I found this book to be very interesting. It is written by a former FBI cover agent who infiltrated Al Queida before the 9/11 attacks and he has a remarkable story to tell. Its certainly unique and makes for some pretty compelling reading. Overall, it it very well written and the author describes places, events and people very well; but due to the high number of people involved in his "story" and the "FBI jargon" / acronyms he uses it can be a bit confusing in places if you lose attention (despite my best efforts I found I was referring to the index / who's who list quite a lot!!)
However, as interesting as this book is, it does have a VERY big negative going for it which is a real shame. The negative in question is stated on the cover, is explained in the foreword, and has been commented on by other reviewers.The big negative is the number of redactions (censured words. names etc. At the start of the book its not too bad, but it gets worse the further you read on and as a result in places its makes for some pretty hard reading. The redactions are especially prominent in the final 3rd of the book where nealy whole pages are nothing but black bars where the text has been censured. As a result the flow of the book and the "story" itself becomes hard to understand at best, and at times impossible. The author explains in the foreword that despite him never working for them, the redactions were put in on at the request of then CIA (both the FBI and US state dept give the book the OK in its original format)and while it may be understandable that the CIA may want some redactions, in some cases they have at time gone way over the top and have contributed to ruining a very good book.
I hope that the paperback version, or 2nd edition (if there is one)can correct this problem as this really is a very good book on a very interesting subject. Sadly, the book in its present form its ruined by the amount of redactions in it and that is a shame.
The review copy of this that I read was heavily redacted by the CIA. Now, at first, that's fun - a couple of black lines where names should be gives an air of authenticity and danger. Later on, however, it gets annoying, literally, entire chapters are 90% black line with the remainder rendered completely impenetrable.
This may seem like a petty way to approach this book, but actually, it's the whole FBI / CIA relationship in a nutshell. There are some chapters were the CIA has literally insisted that the personal pronouns are removed. You can clearly see from the context (and the size of the black bar) where words like 'I', 'He' and 'They' have been removed. It's ludicrous, and demonstrates the kind of attributes that the CIA is often associated with; paranoia, bureaucracy, and inter-agency pettiness.
I mention this because the author, Ali Soufan is a former FBI agent, and here he tells the background story of the hunt for Al Qaeda, following attacks such as that on the USS Cole in Yemen, and of course, September 11th. The overriding theme is that Soufan (and, to a certain extent, the FBI) was always in the right, particularly with regards to interrogations, whilst the CIA merely hampered efforts to protect America and bring Bin Laden to justice.
It's one man's opinion and is inevitably biased, and it would be interesting to hear a different or opposing perspective on the events. However, as much as Soufan can come across like a flawless boy scout throughout, it's difficult not to side with his point of view in the majority of situations. His approach in dealing with terror suspects always seems more constructive, and according to this book at least, seems to get better results.
If you want to delve behind the headlines and find out some of the human stories on both sides of the 'war on terror' then this is a very informative and well-told tale.
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.
Author Ali Soufan was a United States Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who participated in many high profile terrorist investigations, including the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, as well as, of course, 9/11 itself. He conducted first hand interrogations of Al-Qaeda members and obtained actionable intelligence and achieved successful prosecutions.
The appeal or selling point of this book, The Black Banners, is that the author has an insider's perspective on events, giving the reader a ringside seat. An insider's narrative allows the reader to gain access to the inner workings of an investigation that an independent researcher might not uncover, or exposes a subtlety that might not be apparent to an independent researcher. Soufan certainly delivers on that promise, showing how the FBI works across multiple continents on a single investigation, as well as taking the reader inside the interrogation rooms of high value detainees. Soufan shows us how the FBI construct a prosecutable case, how the organisation works with other agencies (both foreign and domestic) and in particular, gives us a glimpse of the personalities of certain Al-Qaeda characters, revealed through the interrogations he conducted.
Perhaps the flip side of the insider's account, is that Soufan relates these events as he witnessed and interpreted them and that conflicting accounts do not get aired. This is fair enough: this is, after all, Soufan's story. It does mean, for example, that other FBI investigations into Al-Qaeda, such as terrorists taking flight school training inside the U.S. (and being classed as such terrible pilots that their instructors refused to fly with them again), are not mentioned, such as Special Agent Kenneth William's "Phoenix Memo."
Soufan quite rightly objects to the use of torture, euphemistically referred to as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, in attempting to get information out of suspects. He objects from a moral level, writing that it's un-American (what we might call simply inhuman), as well as objecting from a practical point of view: a tortured suspect will say anything to get the torture to stop. Soufan backs this up with evidence from his successful interrogations, which achieved much better results than those conducted under torture. However, the practice of abductions (or Extraordinary Rendition, in polite society) and the policy of holding detainees indefinitely and without charge or evidence, does not seem to bother Soufan; neither does the use of gulags: "black sites" used for kidnap victims to be tortured, most notoriously, of course, Guantanamo Bay.
