The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Wright, Lawrence

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

pp. 106-107

Al-Qaeda’s character as a death-cult was born across the 1980s, especially, but not exclusively, in the myths of the Afghan freedom fighters who battled the Soviet occupiers.  Calling themselves the “mujahideen” or “holy warriors,” these fighters cultivated stories of battlefield miracles (bullets would hit them but not penetrate), or failing a miracle, of illustrious deaths.  The stories and the reputation of the fighters spread through the Middle East.  So did their fascination with the advantages of dying.  Many Middle Eastern Arab countries were stifling.  Western freedoms were scorned.  There was massive unemployment and poverty.  Young men were “idle and bored.”  Popular forms of entertainment—music, theater, movies” were policed or forbidden.  In this vacuum, “martyrdom promised an ideal alternative.”  The martyr would be forgiven all his sins at the first spurt of blood.  He would be able to see his heavenly home as he died.  “Seventy members of his household might be spared the fires of hell because of his sacrifice.”  Poor martyrs would become rich in paradise.  Lustful martyrs would be presented with precisely seventy-two virgins, ‘the dark-eyed houris,’ as the Quran describes them, ‘chaste as hidden pearls.’  They awaited the martyr with feasts of meat and fruit and cups of the purest wine.”  To poor, idle, bored, illiterate young men, all this sounded worth fighting for.  Among the mujahideen, death became an obsession.  “When a fighter fell, his comrades would congratulate him and weep because they were not also slain in battle.”