There’s a word of caution at the beginning of History in One Act, a new novel by the journalist and military analyst William Arkin about the events preceding September 11th. Far too often, Arkin says, Washington insiders like to stick to their own transliterations of Arabic names. “Usama” instead of “Osama bin Laden,” or “UBL” for short, are popular usages; another is “al-Qa’ida” or sometimes “al Qida” instead of the standard “al Qaeda.”
Why do these ostensibly small differences matter? “When you see these spellings out there in the wild, beware,” Arkin writes. “[S]omeone (or some institution) is trying to convey authority and insider knowledge, often when it is unwarranted.” It’s a fitting preamble for a person who has made a career inculcating himself in the secrets of the American military industrial complex and demystifying them for the world.
Arkin is easily one of the most thorough and unconventional military analysts writing in the United States today. Since dropping out of college for a brief stint as an Army intelligence officer in the 1970s, he’s had his head deep inside the defense establishment, seeming to read every relevant budget document, study report, congressional hearing transcript, and self-serving memoir available to give him as complete an understanding of America’s national security bureaucracy as anyone, in or out of it, possesses. Since 9/11, he’s written some fact-dense nonfiction volumes tracking the metastization of America’s homeland security establishment, including 2012’s Top Secret America, which he co-authored with Washington Post reporter Dana Priest.
This year, Arkin has three new books out, two of which directly consider the event which gave rise to the behemoth that is the modern national security state. The last, On That Day, a minute-by-minute retelling of September 11th, promises to be strictly factual and hyper-focused on the event itself. It’ll be published in August by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Big Four publisher Hachette, in time for the inevitable 20th anniversary news blitz. The other, History in One Act, comes via Featherproof Books, a Chicago small press specializing in “strange and beautiful fiction… and post-, trans-, and inter-genre tragicomedy.” It takes an entirely different approach: Instead of applying a laser focus to the attack, it tells a story of the months and years that led to it, with all the detachment that fiction allows. The result is a long book filled with comments that no author could likely make in the polite company of Big Publishing.
History in One Act may be a novel, but it’s based on more research than most non-fiction books. Some of it derives from fact and some of it—including the dialogue—Arkin inferred or otherwise made up.
Most of the book follows the lives and conversations of two groups. In the rural, impoverished landscapes of Afghanistan and Africa, and staid corners of a few European and American cities, there’s the group of men now calling itself “al Qaeda” that found definition during the anti-Soviet Jihad in the 1980s, led by the priestly movement leader “Sheikh” Osama bin Laden. On the other side of the international conflict—and the only other people who seem to acknowledge that it is a conflict—are the men and women of Apex Watch, a (fictional) C.I.A. unit created to track Saudi Arabian influence operations inside the United States. Apex Watch’s mission has necessitated an especially low profile, since it puts the C.I.A. in the position of spying on both a nominal ally and certain V.I.P. politicians, up to and including the U.S. president. Among the unit’s oldest and most trusted sources is al Qaeda’s chief strategist, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or K.S.M.
This odd pairing—between the eventual mastermind of 9/11 and the intelligence group tasked with protecting the United States—leads to some of the most interesting scenes of the book. In dingy bars in Europe and Asia, the Apex Watch staff occasionally meet K.S.M., hoping that with enough flattery he’ll reveal something useful about Saudi Arabia’s global machinations. K.S.M., always goading his handlers, hopes in turn that some combination of beer and conversation will lead them to see the futility of maintaining America’s grip on the Middle East. “Even after Saddam is gone; you will be focused on taming the Iraqi people,” he tells them in Kuala Lumpur shortly after the first Gulf War. Just as the Soviets were crippled in Afghanistan, so, too, America will be hobbled in Iraq. “It will be your Afghanistan,” he says. “A longer war than even Vietnam. They are smart, these Iraqis. They will pretend democracy but they will suck you dry. And while you are so focused, you will be blind to what’s really going on.”
Arkin based his version of K.S.M. largely on material from a CD-ROM containing nearly 8,000 pages of secret material, including transcripts of K.S.M.’s torture sessions at various C.I.A. blacksites and an array of the man’s own (unpublished) writings about the state of the world before the attack. (Arkin says the disc landed in his mailbox in 2008.) While History in One Act is loaded with footnotes (911 of them, in fact), the reader is left to guess which of K.S.M.’s commentaries are direct quotes and which were inspired by something else he said or wrote. Regardless of how Arkin used the material, in his novel, K.S.M.—the person long acknowledged to be the originator of the 9/11 plot—is a particularly vivid character. The choice was clearly deliberate: In an interview with his publisher, Arkin said that reading K.S.M. in his own voice convinced him the man had a “coherent worldview,” but one that had scarcely registered in the mountain of published works on al Qaeda.
We see the moment of that realization in one of Arkin’s characters. When Steve, one of the newer analysts at Apex Watch, first encounters the letters K.S.M has written to his handlers (they were kept in the unit’s ultra-secret archive), he finds the man to be thinking in far different terms than he had expected. The usual terrorist cliches are absent. There are no references to “infidels” or the “Great Satan.” Instead:
K.S.M. opined, badgered, and fumed, sometimes in English, sometimes lapsing into Arabic or another language to make a finer point. He had no trouble contradicting himself, nor in wending off into elaborate theories about the world. But, as Steve would learn, he always returned to the same place, to an articulation of being an accidental representative of a people who had no hope for any change, the only way to advance: through capitulation to the West and Western ways… [Steve had] read a lot of terrorist manifestos, but K.S.M.’s material wasn’t a rhetoric of humiliation and disgrace; it was more a life of just that.
