KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
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. His book is a compilation of his magazine pieces called "The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State." Wright says his interest in terrorism goes back before 9/11 when he was asked to write a movie.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: You know, it came out in 1998. It was called "The Siege" with Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis and Annette Bening. And the question that the movie ask is, 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?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SIEGE")
TONY SHALHOUB: (As Agent Frank Haddad) It's a Broadway theater. It went off just as people were getting up for intermission. There are bodies everywhere.
MCEVERS: You write in the forward to your book that the movie, at the time in 1998, didn't do super well, but you know, people sort of went back to it and said, whoa, this was kind of predicting some things.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SIEGE")
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Anthony Hubbard) What if they really want is for us to heard children into stadiums like we're doing and put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders, bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit because if we torture him, General, we do that. And everything that we have bled and fought and died for is over, and they've won.
WRIGHT: It was the most-rented movie in America after 9/11.
MCEVERS: And what do you think was it - it was that resonated with people after 9/11?
WRIGHT: 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.
MCEVERS: So 9/11 happens, and then there was this piece that you wrote about a man named John O'Neill. It's called "The Counter-Terrorist." I will never forget reading this piece for the first time in The New Yorker. You came across him when you were combing through obituaries...
MCEVERS: ...After 9/11, trying to find a way to understand it. And that's when you first read about O'Neill.
WRIGHT: You know, if you recall, the planes were all grounded at that time. And I live 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 just 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 had been washed out of the bureau because he had taken classified information out of the office.
WRIGHT: And then he wound up getting a job as the 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.
MCEVERS: I mean is that what fascinated you about him - not just that it's this tragedy in the most classic sense but that here was a person who, had he lived, maybe would have known a lot about this organization and their motives?
WRIGHT: As I read more about him and talked to his colleagues, I realize he was one of the very few people in America, especially in the American intelligence community, who really appreciated the danger that al-Qaida posed and fought against it, oftentimes fighting against his own bureau which just did not have al-Qaida on a top priority. It was O'Neill and a handful of people that really recognized the peril that America was in.
MCEVERS: The most recent piece in this book is a piece where you write about the Americans held captive by the so-called Islamic State and then of course later executed.
MCEVERS: And you also write about the efforts to negotiate their release. What, if anything, in your opinion could have been done differently?
WRIGHT: 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 American, even the parents of these individuals, paying for the - to ransom their child. So essentially these parents were left by themselves. They had no idea how to deal with ISIS.
WRIGHT: And they got very little help from the State Department or the FBI. The - when the - you know, the father, for instance, of Steven Sotloff, one of those killed, said that, you know, every week at the same time, the FBI would call him, but they wouldn't call him to give information. They were calling to find out if he had anything to tell them. There was...
WRIGHT: ...You know, rarely any moment when the FBI or the State Department shared information or offered to help in any meaningful way.
MCEVERS: Now that the Islamic State has taken territory in Iraq and Syria and is sponsoring attacks in the West, it seems that al-Qaida as we knew it isn't as relevant anymore, you know? Ayman al-Zawahiri of course now runs the show, but he's viewed as a much less fearsome leader than Osama bin Laden. Should we still care about al-Qaida?
WRIGHT: Well, al-Qaida is the parent with, you know, all the progeny it has multiplied all over the world. So yes, the mother organization has been reduced. It's not extinct.
WRIGHT: But it has certainly been confined. But the idea that they have put forward is alive in the world and spreading rapidly, unfortunately.
MCEVERS: You have watched and written about and reported on al-Qaidaism for so many years. You've also watched America in this time. How has this changed us?
WRIGHT: 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 a place where a lot of dates went when you didn't have any money.
WRIGHT: 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.
MCEVERS: No way.
WRIGHT: And we pretended that we were really cosmopolitan, and then we went up in the FAA tower. Come on in, Kids. And so we sat down and watched these airplanes land. Now, that was America. And I'm so struck, you know, just going into an office building where you have to be photographed. You go visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and you have to take off your shoes and your belt.
These impingement 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 it's important that we keep in our minds the idea of that kind of freedom. And if we lose that, then I think that terrorism really will have won.
MCEVERS: Well, Larry Wright, thank you so much.
WRIGHT: It's been my pleasure, Kelly.
MCEVERS: Lawrence Wright, author of the new book "The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State." It's out today.
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