In describing these disparate episodes, Mr. Wright is not pursuing any larger agenda. There are no policy prescriptions. This is reportage pure and simple—and it is first-rate ... He recounts his findings in crystalline prose unadorned with fancy word tricks. He has a deceptively simple, folksy way of writing that appears natural but can be achieved only with painstaking effort.
Wright maintains a studious balance in all his essays, attributing responsibility for the current situation both to unwise American decisions and to ambitions and disputes within the jihadist movement ... Throughout the book, Wright describes more clearly than most writers on terrorism the attitudes, clothes, and habits of the characters he discusses. These descriptions are particularly impressive since he has not seen many of the terrorists in person ... Like most Americans interested in the Middle East, moreover, Wright says little about the large-scale American demonstrations against the Iraq war that helped to encourage support for Barack Obama ... Still, Wright’s book is essentially a collection of articles that does not claim to be comprehensive and such omissions are to be expected in his superb and gracefully written accounts of the past three decades.
In those pieces, Wright found people to talk to — relatives of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri — whom others had missed, and wove his research, in the New Yorker way, into a fine tapestry of personal experience and unobtrusive reflection. Whether we need to read them for a second time, however, is another matter ... That said, while the passage of time has rendered some of the pieces old hat, others are edged with retrospective significance.