One of the Official Narratives put forth to explain the success of the 9/11 plot, was that it was at least in part an "intelligence failure" - a failure of U.S. alphabet soup intelligence agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA et cetera) to share intelligence and work collectively. Soufan demonstrates several instances where the CIA purposely avoided sharing information which could have potentially stopped 9/11. After the atrocity, Soufan shows that this practice continued to be implemented: information was withheld, access to suspects was interfered with or simply denied.
Ali Soufan could also be accused of misrepresenting certain events: he writes, "...the Taliban refused an ultimatum for the U.S. government to stop harboring Al-Qaeda..." In reality, the Taliban offered to hand Osama Bin Laden over to the U.S. immediately after 9/11. All they asked is that the Bush administration follow international law and provide evidence of Bin Laden's guilt. The U.S. refused to comply with international law and then commenced the bombing of Afghanistan as punishment. Soufan also gives the impression that there was a relentless hunt for Bin Laden by U.S. armed forces but that Bin Laden gave them the slip. The reality is that the hunt for Bin Laden was small (the U.S. committed less troops to the whole of Afghanistan than there were police in Manhattan) and constrained.
Soufan also selectively quotes from Osama Bin Laden. Soufan gives us Bin Laden's 9/11 "confession" speech (in reality, a "claim" that has as much veracity as my "claim" that I won the London Marathon last year) but ignores conflicting statements from Bin Laden such as, "I have already said that I am not involved in the 11 September attacks in the United States. As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie. I had no knowledge of these attacks, nor do I consider the killing of innocent women, children, and other humans as an appreciable act. Islam strictly forbids causing harm to innocent women, children, and other people... I have already said that we are not hostile to the United States. We are against the system, which makes other nations slaves of the United States, or forces them to mortgage their political and economic freedom." Soufan also avoids telling the reader that, while Osama Bin Laden was number one on the FBI's Most Wanted list, 9/11 was not actually listed as one of the crimes he was wanted for. When queried about this omission, the FBI responded that they don't possess sufficient evidence of Bin Laden's guilt (the Most Wanted list can only mention crimes where the FBI has amassed evidence for which the subject could be indicted for).
Finally, Ali Soufan writes that the Arab Spring revolutions that started in 2010 helped take the wind out of Al-Qaeda's ideological sails because Al-Qaeda always claimed that the U.S. supported pro-Westerm Arab dictatorships in countries like Egypt and Morocco. Soufan argues that when the U.S. supported the democratic revolutions, it undercut a key Al-Qaeda rhetorical recruitment position. The truth is that successive U.S. governments supported those Arab dictatorships (and others) up to the hilt and that Barack Obama only reversed that policy at the last possible minute, when it was clear that the U.S. was going to be on the wrong side of history.
It should also be noted that The Black Banners has been censored (again, redacted, in polite society), against the author's wishes. Some of this is pointless, where you can easily tell the missing words were things like: I, we, our, they. In other cases, words, sentences, paragraphs and occasionally whole pages have been deleted. This appears to be the most censored text since Victor Marchetti's classic book, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (1974). Another point to note is that The Black Banners has no index.
At the end of the book, several pages are given over to a cast of characters, most of whom are Al-Qaeda connected. It is striking that, from all the people mentioned, only one has been convicted in relation to 9/11 itself (Zacarias Moussaoui), who hardly features in the book at all.
These issues aside, Ali Soufan has written a great book in The Black Banners. He delivers on his promise to take the reader inside the FBI's investigation of Al-Qaeda and even further, inside the interrogation rooms themselves. It should just be borne in mind that this is the author's version of these events and that it could be argued that Soufan does not have the widest perspective on this historic chapter.
Before buying Ali Soufan's `The Black Banners' (named after a Hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), you need to understand that parts of the book have been heavily redacted at the behest of the CIA. As the author and publisher had committed to a publication date of September 12th 2011, the legal wrangling with the CIA had to take second place. Hopefully, a non-redacted version will be available soon and, despite this book running to over 600 pages, it would be worth reading again to get the full picture.
Soufan was an FBI agent who specialised in Al-Qaeda long before 9/11, in fact even before the attack on the USS Cole. His experience as an interrogator revealed significant findings of their organisational structure and plans, which helped to break up a number of terrorist plots. Soufan manages to bring the reader into the interrogation room with him, face to face with some of the world's most wanted men. The book really excels here, as you're brought along with the trials and tribulations of interrogations and dealing with foreign police and intelligence services.
