I’ve made it a point to never pen a review immediately after finishing a book. I do this because, as a critic, I don’t want to feel as if I’m unintentionally overrating or underrating any author’s effort. I try to let the work sink in a bit, to have it seep through all the corners of my brain, to soak it across all my consciousness. I do this in hopes that I’ll give a more cogent, a more salient, and a more respectful analysis of the work. The longer I allowed Ali Soufen’s “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda” to float around in my head, the more frustrated I grew … frustrated with the tale … frustrated with the participants … and even frustrated a bit with the author.
For starters, it’s a tremendous and personal work. Clocking in at just over 600 pages, it’s a wealth of history about al-Qaida and the terrorist organization’s various major (and a few minor) players. And, as Mr. Soufen repeatedly suggests to those around him, “it all starts back in 1979 when …” He provides outstanding context for the background, and he allows the story to build reasonably from there. Consequently, the book is a comprehensive accounting of names, dates, and places, and, no doubt, it’s penned by one committed and impressive mind that have synthesized a vast canvass of data into the effective conclusions that our narrator does. In his bid to tell the definitive insider’s story of 9/11, Mr. Soufen clearly is the best-educated, best-prepared, and best-suited to enlighten all of us with where the mindset of such an act began, and the first half of his book goes to great pains to bring the reader up-to-speed on how a few decades of history climaxed with that seminal moment: the destruction of the two World Trade Center towers.
For the reader, it’s an at times frustrating experience in all of its 600 pages. This isn’t intended as a slight toward Mr. Soufen – I think the very nature of exploring these events and the people who caused them strays into territory where some may fear to tread – but there may have been a better person to tell this story so that so much of it didn’t appear so personal to him. Immersing oneself inside the story, by its very nature, brings the narrator to life, and that drags all the good, the bad, and the ugly into the spotlight and places it alongside the bad guys here. Whether he intended it this way or not, Soufen became the focus (for this reader, anyway) at key points in the narrative; as the story went on, I found myself mildly less-and-less interested in the war and more drawn to the narrator, in not a good way.
For example, Soufen almost lovingly (and dangerously) narrates the backstory of al-Qaida’s leadership, exploring the men’s history, hopes, and dreams, underscoring to the reader that, perhaps at some point in their past, they were not different from you or I … and, well, yes, I suppose that’s true except for that whole little ‘jihad to bring down Western civilization,’ that is. In his bid to extract information as a lead interrogator, Soufen laughs with them; he cries with them; and he even prays with them … so long as it will get them one step closer to sharing intel and a confession to aid the United States in stopping al-Qaida’s mission of destruction. And, just maybe, therein rests the only real problem I had with the book: Ali Soufen and his ‘band of Untouchables’ can do no wrong here. Indeed, Soufen’s own actions take on almost mythic proportions as he almost singlehandedly saves himself and his partners from increasingly treacherous circumstances as the narrative builds. Only he can get the terrorists to talk. Only he can bridge the gap between the United States and the Yemeni soldiers surrounding his plane upon arrival to question suspects in the USS Cole bombing.
It would seem to me (maybe I’m wrong) that, if Soufen were truly surrounded by intelligent, experienced interrogators, then much of what he narrates as having gone wrong couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t have gone wrong. After all, would experienced interrogators really make so many blunders when anyone watching a full season of NYPD BLUE knows you can’t treat a suspect like that and get a useful confession? Most of the interrogations errors explored here seemed really elementary – we’re talking “Interrogation 101” here, folks – and I found myself growing increasingly skeptical with the level of ineptness portrayed by every single agency except Soufen’s FBI. I’m not saying that all of this sad expose didn’t happen the way Soufen says it did; I’m only saying I found it increasingly hard to believe that there were this many bumbling fools at the head of so much bureaucracy. (Maybe it’s best that I don’t work in government!)
Still, the book breaks narrative not long after 9/11 happens as Soufen recounts a series of bizarre interrogations that he may or may not have participated in. The book is unclear; from the author’s note, we learn that much of this account was censored by the CIA. Soufen needed to keep his publication date, so he instead opted to publish the work with the requested excised words being blacked out. The end result makes the sequence seem unintentionally dramatic if not downright cinematic. Imagine the movie SAW if it was written by Tom Clancy, and you get the drift. It’s downright surreal at a point when the reader probably didn’t need that.
To his credit, Soufen manages 99.9% of the time to keep this politically-charged story largely apolitical, and, for that alone, I’m immeasurably grateful. I kept waiting for the book to turn into either a “bash Clinton” or a “bash Bush” or a “bash America” slugfest, and the author took great strides to avoid politicizing much of what could’ve easily been co-opted by any ideological agenda. In fact, one could make a strong case for the fact that – if there’s any real corruption here – it’s in institutional corruption, demonstrated by the various turf wars intelligence agencies engage in frequently. Though Soufen soundly comes down in support of his agency (the FBI), that’s a forgivable assumption (not conclusion) given the evidence presented here and the fact that it’s largely from one perspective (Soufen’s). If there’s any indictment here, it’s probably that bureaucracies are bad – certainly not healthy arbiters of ‘best practices’ when military contractors are involved – and that’s a very safe argument anyone can embrace. He’s clearly against enhanced interrogation procedures as his work demonstrates precisely how counterproductive they can be to the stated objectives, and he’s entitled to his opinion as the evidence shows.
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A book that will change the way we think about al-Qaeda, intelligence, and the events that forever changed America.
On September 11, 2001, FBI Special Agent Ali H. Soufan was handed a secret file. Had he received it months earlier—when it was requested—the attacks on New York and Washington could have been prevented. During his time on the front lines, Soufan helped thwart plots around the world and elicited some of the most important confessions from terrorists in the war against al-Qaeda—without laying so much as a hand on them. Most of these stories have never been reported before, and never by anyone with such intimate firsthand knowledge.
This narrative account of America's successes and failures against al-Qaeda is essential to an understanding of the terrorist group. We are taken into hideouts and interrogation rooms. We have a ringside seat at bin Laden's personal celebration of the 9/11 bombings. Such riveting details show us not only how terrorists think and operate but also how they can be beaten and brought to justice. 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations