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'The Terror Years' Traces The Rise Of Al-Qaida And ISIS

Author Lawrence Wright was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, which meant he was required to do two years of what was called "alternative service." He ended up in Egypt, teaching at the American University in Cairo. And it was there that the man from Texas started his obsession with the Middle East.

Since then, Wright has written a lot about the region and about terrorism as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Now, he has compiled his many New Yorker essays into a new book called The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.

But his interest in terrorism stretches back to well before his New Yorker job ... back to a screenwriting gig in the 1990s. He tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that the 1998 film The Siege asked "what would happen if terrorism came here? As it already had in, say, London and Paris, you know, how would we react if it happened in New York?"

Interview Highlights

On people's reactions to The Siege after the Sept. 11 attacks

It was the most rented movie in America after 9/11 ... I think there were two things — one was, it explained and looked at the problem of terrorism. But the other thing is, the movie has a happy ending, and after 9/11, people weren't sure how this movie was going to end.

On his piece about John O'Neill, "The Counter-Terrorist"

If you recall, the planes were all grounded [after the attacks], and I lived in Austin, so I was unable to get to New York for several days, and I was desperate to get involved in this. I didn't know how to reduce this vast tragedy to a human scale. So I was combing through obituaries streaming online, and on this Washington Post site, I found O'Neill's obituary. And it made him out to be something of a disgrace. He had been the head of counterterrorism in New York, and he'd been washed out of the [FBI] because he'd taken classified information out of the office. And then he wound up getting a job as head of security at the World Trade Center.

You know, his job was to get Osama bin Laden, and instead bin Laden got him. And I thought at the time it was ironic. But I don't see it that way anymore. He took that job because he knew that al-Qaida would come and try to finish the job on the World Trade Center — they had bombed it once before in 1993 — so he instinctively put himself at ground zero ... it was O'Neill and a handful of people that really realized the peril that America was in.

On the Americans held captive and killed by the Islamic State, and what might have been done differently

I'm not saying that they might have been able to survive. Unless the American government had taken the same policy as the Europeans, which was simply to pay off the kidnappers. But the American government opposes that, and also at the time opposed any Americans, even the parents of these individuals, paying to ransom their child. So essentially, the parents were left by themselves. They had no idea how to deal with ISIS, and they got very little help from the State Department or the FBI ... there was rarely any moment when the FBI or the State Department shared information or offered to help in any meaningful way.

On the relevance of al-Qaida in the age of ISIS

Well, al-Qaida is the parent, with all the progeny that has multiplied all over the world. If you call it al-Qaida or bin Ladenism or jihadism, whatever you call it, it's proliferated. So yes, the mother organization has been reduced — it's not extinct, but it has certainly been confined. But the idea that they have put forward is alive in the world and spreading rapidly, unfortunately.

On how we've changed in America

Well, I was reflecting about how, when I was in high school, I took a date to Love Field in Dallas. That was actually the name of the airport, but it was where a lot of dates went when you didn't have any money. And I remember that we climbed into this airliner that had just come from some European place — we decided it must have been Paris — and we sat in the first class compartment, and the stewardesses, as you called them then, brought us a snack, and we pretended we were really cosmopolitan. And then we went up in the FAA tower, "Come on in, kids!" So we sat down and watched these airplanes land. And that was America.

And I'm so struck, just going into an office building where you have to be photographed. In Philadelphia, you go visit the Liberty Bell and you have to take off your shoes and your belt. These impingements on ordinary liberty — the kinds of things we took entirely for granted, those are gone. But if they're forgotten they'll be permanently gone. And I think that it's important that we keep in our minds the idea of that kind of freedom, and if we lose that, then I think terrorism really will have won.

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