Book Review

The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War against Al-Qaeda

Ali H. Soufan with Daniel Freedman

Summer 2012, Volume XIX, Number 2

This book should appeal to general readers interested in learning how the United States dealt with 9/11. It is packed with facts that rarely, if ever, have appeared in the media; and it is written in an anecdotal style reminiscent of a Tom Clancy espionage thriller that is easy and enjoyable to read. It is literally a memoir, as the author states to the reader in an opening note: "This story is told firsthand through what I saw and learned, and wherever possible I have used dialogue to allow readers to experience situations as they happened" (p. xxv).

The author joined the FBI and became a special agent located at the FBI's office in New York City in late 1997. The following year he was chosen to deal with international terrorist threats to the United States, and throughout his career he concentrated almost entirely on Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al-Qaeda. As the author himself writes, he was picked for this duty in large part due to his educational background in international relations and his personal background: he was born in Lebanon and was fluent in Arabic.

The FBI is a law-enforcement organization that concentrates on investigations and interrogations in order to bring those breaking U.S. federal laws to justice. One can gather from reading the book that the author was an extraordinarily talented investigator and interrogator, gaining information and confessions from those connected with al-Qaeda. Time and again, he was able to use his knowledge of Islam and Muslim cultures to get apprehended members or supporters of al-Qaeda to incrimidate themselves and their colleagues.

The author begins by describing his joining the FBI (on a bet), and then continues with a series of vignettes on Osama: his family background; his joining with many young Arabs traveling to Afghanistan to engage in asymmetrical warfare against the Soviet Union; the evolution of his militant Islamist ideology, leading up to his terrorist attacks against the United States; his self-exile to the Sudan after the Saudis took away his citizenship; and his return to Afghanistan. He continues by covering al-Qaeda's failed terrorist attack on the New York World Trade Center in 1993 and Bin Laden's fatwa declaring war on the United States in 1996. This entire period, however, predates the author's firsthand experiences. And while accounts of that period are factually valid, they often lack the nuances that would allow the average reader to grasp their importance and role in the evolution of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda into one of the most feared terrorist organizations of modern times.

The heart of the book begins in 1998 with al-Qaeda's attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, which the author was personally involved in investigating. From then until he retired in 2005, his experiences and the style in which he conveys them to the reader make the book required reading for anyone interested in the role of law enforcement in counterterrorism and how best to carry it out. And at the end, he adds a postscript and a conclusion regarding productive and destructive approaches to interrogations. The former applies appropriate psychological means to get a person to talk; the latter applies to both psychological trauma and physical torture — tactics called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration.

Interesting and instructive as the book is, however, the subtitle, The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, is not quite accurate. There is a lot more to counterterrorism than law enforcement investigations and interrogations. It is a multi-agency activity. For counterterrorism policies and operations to be successful, they must include a variety of activities, all of which are equally important. In addition to law enforcement, they include the following:

a) Intelligence gathering and analysis are absolutely crucial. Terrorism is a covert activity that requires covert intelligence gathering and analysis to counter it.
b) Psychological campaigns are necessary as a long-term psychological strategy to win the hearts and minds of potential recruits and supporters or terrorist organizations.
c) Diplomacy is essential because no country can meet a major international terrorist threat unilaterally.
d) Military force is absolutely necessary, not just to engage the enemy in conventional warfare, but to neutralize the enemy's psychological ability to achieve its political objectives.
e) Military special operations are a necessity, including covert activities such as rapid response to attacks, hostage rescue and proactive and preemptive strikes against enemy personnel.
f) Protective-security activities also play a role in anticipating threats and defending against attacks on persons, physical structures and infrastructures, communications, and transportation systems.

Obviously, the activities overlap, and bureaucratic rivalries over which agency has responsibility for which activities make interagency cooperation difficult if not sometimes impossible. I personally observed these bureaucratic rivalries in the 1980s as deputy director of the Office for Counter-Terrorism at the State Department, then the lead agency for international terrorism. It seemed at the time that the State Department put in as much time trying to create and maintain interagency cooperation as it did dealing with the international terrorism problems themselves. Since then, the U.S. government has created institutional changes to increase interagency counterterrorism cooperation and coordination, but the problem still exists. Reading between the lines of the author's comments in the section about "Successes and Failures," FBI's rivalries with CIA and the Defense Department stood out. In looking back at the war against Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, therefore, the book is not "the inside story," but rather "one of multiple inside stories" as told by U.S. officials from the many agencies involved in counterterrorism at that time.