The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda, by Ali H Soufan

Article published on November 29, 2011.

A big cargo plane loaded with heavily armed troops and their armoured trucks along with a bunch of foreign paramilitary police has landed at your main national airport. They demand to be allowed into the country with all their weaponry and try to insist that you do not escort them or monitor their activity. They treat your laws and enforcement agencies with arrogant disdain, assume that all their suspects are guilty as sin regardless of evidence, seize criminal evidence from your law enforcement officers and regard their own ambassador to your country as an enemy of the state for respecting your sovereignty. Yes, this is the FBI, it’s the Yemen, and its well before September the eleventh.

During the pre-2001 period the same pervasive behaviours poison the relationship between and amongst the various US investigative agencies. Unsurprisingly they are seen, bottom to top, treating each other with suspicion and mistrust and failing for whatever reason to share information or piece together what they collectively know.

“For every action there is a reaction.” said Abu Jandal, bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, to his FBI interrogators in the aftermath of 9/11. This whole book is about positive feedback,  how arrogance feeds mistrust, mistrust feeds misunderstanding which escalates into hatred, how hatred feeds violence and the reactions to violence feed terrorism. How ends justify means. On all sides.

Ali Soufan’s story of al-Qaeda starts in the late 70’s when the US government played its role in funding the mujahideen and the successful Afghan jihad against the Soviet invaders, helping to establish al-Qaeda. It moves on to the defining attack on the USS Cole, the events of 2001 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, and finishes with the early days of the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. Interesting stuff, but it’s the astonishing attitudes and behaviours of the security and intelligence agencies that make this book worth reading.

Intertwined with the story of al-Qaeda and the agency in-fighting is the expert interrogator but hopelessly self-righteous Ali’s career history. That’s a shame because we’re told, constantly and at great and tedious length, how wonderful he is, how great and farseeing an analyst he was, how everybody from senior US officials to Yemeni interrogators to terrorist prisoners trusted or admired him, how his advice and skills were sought out at every turn. His saving grace though is his total rejection and repugnance for the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques, known to the rest of the world as torture. As an interrogator he knew that people, even terrorists, take pride in their actions and desperately want to talk about them. Appear to respect them and they’ll tell it all, torture them and they’ll take pride instead in resisting and saying whatever nonsense you want to hear. Ali’s utter rejection of torture led to his eventual resignation from the FBI.

How much of this book is fact and how much fiction? How much a one-sided view of events? Who knows, but you should read and learn all the same.

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