Recommendation: Do it, do it, do it
Where to read: It’s a good holiday read, provided you don’t mind seriousness
Read with: Bourbon, unusually
In brief: It’s about 9/11 ish… The focus here is American involvement in Afghanistan, not Al-Qaeda generally.
The 9/11 genre is quite expansive at this point however some books are better than others. If you’re going to dip your toe into the water, Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower are your best bets. Both won Pulitzer Prizes, both are excellent and both should be on your list.
The Looming Tower is the classic 9/11 narrative – it follows the rise of Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin-Laden and the United States’ attempts to grasp the scale and ambition of the organisation. It’s a little US-centric (with a particular focus on the FBI) however it does sterling work in giving Al-Qaeda some context.
Ghost Wars, by contrast, is essentially about Afghanistan and the CIA’s involvement in its various conflicts, and not about the US at all. Colltries, and for the most part succeeds, in challenging the extremely narrow American-centric view of Al-Qaeda and the Middle East. The end of the book is not 9/11, it is the murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud by Al-Qaeda operatives two days before the towers fell. It’s a gimmick, but it reminds the reader right to the last that the world did not revolve around New York. In Coll’s narrative, Afghanistan is at the centre of the story, not just some place “over there” where the bad people lived.
As with The Looming Tower, it’s hard to get through Ghost Wars without being more than a little peeved with Saudi Arabia and somewhere between bemused and revolted by the conduct of the CIA and American intelligence communities.
If you’ve got the time and the interest, read both. If you don’t, I’d go with The Looming Tower for a 9/11 story and Ghost Wars for a change in perspective.