For readers with vivid memories of the 1990s, History in One Act plays on familiar ground. Most of the novel is set in that decade, and the themes and symbols which defined it are present throughout. K.S.M. thinks of al Qaeda’s scattered network as a “world wide web,” quietly amused by the novelty of the concept. The mastermind himself is a man without a country by circumstance, if not exactly by choice. Born in Balochistan, a region of Pakistan with its own language and identity, raised in Kuwait, and having attended college in North Carolina, K.S.M. resembles a sort of ulterior version of the Davos Man that emerged in the early years of the globalization era. An as-yet unattacked America is also less suspicious of visitors. Not long after departing Bin Laden’s cave in Afghanistan, one of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, tells an immigration official in Florida that he plans to visit Disney World with friends. The man takes him at his word.
Another peculiarly 1990s touchstone is Bill Clinton. The 42nd president is neither a particularly complicated nor a very interesting character in Arkin’s telling, but he looms over all the others. Nearly every decision of consequence on the American side is officially his to make, but in Oval Office intelligence briefings, his understanding of the world proves as hollow as the bromides about globalization he utters in public. (Globalization “can give people the modern tools of the 21st century, but it cannot purge their hearts of the primitive hatreds that may lead to the misuse of those tools,” the real life Clinton said unhelpfully in 1999.)
Less effectively, Arkin also spends some time depicting Clinton’s sleazier side. In one scene, we see the president in the midst of a sexual encounter with Monica Lewinsky. A more skilled writer might have considered the abuse of power inherent in the situation, but Arkin’s close third-person narrative only accounts for the president’s interior world. Lewinsky is just another diversion; her own thoughts don’t register.
Down at Apex Watch, the staff are not shy about their disdain for Clinton. Charlie, a vocal young analyst, takes the most hardline position, believing Clinton to have imbued the upper levels of government with decadence. Her more experienced peers are similarly dismayed, but argue Clinton’s shortcomings merely personify deeper institutional biases. When Charlie complains the only way to make their ultimate boss interested in terrorism is to connect the subject to weapons of mass destruction, Steve assures her that’s not just a Clinton problem. “WMD is the magic trump card that gets all of Washington to pay attention, regardless of who’s in power,” he says.
To give the whole thing a Freudian spin, we might say that Clinton represents the id of the American psyche, unable to differentiate the needs of the many over the needs of himself. The national interest of a few years ahead weighs equally against the bright, shining diversion of the here and now. Within that schema, Apex Watch takes the role of the nation’s ego, making every effort to overcome the distractions that seem to constantly flummox America’s leaders, whether those leaders want the help or not.
Follow the logic, and you get to an uncomfortable place, wherein al Qaeda takes the role of superego. They are the moral vanguard of a world made in America’s image, the selfless ones “who sacrifice their souls and their blood” to lead, or so K.S.M. tells his Apex Watch handlers. (The line comes from Abdullah Azzam, an early proponent of global jihad.) While America’s leaders can’t think past next week, al Qaeda’s moral horizon exists on a scale of decades, if not centuries. And whereas American leaders are selfish, al Qaeda’s members have chosen a selfless path: a life committed to opposition, culminating in telegenic murder-suicide on the grandest possible scale. Spiritually deprived and ignorant of the world beyond their shores, Americans will never grasp the limits of their nation’s power any other way, K.S.M. says. The unnerving development at the center of this drama comes when the Apex Watch staff start to think he may be right.
Arkin calls his nearly 600-page tome a work of “friction”—a nebulous hybrid of fiction and straight history—and many of the essential elements of his yarn are pure fantasy. There’s no evidence that K.S.M. was ever a C.I.A. asset. Apex Watch never existed and neither did any of its staff. But the thoughts and worldview of K.S.M. and his band of hijackers are real, or at least closely adhere to reality. The effect is like a terrarium of fake rocks and living creatures. Al Qaeda’s members exist in a universe of the author’s creation, but they speak and think in ways that faithfully represent the worldview of people who once studied, lived in, and ultimately shaped our world. As Arkin described it, “the book tries to make the hijackers—and do I need to say ‘terrorists’ as some pledge of allegiance—into human beings.”
Arkin’s quest to humanize al Qaeda is bold, but in reading his book, I wondered how many people who remember 9/11 and the early days of the era it birthed will be ready to join him. For many Americans with vivid memories of the attack, the suggestion that al Qaeda was motivated by anything other than blood lust or a hatred for religious liberty and freedom of speech is still unpalatable. Even for people who come that far with Arkin, the suggestion that anyone inside the C.I.A.—even in a fictional unit like Apex Watch—had any sympathy for al Qaeda’s cause will likely be offensive beyond the pale.
Another problem with a book that reimagines 9/11 comes from the way people experienced it in the first place. The medieval Egyptian writer al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (usually known in western countries as Alhazen) described reading as making visible “that which writing suggests in hints and shadows.” Reading is a collaboration, in other words, between writer and reader, an act of co-creation in which the two imagine something together.
But Americans who were conscious at the time didn’t simply read about 9/11. Most people’s images of the attack were beamed to them fully-formed via television news. It’s for that reason that our experience of the attack is both more collective than personal, and more emotional than rational. Every studied retelling of it competes in our minds with the memory of seeing thousands die in real time, knowing the rest of the nation was watching and feeling the same range of emotions we were. Arkin’s book is a challenging one. Whether one finds it rewarding, also, will depend on how firm their memory of 9/11 is, and how important that memory is to the way they see the world today.
So who is this book for? Arkin has said he wrote History in One Act thinking about his kids’ generation, the ones “who knew that something happened on that day, but did not have either the history or the context to get to that day.” It may be up to those people—the ones not yet conscious on 9/11—to pull the attack out of the realm of memory and put it in the realm of history where it can be treated with all the careful thought, imagination, and context it deserves. For them and anyone else who wants to join them, History in One Act would be a fine place to start.