America now 'security state': Lawrence Wright's The Terror Years tracks rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS

Long before 9/11,Osama bin Laden wanted a holy war. Author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Lawrence Wright argues he got what he wanted — a bloody, ideological showdown with worldwide implications. Wright takes us through The Terror Years.
(Knopf Double Day/Daniel Bergeron)

Read story transcript

When journalistLawrence Wright was a teenager in Texas, he took a date to the airport and walked right onto an international jetliner. They both sat down in first-class seats and a flight attendant offered snacks. The memory serves as a reminder of how much security has changed our world — in particular the U.S. after 9/11.

"That America is so dead," Wright tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Terrorism killed it. But I hope it's not forgotten."

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author has travelled extensively looking into the effects of terrorism on the world. In his new book, The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda To The Islamic State, he chronicles the rise of al-Qaeda in the 1990s to the rise of ISIS today.

Wright says after 9/11, so much changed for Americans. 

"We became a different country, and I'm not saying that we didn't need the protection but America is now very much a security state," says Wright.

Osama bin Laden (L) with al-Qaeda's top strategist and second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri, 2001. Lawrence Wright says al-Qaeda is not extinct. (Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn/Reuters)

When the U.S. went into Iraq, Wright was in Saudi Arabia teaching journalism and tells Tremonti that the invasion looked very different from there.

"Every Saudi I talked to was saying, 'Are you nuts? Iraq, of all Arab countries that you could go into, this is the worst.'"

Forty-year-old American freelance journalist James Foley was kidnapped in Nov. 2012 and held in captivity until he was executed by ISIS militants in Aug. 2014. (Steven Senne/The Associated Press)
Wright travelled through the Middle East and South Asia with the assumption that his role as a reporter would protect him. But things changed when five young Americans, many of them journalists, were kidnapped by ISIS. Many have questioned what these freelance journalists were doing on their own in a dangerous area.

But Wright points out that this risk was new and unknown.

"These kidnappings were for the most part secret," Wright tells Tremonti. "People were ordered not to talk about it. So there were young reporters on the border of Syria who didn't know that other reporters had been kidnapped."

In terms of al-Qaeda's relevance today, Wright believes "people are mistaken in thinking that it's extinct."

"Core al-Qaeda certainly has shrunk, and has been overshadowed by the kind of egregious barbarity of ISIS, but affiliates of al-Qaeda in Yemen and North Africa and now in India and Pakistan, they're doing very well."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.