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5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Insider information, but a little biased in places, 5 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda (Hardcover)
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This is an amazing book on one of the biggest international news stories of the last decade: the story of Al-Queda. It is amazing not least because it is written by one of the key players on the US side, Ali Soufan, an Arabic speaking FBI officer. He is notable because he conducted the interrogation that proved the link between 9/11 and Al-Qaeda (and he did it without recourse to torture - he actually just used Muslim social customs and religious argument during the interrogation).

Lets get the first issue out of the way: the book has been redacted by the CIA. In the preface Soufan rejects the necessity for this, given that most of the information in the book is actually available in the public domain. Well, yes and no.

Ali Soufan's image is also blacked out in the cover notes, but it took me exactly 5 seconds to find a full image of him on the internet: his likeness is also public domain: double standards. I'm guessing though that Ali and everyone else knows the real reason that the CIA redacted his book - they don't like him because he made them look like fools in the 9/11 Commission as well as later when the CIA came to pushing EITs (Enahnced Interrogation Techniques, such as waterboarding). Soufan's techniques were more successful.

Given that the redactions are actually in the public domain, I actually enjoyed finding out what has been redacted. Most of the time its actually quite easy (it looks like different departments redacted different chapters, so clues to the information redacted in one chapter are actually in other chapters!).

Because of the deep well of information (much of it new), presented in a well written and exciting narrative, I can't help but recommend this book to anyone interested in making sense of recent International Politics. Did you know, for example, that the decision to use torture on Al-Qaeda suspects was driven by information found in Manchester, England? Or that George W Bush chose not to admit that the Bombing of the US ship Cole was the work of Al-Qaeda because he was too politically weak at the time to do anything about it? (Bush also refused to see families of the victims!). Damning stuff indeed.

Oh, and it turns out that Osama Bin Laden was very good at football. In fact, when the Al-Qeada people played football in Afganistan (which was often), he would be picked early as 'he tended to score lots of goals'. You couldn't even make it up.

Football relevations aside, there are a few other important points of note:

As Soufan is an FBI official who is also a devout Muslim, a general chapter on the Islamic political climate from him would have been very useful. For example, most people do not realise that if Al-Qaeda saw the chance of killing either the Iranian president or the US president (but not both), they would almost certainly leave Obama alone. Most western readers would not know why. Don't count on this book explaining it to you.

Soufan seems a little incredulous of the British way of releasing suspects where there is no evidence. He also believes the US went into Afghanistan to catch al-Qaeda. This latter statement is probably not a common view here in the UK, especially for those that know even a little about the TAPI oil pipeline...

The chapters that concern two names recognisable to a British audience (Moazzam Begg and Binyam Mohammed, both of whom claim their innocence) are two of the aproximately three chapters that are sufficiently heavily redacted by the CIA to make any real argument difficult to follow. Any relevations on the intelligence held on these two people (both of whom are actually free in the UK as of this writing) will have to wait until we see an unredacted versions of chapters 20 and 21 of the book.

These are all minor criticisms though, overall the book is an absolute goldmine and sure to become a standard in its subject area.

Perhaps the most telling bit of new information (at least to me) is the snippet where Soufan tells us that most Islamic terrorist training camps are in fact not affiliated to al-Qaeda. Most camps actively dislike al-Qaeda as un-Muslim: jihad must only be carried out at home, so for them, 9/11 was a purely terrorist act. Instead, they are training militants who then go back home to fight their own government because such governments are seen as not Islamic enough. Given world affairs playing out right now (i.e. the Arab spring), this doesn't look good.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 Jan 2012 13:58:11 GMT
Last edited by the author on 7 Jan 2012 17:52:06 GMT
M. Bhangal says:
Just to clear up a minor issue in my review. That the chapters concerning Moazzam Begg and Binyan Mohammed are heavily redacted does not hide Ali Soufan's opinion on either because the gist of it is presented across several un-redacted chapters.

All of the following information below can be gleaned from the book despite the heavy (and in my opinion, clumsy and self serving) redactions by the CIA:

The CIA was incorrectly given the interrogation function (a function they have no expertise in - they are the information gathering part of US intelligence, not the prosecutor), and they overruled the FBI (who traditionally do have this expertise and are the prosecutor). The CIA elected to use EITs (Enahanced Interrogation Techniques) which are now generally accepted to be neither effective for intelligence gathering nor usable in a western court (including military courts).

As well as using EITs, the CIA also covered their tracks on the issue, and locked out the FBI from interrogation so that effective, prosecutable and humane interrogation techniques were also prevented.

The problem now is that people like Begg and Mohammed can go to court claiming not that they are innocent, but that they were tortured, and have a 100% chance of winning their case because there is little evidence to show against them, not least because to show what is available would embarrass the US government regarding the out-of-control actions of the CIA, the illegal sidelining of the FBI, and the inhumane treatment that resulted.

It is Soufan's belief (and after reading his book, my belief) that although Begg was not a frontline operative, he did help fund a training camp, and that Mohammed was involved in the so called `dirty bomb' operation (quotes because the cylinder of radioactive material Al-Queada thought they had was in fact red mercury, which was not useful to Al-Queada because they did not have the required expertise to use it). Begg/Mohamed have or are in the process of winning compensation not because they are proven innocent, but because they were tortured using inadmissible (and frankly, illegal) means.

The US has its hands tied because it cannot easily talk about EITs in court, so cannot by implication allow itself to differentiate between humane, informed interrogation and EITs. Thus, Beg/Mohammed are now free in the UK depite their terrorist links being not disproven.

Being a leftie Guardian reader type, it surprises me that I reach this conclusion but you cannot argue around the (now well documented) story presented in The Black Banners.

I should also note that the comments about the Arab spring and 'this doesn't look good' are my opinion, and not Soufans's: he thinks that the Islamic step change from blaming the west to realising their own governments are a problem is a good thing, and leaves it at that.

Posted on 23 Aug 2013 14:07:38 BDT
Andrew says:
An interesting review and follow up comment. Thank you, from a non-leftie non-Guardian type!

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Aug 2013 20:05:15 BDT
M. Bhangal says:
You're welcome!
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M. Bhangal "S"
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Location: Somewhere in Northern England

Top Reviewer Ranking: 127