First three episodes of ‘The Looming Tower’ explores American intelligence actions leading up to 9/11

Brooke Sjoberg

In their latest Hulu Original, “The Looming Tower,” creators Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright portray the impact of a late 90s rivalry between the CIA and FBI on United States national security, 9/11 and the war in Iraq in the early 2000s. With the help of powerful religious imagery and strong characterization, they explore the damaging effects of this rivalry.

Beginning in 1998, the miniseries shadows FBI agents Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) and his boss John O’Neil (Jeff Daniels), as well as  Al-Qaeda. They are introduced separately, but their interconnected relationship becomes apparent as tensions between the U.S. and Osama Bin Laden come to a head over U.S. military occupation of Islamic nations. The series currently has three episodes available for streaming, with new episodes releasing every Wednesday.

The show portrays the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA as purely based on a desire for superiority on the part of the former, while the FBI is focused on saving human lives. Their rivalry is not quite fully formed at this point in the series, but as the show progresses, their relationship is expected to become increasingly volatile.

Because it is meant to discuss this rivalry in detail, “The Looming Tower” develops slowly. Three episodes in, the FBI and CIA characters are simply at a stalemate concerning information on a hard drive recovered from an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell. The show takes its time in order to do justice to the magnitude of erroneous decisions made by both organizations. As the series develops, so will this rivalry, which is meant to ultimately result in the 9/11 attacks after ignoring retaliation from Al-Qaeda.

The most direct conflict is based around the FBI and CIA dismissing warnings from Al-Qaeda concerning a strike, as the warnings are hidden under allusions to the Quran. However, through efforts of Soufan and O’Neil, the missed warning points them in the right direction to find connections to Osama Bin Laden.

Religion is a major theme in the series, often coming up in conversation between Soufan and O’Neil throughout the film. The parallel drawn between Christianity and Islam is none too subtle a nod to one of the central struggles of the U.S.-Iraqi conflict, as well as the way Islam is painted in popular media as a result of the 9/11 attacks. The creators have addressed this issue in an incredibly creative way — rather than focusing on the differences between the two faiths and their believers, the show focuses on their similarities. In one scene, a priest and an imam simultaneously speak about banishing evil from the world as they are referring to each other.

The characterization of Ali Soufan by Tahar Rahim is also incredibly important to what the series is aiming to do in terms of representation of those caught in the ideological crossfire of the U.S.-Iraqi conflict. Because of his background as a Lebanese Muslim immigrant working for the FBI, Soufan constantly has to prove his loyalty to both the U.S., his religion and his home country. Soufan’s experience is analogous to the demonization of Muslims following the events of 9/11, rendering his characterization a relevant one.

Rooting itself in reality, “The Looming Tower” seeks to explore American actions leading up to a great tragedy. Very few moments in the series are meaningless, with deliberate relationships and situations provoking new forms of thought. “The Looming Tower”’s unflinching approach to understand post-9/11 America through pre-9/11 America makes it well worth the watch.


  • “The Looming Tower”
  • Length: 3 Episodes (and counting)
  • Rating: TV-MA
  • Score: 4/5 stars