The main thrust of Soufan's tale, however, is his disdain for what was known as `Enhanced Interrogation Techniques' by the CIA - such as waterboarding. He makes the case that tried and tested interrogation techniques, such as those used by the FBI, allow for greater and much more accurate intelligence than other, more questionable, methods. In fact the CIA are almost shown as bumbling fools, experimenting with these questionable techniques and, when they don't get the results they intended, use the intelligence gained by the FBI and claim it as their own, thus justifying the continued use of EITs. There's even the hint in Soufan's book that techniques like waterboarding were authorised by the Bush Administration in order to punish those suspected of involvement in Al-Qaeda, and gaining intelligence was a secondary objective. That's not to say that Soufan was soft on those he interrogated, or that he was some sort of sympathiser. He clearly shows that if the purpose of interrogation is to extract accurate and usable intelligence, then the FBI's methods were much more successful in that regard than the CIA's.
This is a great book, offering an insight into a world that the vast majority of us will never experience in our lives. The details of the investigations, and the authors' conclusions on EITs and Al-Qaeda itself, are a fascinating tale. The redactions can be annoying, especially when whole chapters seen to consist of more blocked text than actual words, but the power of Soufan's experiences still come through strongly.
This is quite challenging, to a large extent due to the redactions, but ultimately quite a rewarding read. The CIA redactions which are shown by text deleted with black blocking over the words, seem somewhat overenthusiastic, and you do wonder why the CIA had to go to town on it whereas the FBI were apparently happy to let it run. I would hope that ultimately this book will be published in full and I will certainly want to revisit it at that stage as it is a little difficult to follow in its current version.
It is very clear that Ali Soufan was closely involved in counter terrorist operations whilst working for the FBI and his insights make for fascinating reading. His involvement covers such key events as the embassy bombings in East Africa and the USS Cole prior to 9/11 and attacks such as the Bali and London bombings which occurred later. There is a fascinating review on the American Amazon site from a former colleague who confirms that Soufan was a very straight guy and that the narrative is basically how things happened, which adds credibility to his account. The author writes well and much of the material is very interesting, many chapters being unaffected by redactions. However, when the redactions occur they arrive thick and fast so that whole pages are blotted out and on other occasions taking out key words or phrases render sentences and even whole paragraphs virtually meaningless.
I do hope that it is possible to publish this in full, as it will make an absorbing read. Even in its current abbreviated format I found it worthwhile but the redactions are irritating at best. I imagine the authors could have rewritten the book to take out the text which was objected to, but chose to make a point by blocking them out instead. Whilst I understand their motivation, it does not make life easier for the reader.
This book is a real eye opener.
Ali Soufan was a highly placed member of the F.B.I, who due to his background and language skills became one of the top anti-terrorist agents specialising in Al-Qaeda.
Now there is a significant amount of redaction but this does not spoil the book in anyway.
What this book does is give you a really interesting insight into this murky and unpleasant world.
It is amazing how incompetent the terrorists can be and how often their failures are down to this factor and not always the brilliance of our counter terrorist organisations.
Until I had read this book, I confess that my view was always our intelligence and military should be able to use whatever extreme measures they felt were required to get the job done, i.e. protecting the innocent from mass murder such as 9/11.
Soufan puts the case that torture, more often than not is counter productive, and his highly intelligent probing, gentle persuasion and understanding, mixed with a little dealing is far more effective and leads to better quality intelligence and results.
Ali explains how he draws the information out of a suspect in great detail.
Patience is definitely a virtue in this instance.
The book does get a little bogged down in stories of lunches and dinners with other key people but persevere because it is worth it.
Finally whilst Mr Soufan is kind and complimentary about the British, I think it illustrates a sad indictment of the failings of our judicial system.
A great and highly informative read, and a book I recommend without hesitation.
From the author's TV appearances and the accounts of others of his role as investigator in the FBI short articles and mainly due his method of using "traditional" interrogation techniques, that does need torture is most refreshing in this `grey world'. Where some are more than willing to compromise and adopt using all sorts nasty practices, or if need be, to outsource the dirty work.
Many commentators have talked about the West's purported ignorance of Arabic nations and peoples. However, Mr Soufan shows how this ignorance is a `two way street'
An example from the book deals with a terrorist who had completely no knowledge of the story of America's first President, George Washington; Mr Soufan's begins to build a bridge toward understanding, and finding common ground, by explaining Washington's role in America's revolution (this jihadist, in particular, is big on revolutions and revolutionaries, after all, he sees himself fighting against US oppression), and the interrogator uses American history to convince the terrorist that his particular "interpretation" of the U.S. is flawed.
This reader was not enthusiastic with the various BLACK OUTS in the book, rather like using capital letters in messages and typed communications. I found them annoying and distracting in the extreme. While we are told it was on the behest of the CIA, Central Intelligence Agency. I am sure it could been done in better way, however, it maybe there for impact I can see a few people holding the book to bright light to try and see if the `original' type face is there?
