that despair is a result of the kind of limited life that you have in countries like Saudi Arabia, the lack of freedom, especially for women.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. And, you know, each of these countries is entirely different entities, so the mixture is different. In Saudi Arabia, you have practically no civil society at all. You know, there's nothing between the government and the mosque. It's just, you know, it's a very, very diminished sense of what you're - what's available for you to do in life. And certainly, the gender apartheid is a real problem.
You know, these young men are not socialized. They haven't grown up learning how to please girls, which is a lot of what civilization is, in my opinion. And this absence of contact with females is just a profoundly negative influence on the development of young male minds, in my opinion.
GROSS: How do you think your sources from the world of al-Qaida saw you? Do you think they saw you as like a good guy because you were trying to tell the genuine story of al-Qaida? Or do you think they saw you as a bad guy for just that reason?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, it's hard to know. One of the worst problems that a foreign correspondent has, especially in that part of the world, is that people are constantly accusing you of being in the CIA, which is, you know, almost like a fatwa on your head and that always was following me around. And, you know, I was not in the CIA and yet there was that common idea that if you wanted to know this kind of information you must have an affiliation with the intelligence community.
Their own presses typically were not very sophisticated and the role of the journalist, it was kind of poorly understood. So all that said, one of the great mysteries of life is how desperately people want to have their story told and how much they want to believe that you're going to be the one to tell it. And there's a sense so often that if they could only talk to you in a reasonable manner, you would see why they act the way they do, why they behave that way, why they think those thoughts. And so, what I'm mainly trying to be to them is the reasonable person they've been looking for.
GROSS: And is that a part that you're playing or did you see that - did you see your presentation as genuine?
Mr. WRIGHT: Both of those things were true. I mean sometimes I really had to portray myself that way, meantime thinking yikes or, you know, I'm - who is this guy? Or my God, what did he just say? And I'd just try to keep my composure. On the other hand, I really am a very reasonable easygoing person and I very much am interested in other people's stories. So it's not a pose all the time, but sometimes you just have to grip your chair to try to hang on to your composure.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR and talking with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: It's always a pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright's film, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," debuts tonight on HBO.
In the controversy over the building of an Islamic center near ground zero, both sides are arguing that sensitivities should be respected. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the use of the word sensitivity in public life. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
A new HBO documentary details Wright's experiences writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower. Wright explains what he learned while interviewing sources for his book — and talks about the challenge of maintaining objectivity while researching modern terrorism.
In 2007, Lawrence Wright won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, his nonfiction account of the formation of al-Qaida. The book, based on more than 600 interviews, examines the circumstances that led to the formation of al-Qaida — and the creation of Wright's one-man off-Broadway show, My Trip to Al-Qaeda. The one-man play focused on the insights Wright gained and the moral dilemmas he faced as he tried to remain objective while researching and writing his book.
A new documentary based on his play premieres Sept. 7 on HBO at 9 p.m. EDT. The film combines footage from Wright's interviews with his sources, many of whom have ties to al-Qaida, with scenes from his play — and raises several questions about the U.S. role in the "war on terror."
In an interview on Fresh Air, Wright explains how difficult it was to maintain composure and objectivity while conducting interviews with his sources.
"The most interesting part to me is that [the research] takes you into deep water that you're sometimes not prepared to be in," he says. "You're asked to sometimes get information from people who have the information. Well, the people who have the information oftentimes have blood on their hands or they have a completely different perspective on the way the world should be than you do. And sometimes that leads to real conflict: It wasn't always possible for me to behave in the professional manner that I like to comport myself. Especially in those first months after 9/11, I found myself engaged in really acrimonious, angry discussions."
Wright details a number of things he learned from his sources — and describes how his sources helped him understand the mentality that leads to young men becoming suicide bombers for al-Qaida.
"If you're going to pin down a single word about what is it that characterizes the drive into this radical reaction, I think a word might be despair," he says. "There are many different rivers that lead into despair: there's poverty; there's political repression; there's gender apartheid — there's a sense of culture loss; there's religious fanaticism. All of these elements are present in many different Muslim countries in varying degrees and the world is full of poor countries that don't produce terrorists. And the world is full of repressive governments that don't have violent insurgencies. But when you start mixing all of these different elements together, then you get a very combustible combination."
Lawrence Wright is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of six books, including Twins: Genes, Environment, and the Mystery of Identity and City Children, Country Summer. He is also the co-writer for the movie The Siege, starring Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis. He is currently working on a script for Ridley Scott.
On trusting sources and figuring out who is telling the truth
"Journalism is a flawed profession, but it has a self-correcting mechanism. The rule of journalism is: talk to everybody. In the course of writing my book, I interviewed 600 people and I didn't get everybody but I got a lot of people. Some of those sources I interviewed dozens of times and I find that the more people you talk to, you get a broader range of opinion and facts than you can possibly get from any small group — but then you can go back and check things that don't square with what you heard before. So if someone told me, 'I did this,' and someone else says, 'He wasn't there,' then you go back to that source and ask them further questions. You either find out that they have no way to explain the discrepancy or there's a more interesting response than you thought you'd ever get."
On how al-Qaida managed to make suicide a holy thing
"It was actually Ayman al-Zawahiri who pioneered this. He was the very first to use suicide bombers even before the Palestinians did in his attempts on political figures inside Egypt. He even pioneered the use of martyrdom videos. And after 1996, when he had blown up the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad — killing mainly Muslims — a lot of other Muslims were very angry with him and wanting to understand how he could justify that. So he wrote a response to their queries. He compared the suicide bombers to the martyrs of Christianity. There weren't very many examples he could draw upon from Islam because of this absolute prohibition within the Koran. And it's really ironic that it was Christian martyrs that became the basis of his argument.
"The notion is, is that you're a guided missile and the idea that you're going to be sacrificing yourself for something that's greater than you overcomes the kind of prohibition. It's sophistry. In my opinion, many people don't really pay attention to the argument. I think the young men who are drawn into al-Qaida with a goal of committing suicide have other causes driving them than simply al-Zawahiri's legalistic argument about how you can kill yourself and get away with it. I think there's almost a total ban on the idea of suicide in Muslim countries — it's completely taboo — so if you're feeling despairing and you're the type of person who in another society might want to kill yourself, how do you go about that? Well, al-Qaida offers you a route to paradise, at least they say so."