Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Black Banners by Ali Soufan (Book Review #58 of 2016)

The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda

(I finished this book concurrently with other books examining Al Qaeda and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and this review should be read in the context of the other books. A list of many of the books is at the bottom of this post.)

This book is a good picture of the hope and frustrations of an FBI agent in investigating Al Qaeda terrorism prior to 9/11 and trying to prevent an event like 9/11 from happening, and dealing with its increasingly brutal and complicated aftermath as America rushed to war and to prevent further attacks on its soil. "The aim of the book is to teach people how to understand Al Qaeda and how to defeat them in the future."
It is an important book on an important chapter of Western history and Soufan is well-equipped to tell it.

To better place this book into a larger context, I highly recommend reading Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantanamo Diary to verify much of what Soufan writes in frustration about the CIA and military's methods of rendition and "enhanced interrogation techniques" versus the FBI's methods. I also recommend Left of Boom by Douglas Laux for further substantiation (from an almost arrogant CIA perspective) of Soufan's claims and to contrast the life of a CIA agent with that of the FBI in the "War on Terror." I also recommend Najwa and Omar bin Laden's account of their lives and observation of Al Qaeda operatives in Sudan before 9/11 in Growing Up Bin Laden. Trofimov's The Seige of Mecca on the events of 1979 also provides good background to supplement the brief history of radicalism that Soufan describes. 

Soufan contests many of the redactions made by the CIA and FBI in his book; in some cases, the CIA redacted sections that are public knowledge-- they were stated publicly on national television in interviews by various officials. Soufan seems to suspect CIA retalation in the senseless redactions. The redactions detract from the book for some commenters who have not read some of the other books above that are heavily redacted as well. (You get used to it.)

Soufan opens the book with an explanation of the origin of the black flag that Al Qaeda (and now more famously ISIS) flies. It comes from a hadith which describes a Muslim army marching on Jerusalem to establish the reign of the Mahdi:
"The Prophet Sallallahu ‘Alaihi Wa Sallam said: "Before your treasure, three will kill each other -- all of them are sons of a different caliph but none will be the recipient. Then the Black Banners will appear from the East and they will kill you in a way that has never before been done by a nation." Thawban, a companion said: 'Then he said something that I do not remember by heart' then continued to say that the Prophet, praise and peace be upon him, said: "If you see him give him your allegiance, even if you have to crawl over ice, because surely he is the Caliph of Allah, the Mahdi. If you see the black (meaning war) flags coming from Khurasan (Afghanistan), join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem." 
(Son of Majah, Al Busiri, Al Hakim, Ahmad Nuaym, Ad-Daylami,  Hasan, son of Sufyaan, and Abu Nuaym.)"
(this website gives many hadith origins of black flags and Mahdi prophecies).

Soufan, familiar with Islam as a native of Lebanon, explains the questionable reliability of the hadith, it appears to have been used in the mid-eighth century to support the rise of the Abbasids at the time. Soufan notes that many of the Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives he encountered could read little-to-no classical Arabic and did not have a grasp of the teachings of the Quran or hadiths beyond what they had been taught to believe. Al Qaeda today relies on the writings of 13th century clerics, living centuries after Muhammad. Soufan matched wits with captors, using an apologetic to reason with them about the hadiths, and writes that the West today must "outwit" the terrorists similarly. He finds that many joined to help support their families, and many turned after Al Qaeda funds began to dry up and the organization was unresponsive to their individual needs.

The author gives a brief history of Islamic radicalism, hitting on Qutb in Egypt in the 1960's, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979 (see Trofimov), the various influences on Osama Bin Laden, the mixture of Salafis and Taqfiris in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s and the jihad against the USSR, and the history of the formation of Al Qaeda. In Sudan, Al Qaeda made a failed attempt to buy uranium before being forced to flee to Pakistan.  (Soufan's timeline of Bin Laden's activities in Sudan match with the Bin Laden family's book.)Soufan was an FBI analyst, having joined out of college, when Al Qaeda bombed the embassies in Nairobi and he describes that investigation. He is critical of the Clinton Administration's retaliatory bombing of the pharmacy in Sudan, which was later shown to be a private company, and worse came unannounced and put FBI and CIA agents at risk all over the globe. (This attack's details were included in Christopher Hitchens' takedown of the Clintons in No One Left to Lie To).

Soufan spends time on mission in Albania before being urgently assigned to Jordan to work on the Millennium Plot against Los Angeles. He learns to interrogate effectively in Jordan, using his Arabic and cultural knowledge to his advantage. He finds disgruntled Al Qaeda members make good sources, many of the Saudis particularly resent Egyptians being in charge of various operations. The CIA clearly redacts much of his writing on intelligence that thwarted the plot.

