The Monthly Interview

Immediately after 9/11, the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright e-mailed his editor, David Remnick, and said, Put me to work. He wasnt kidding. Wright spent the next five years traveling to remote corners of the world in an ambitious attempt to explain the intellectual and political origins of al-Qaeda. He interviewed more than 600 people, including members of Osama bin Ladens family. The eventual result was a book called The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which was nominated for a National Book Award. But after years of mixing with jihadists and being eavesdropped on by the FBI, Wright felt he still had more to say. Last year, he converted his personal experiences into My Trip to Al-Qaeda, a one-man stage performance. The Washington Monthlys Peter Laufer and Markos Kounalakis spoke to Wright about the play, which he performed at New Yorks Culture Project in March.

LW: Its a little odd. Im not a character in my bookits not a personal account at all. But I had a lot of experiences and emotions that I was still dealing with, and this seemed like an interesting outlet for them.

LW: People were always asking me, Whats it like to talk to these guys? Youve met people in al-Qaeda, youve talked to bin Ladens family. And I hadnt really thought about what it was like. Id been so buried in the work for five years I hadnt reflected about the feelings I had experienced. I was trying to be an impartial reporter, but there were times that I was very inflamed, and I hadnt really dealt with those things personally.

WM: So, you walk into the home of a family member of bin Ladens and they invite you in, you sit down, you have tea? Whats the environment in a room like that?

LW: The members of the bin Laden family that I met were really gracious to me. I had become rather close to his brother-in-law, Jamal Khalifa, who unfortunately was murdered last month in Madagascar. He was a very interesting guy. There are a lot of accusations about his involvement in al-Qaeda. I dont think he was involved. But he was extremely helpful and insightful in guiding me to understanding the mindset behind this kind of radicalism.

LW: When I started this, the only person I knew who had done a one-man show before was Calvin Trillin, at the New Yorker. I asked him for advice, and he said, Use props! So I have a number of film clips. I have pieces of interviews with some of my subjects, so you can hear Jamal Khalifa and others talking to me, to help the audience understand the nature of these people.

LW: It was infuriating. The thing thats so demoralizing about it is how incompetent the government was in its surveillance of me. Instead of surveilling me, they thought they were surveilling my daughter, who was a college student at the time. They were monitoring these calls that were going from my number to a number in London belonging to a solicitor who represented several of the jihadis that I had been interviewingand the calls were mainly her telling me, Please dont talk to my clients.

LW: Well, it was an FBI agent and a bureaucrat for the Food and Drug Administration who happened to be a member of the joint terrorism task force in Austin, Texaswhere, of course, terror is an everyday concern. They were going to ask me about these calls to London. I thought they were coming for advice. I had spoken to the local FBI, since I had written about al-Qaeda and I had written a movie, The Siege. They had wanted some counsel. I am always helpful to people who really want to know something about this movement, so I thought thats what these guys were there for. But nothey were investigating me. So I started asking my own questions, like, How did you know about these calls? Whats wrong with talking to a lawyer? How did you get [my daughters] name?

Markos Kounalakis, the president of the Washington Monthly, and author Peter Laufer, the magazines broadcast editor, host the weekly program Washington Monthly on the Radio, from which this interview was excerpted. The show can be heard on our flagship station, Progressive Talk 1260 AM in Washington, D.C. For a list of other stations or to listen online, visit www.washingtonmonthly.com.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly. 

Peter Laufer