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9/11 Essential Readings

For those of you curious to learn more about the 9/11 history, these were the books I consider to be most essential to understanding the people and events that led up to it.


This list should not be considered definitive, only a starting point. 

  • The 9/11 Commission Report: Though it isn’t definitive, if you have no prior knowledge of the attacks, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, or Osama bin Laden, this is a good place to start.  Thorough and comprehensive, it is also written in plain English that anyone can understand, with the pacing and suspense of a bestselling thriller. Government investigative reports have never been written so well, before or since.


  • Perfect Soldiers; Growing Up Bin Laden: I would group these separate books together because in both cases the authors manage to humanize a person (or persons) who were behind the crime of the century. It’s tempting to dismiss Osama bin Laden or Mohammed Atta as evil and just leave it at that. But that’s too easy and lets them off the hook. When you look into their backgrounds and realize that they were normal people who made choices and took paths that led them to becoming what they did, then their life stories become that much more terrifying. 


  • 102 Minutes: Probably the best single account of the people inside the towers that morning – who they were, what they were doing, and how they survived or didn’t. Historian Rick Atkinson accurately described it as the 9/11 version of A Night to Remember.


  • Ghost Wars: A heartbreaking and at times infuriating history of Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion in 1979 up to the day before 9/11, told from the perspective of competing intelligence agencies, foreign powers, and local warlords who often had conflicting agendas. It explains how Afghanistan became an almost perfect incubator for terrorism by the time Osama bin Laden moved back in 1996. This really should be the definitive case study of the unintended consequences of foreign policy. 


  • Anything by Peter Bergen: If being one of the few Western journalists to meet Osama bin Laden in person and produce an interview with him were all he ever did, that would be one hell of a journalistic legacy. The fact that he wrote five books and numerous articles and essays about Al Qaeda and/or bin Laden makes him one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject. Deeply sourced, well-researched, his books should be considered essential reading. 


  • Debunking 9/11 Myths: If you ever find yourself debating a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, this book compiled by Popular Mechanics is their kryptonite.


  • The Only Plane In The Sky: As a one-stop repository for first-hand accounts, Garrett Graff’s book is hard to match. It is an absolute masterpiece of the oral history format, recreating the events of that day from almost every conceivable angle and perspective. 


  • The Black Banners: FBI agent Ali Soufan’s memoir of his career provides incredible first-person perspective on the investigation of the Africa embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole.  As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he was also a skilled interrogator who – among other things – got the bombshell intelligence that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind 9/11.


  • The Looming Tower: Lawrence Wright’s majestic 30,000 foot view of the individuals and events that led up to 9/11. If you had to make a list of the people who were most responsible for 9/11 in one way or another, chances are he’s already written about all of them.


  • The Exile: The definitive account of bin Laden’s life on the run in the aftermath of 9/11. This and the Abbottabad Commission Report leaked to Al Jazeera are both must-reads.  


  • Enemies; Legacy of Ashes: Former New York Times journalist Tim Weiner’s exhaustively researched and well documented histories of the FBI and the CIA. If you want to understand the institutional culture and priorities of each agency, both books are must-reads. 


  • Dying to Win: University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape’s comparative study on the logic and motivations of suicide bombers is essential to understanding the appeal of the tactic and how to counter it. This study will change or challenge some preconceived notions.   


  • The Secret History of Al Qaeda: A well-written first hand history of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda written by one of the leading Arab journalists in London, a man bin Laden respected enough to the point he invited him to Afghanistan to meet face-to-face. 


  • Osama bin Laden: A biography of bin Laden, written by the man who led the team of CIA analysts formed specifically to track him and later to try and kill him. (Full disclosure: I am a former graduate student of Michael Scheuer’s.)


  • Masterminds of Terror: Significant because it is the only time that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh spoke on the record to a journalist. You’re not likely to hear from either of them in the foreseeable future except through the occasional legal filing or hearing transcript released by the Military Commission at Guantanamo.


  • Pakistan: Any effort to understand the situation in Afghanistan or how to resolve it has to be seen through the lens of its neighbor to the east. This book by former diplomat Husain Haqqani is a good crash course into the history and political culture of Pakistan with an insider’s perspective.

  • The Bin Laden Papers: Terrorism scholar Nelly Lahoud's exhaustive study and review of the thousands of documents and files recovered by Seal Team Six during the Abbottabad raid. 

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