At over 600 pages this not going to be a light read, and for this reader it was worth the time spent, and will probably re-readings. The information contained is insightful, but then much of it can be found in other sources. The cooperation between agencies, or lack it is sad and only further detracts from the job of dealing effectively against terrorism.
a very interesting book from a veteren FBI Interrorgator and Al Queda analyst ( Pre 911) concerning his time as at the beureau, focusing quite alot on his experiances in differnces between his tactics and that of teh CIAs when it comes to preasurising prisoners for information. An age old argument that he deals with well in dispelling the old myths of beating prisoners or using the threat of violence is effctive, yet is possibly still used today by western armed forces as well as Intel gathering organisations. the only let down as mentioned in other reviews is the fact that it was redacted by order of the CIA ( which is allegedly ileagal for them to do) and so parts of this book are blacked out. I beleive he published anyway to build pressure to get the ban lifted. however I would say that we wont get a clear picture for a few decades concerning this subject as at the moment its to soon for enough information to be gathered reliably, and working out who has an axe to grind with who about what, so on and so forth. so in short an interesting book and will be interesting see what develops from a 2nd edition.
This is a book to be read at several levels and viewpoints; it is also one which should not be rushed. When one is reading an account of law enforcement intelligence gathering and security operations nothing is ever straightforward and preconceived perceptions should be left at the book's cover if the reader is to draw the true worth out of the account.
The title is taken from an al-Qaeda interpretation of Islamic belief that `Black Banners would arise in `Khorasan' (an area straddling north Afghanistan and its bordering neighbours) and the resulting army would sweep away infidels.
On the face of it this is the account by a Lebanese born naturalised American FBI interrogator from times of the original Twin Towers bombing through the attacks on the American embassies in East Africa, the bombing of the USS Cole and finally the events of 9th September 2001 and the aftermaths. The narrative deals with information uncovered by The FBI concerning the personnel, organisation and operations of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Also personal feelings, relationships with team members, people in other agencies and those interrogated or informing are documented. And of course inter agency rivalry in particular with the CIA. There is a very useful map of the 'Khorasan' area al-Qaeda operated from and at the end a glossary of Principal Characters on both sides.
Now there is the basis of the book, but there is a great deal more to consider when reading this. Most striking visually are the portions blanked out or Redacted following the required submission of the manuscript to the CIA. Some of these seem darkly humorous particularly when it obviously relates to the first person `I'. On other occasions annoying when appearing half through a paragraph and continuing half way in that particular narrative. There again once you get used to this it offers you a perverse insight into the worlds Security, Intelligence Gathering and Law Enforcement against Terrorism feel they have to operate in.
To be fair to the author ANY book which is an account of one's experiences in ANY profession is going to contain a level of criticism against ones superiors and other organisations encountered. In this account Mr Soufan is loyal and fair to his own offices and colleagues within FBI; it is the CIA and its associates which receives most of his censure. The FBI is portrayed as working within the law and being patient and intelligently systematic when dealing with those it interrogates; the CIA and its `sub- contactors'(my term) come across as loose cannons, brutal and gaining nothing in their techniques because those terrorists within their custody have steeled themselves to expect such treatment. Maybe this is a natural antagonism between Law-Enforcement and Security services. This is hinted at when Mr. Soufan is in London; he has more empathy with the officers at Scotland Yard than MI5. The accounts on this relationship are candid and spared polemics, so I suggest it is up to the reader to judge where the truth lies. I tended to see the strength of Mr Soufan's arguments and so felt his accounts to be a fair representation.
There is a great deal of detail concerning the growth of al-Qaeda, its personalities and interestingly, the tensions within the differing nationalities in its ranks. Again whereas not soft or wishing us to `understand the other guy', the account does not give the impression of eye-rolling, mouthing-frothing, gibbering mad-men. There are some fearfully methodical and clever men out there and just because bin Laden is dead it does not mean the threat is over, just fragmented. One fascinating issue the author brings up is the flawed knowledge of the Koran prevalent amongst al-Qaeda's ranks; very selective in its choosing of texts and the interpretation.
The author's basic argument as he says is based upon Sun Tzu's Art of War of knowing your enemies and knowing yourself is the key to victory. As stated before he champions the methodical approach in which you show your detainee or prisoner you already know much about them and their motivations, but that they are essentially in the wrong and sooner or later they realise that the better.
So who knows? Truth, Agency Rivalry or Propaganda. That is up to the reader. Do yourself a favour though and do not `tut' and say `typical Americans'. Read other histories of imperial powers, Cold War activities and operations against Insurgencies and this is an account of ANY nation and ANY time. The account is most absorbing, even when its redacted- the author's note on that action is illuminating in itself.
Recommended for those with interests either in the operations of Security and Law-Enforcement agencies or the recent history of the struggle with terrorism.