Wright's drive to comprehend 9/11 led him to conduct hundreds of interviews, all meticulously documented on those index cards, and took him on several trips to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that birthed al Qaeda. As Wright puts it, the group is "really an Egyptian organization with a Saudi head on it" -- Osama bin Laden.
Wright had spent time in Egypt as a young man, teaching English at the American University in Cairo (AUC). A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he wasn't interested in changing bedpans, as many dissenters seeking alternative service were obligated to do. He first tried to get a job at the United Nations, where a helpful official instead gave him a list of American institutions abroad. AUC's New York office was right across the street, and 30 minutes later, they asked if he could leave that evening. "No," Wright said, "but I can leave tomorrow."
"I called my parents the next day and told them I was going to Cairo for two years," Wright says. He taught his first class the following morning at 9 a.m.
That was 1969, not long after President Gamal Abdel Nasser's dreams of pan-Arab socialism were discredited by his failure in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel, and before thousands of Egyptians went to work in the booming Persian Gulf oil fields, while absorbing that region's more conservative brand of Islam. It was also before Nasser's policies left a legacy of stagnant economic growth, choking congestion, and political repression that still haunts the country today.
When Wright returned to Egypt 33 years later to conduct interviews for The Looming Tower, he found the country profoundly changed. One could still watch black-and-white films from the liberal pre-Nasser era on television and find ancient taxi drivers nostalgically crooning songs by Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim Hafez. But it was a much darker, angrier place than he remembered -- especially as the second Palestinian Intifada roiled the streets. By the end, "I had had so many Islamists waving their finger in front of my nose that I thought I was going to snap it off," he says. "It was hard to keep my composure."
But the heart of Wright's experiences came in Saudi Arabia, where in 2003 he landed a position with the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, mentoring the paper's young journalists for three months while working on his book. "I had all these young reporters teaching me more about their country than I could ever have learned as a reporter," he says. It was an amazing stroke of luck -- one that allowed him to fly under the radar of the Saudi security services and interview a wide circle of family members and friends of the 9/11 attackers. "Instead of 'journalist' I was 'expat worker,'" he explains, "and because of that I was largely overlooked."
One of the film's most memorable moments is Wright's comparison of Saudi Arabia to a hypnotized chicken -- an analogy that apparently offended Saudi diplomats. Like the chickens he used to torment growing up in rural Oklahoma, spinning them around and then setting them on the roof of the barn, where they froze in abject terror, "Saudi Arabia is in a kind of social coma," Wright says; Saudis remain traumatized by the changes that they've seen happening around them and by the violence of their own history. "I'm not making fun of Saudi Arabia," he insists. "I'm trying to express this sense of paralysis that is characteristic of that society."
Although it airs the week of Sept. 11, My Trip to al-Qaeda, coming more than four years after The Looming Tower was published, nonetheless seems oddly timed. Al Qaeda's top leaders are holed up somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, apparently too harried to issue more than the occasional online missive. Their Iraq branch was largely defanged by the Sunni Awakening. The jihad has moved to new battlegrounds, such as Yemen and Somalia, but the group and its regional affiliates seem incapable of mounting spectacular, mass-casualty attacks. A new U.S. administration has largely continued what worked -- quiet counterterrorism operations, intelligence sharing, and pinpoint drone strikes -- and moved away from what didn't: military invasion and occupation, over-the-top rhetoric, and "enhanced interrogation techniques."
That shouldn't inspire complacency, cautions Gibney, but it ought to allow the United States to put more sustainable policies in place. "The problem is that terror is not going to go away," he says. "The war on terror was a phrase that suggested that this would end, that there'd be a final battle and democracy would win and terror would lose."
"I think that al Qaeda will end eventually," Wright muses. "Eventually it's going to die out because it has no successes and it has nothing to offer. It will fade, but I think the template of what it's created will be with us forever."