Next came the investigation of the USS Cole, which was dangerous and difficult for FBI agents to do in Yemen. He writes critically of the US Ambassador in Yemen, Barbara Bodine, who undermined the FBI investigation and seemed intent on working for the Yemenis to the FBI's expense. She even denied a visa for one FBI agent, hindering the case (see PBS Frontline's The Man Who Knew). Yemen had no forensic science and Yemeni officials were either complicit with Al Qaeda, sympathetic to Al Qaeda, or wanted to enrich themselves and extort the United States. Soufan finds critical connections between the Nairobi bombing and the USS Cole's bombing, but the CIA would not cooperate, misinterpreted the FAISA (later confirmed by Congress' 9/11 Commission), and set a bad precedent. The author later finds that the CIA had information that could have helped connect the dots and perhaps prevent 9/11. Both the White House and State Department complained about the FBI's activities. Things did not improve after George W. Bush was elected President, he maintained silence on the FBI's findings that Al Qaeda was behind the attack because, after the narrow election, he did not want the public demanding a war in Afghanistan and so did not want it public that it was Bin Laden behind the attack. Bush even refused to meet with the families of victims. John O'Neill, the agent whose visa was denied by Amb. Bodine, resigned from the FBI disgruntled, and ironically died as Head of Security of the World Trade Center on 9/11 when the author was still investigating the USS Cole. Soufan is clearly angry at the lack of support for the investigation, particularly Amb. Bodine.

Soufan was one of the few who understood the significance of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud in Afghanistan on the eve of 9/11. He writes that the profile of the 9/11 hijackers fit the profile of other Al Qaeda operatives-- they were not super-religious or all that knowledgeable about Islam or the Quran. Hence, they were seen drinking in strip clubs before the attack. Soufan vomits when he finally learns that the CIA had been sitting on critical information since January, 2000 that could have prevented 9/11 if they had shared it with the FBI. While the CIA denies that it did not pass the info, the 9/11 Commission agreed with Soufan that more sharing could/should have been done.

Meanwhile, the author proves himself a successful interrogator; his team identifies the top outside leadership of Al Qaeda. At this time, they learn about the Bali and SE Asia Al Qaeda cells. Soufan writes that CIA torture did not thwart the SE Asian plot on Los Angeles, it had already been foiled and revealed along with other plots by his more humane and routine FBI interrogation techniques. Soufan writes that CIA Director George Tene was "furious" over the successful Abu Zabayda interrogations and FBI successes. The Abu Zabayda section is Soufan's crowning moment, and much of it gets redacted by the CIA. You can tell from what isn't redacted that it's critical of the CIA and their techniques. At one point, the CIA takes charge and uses a psychologist with no interrogation experience to demand the use of manipulation and torture to extract information from suspects Soufan believes would have turned without torture. The FBI eventually raises enough concerns with Washington that people start to pay attention, FBI agents officially would not be party to the CIA's interrogation techniques. Later public reports confirm that the CIA used inexperienced officers (backed up by one agent's tale in Left of Boom) and made critical mistakes. The CIA later re-wrote history about arrests and timelines that suggest waterboarding worked just fine. Soufan uses publicly-available information to debunk them, as other authors have done.

Thanks partly to the CIA, Morocco released the highest-value al Qaeda suspect the US ever had. Guantanamo Bay demonstrates further failures of inexperienced workers in the military and the CIA who got little for torturing suspects. The Department of Defense considers itself above the law; at one point FBI finds itself in the awkward position of wanting to arrest Defense interrogators who were violating US law. The FBI would get inmates to cooperate after allowing them to make phone calls home, or not doing offensive things that might cause them to lose trust. Soufan recalls one telephone call from a high-ranking US general who had no qualms ignoring the Constitution. Soufan writes that the 2002 suicide bombing of the Yemeni oil tanker Maritime Jewel was preventable. The FBI tried to thwart the attack, but CIA intervention allowed it to happen. It is all quite sickening for the reader. It begs the question, how many more attacks could have been prevented? How much greater could the US standing be in the world, and how much more comfortable might we be with our conscience as a nation and our Constitution had the FBI's techniques won the day. We will never know. Soufan resigned in disgust in 2005. As I write this in 2016, the US has just elected a President who vowed even more torture to the sound of applause from thousands, while Soufan's story goes unheeded and unknown.

This book is a must-read if you're interested in the history of the War on Terrorism from the front lines. I give it 5 stars.

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