The Looming Tower, BBC Two

If hit political thriller Homeland gave fictional voice to the feelings of shock, anger, panic and paranoia that beset America after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and which drove the subsequent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan – the so-called War on Terror launched by then-US president George W Bush – then The Looming Tower is Homeland’s real-life counterpoint. Yes it’s a dramatization of the events leading up to the attack on the World Trade Centre, but it’s one based on historical fact – or historical fact as unearthed by journalist Lawrence Wright in his Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book of the same name. Wright had a hand in the screenplay, as did veteran documentarian Alex Gibney, who also directed Friday’s pacey first episode.

We’ve been here before, of course. Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty dramatised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in forensic detail. But 10 hours of television can cover a lot more ground than even a hefty movie can and to prove it episode one had us switching breathlessly from Islamabad to Nairobi to Tirana to Afghanistan, and cleverly intercut the action with archive footage of bin Laden and his lieutenants.

Meanwhile back in Washington, FBI counter-terrorism head John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels, on fine form) and his CIA rival Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) were trading insults and not much else. That inter-agency rivalry and the refusal of the CIA to share information will be one of the underlying themes of the series, begging the question: could 9/11 have been stopped?

As episode one opened that was still a few years away, though. The year was 1998, bin Laden was still doing interviews in the Hindu Kush with intrepid American news crews and the FBI had a total of eight Arabic speakers on its books, a fact O’Neill railed against as he fretted about what he saw as the growing threat of Al-Qaeda. One of the eight was rookie agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), who was already shaping up to be O’Neill’s point man on all things bin Laden when Al-Qaeda pulled off its first spectacular – the simultaneous bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August, 1998 which killed over 200 people.

It’s over two decades ago now, but the tragic events of Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka are a grim reminder that the story The Looming Tower sets out to tell still has some way to run. So enjoy it as a fast-paced geo-political thriller – and it certainly is that – but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

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