“The Black Banners” Reviewed: Talking to Terrorists
October 1, 2011

The Economist


The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. By Ali Soufan. W.W. Norton; 572 pages; $26.95. Allen Lane; £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

ALTHOUGH many have claimed to tell the inside story of the hunt for al-Qaeda, Ali Soufan has a better claim than most. As a young Lebanese-American recruit to the FBI, he did more than interrogate some of the al-Qaeda leaders scooped up in America’s war on terror. He ate fast food and cookies with them. He discussed their favourite films (they loved “Braveheart”). He talked about their families, and why they had joined the jihad. He found he often knew more about the finer points of Islamic theology than they did.

Mr Soufan’s main aim is to help Americans understand the enemy that has preoccupied them for over a decade. But he also wants to set the record straight. He still seethes with indignation at the CIA’s failure to share information with the FBI that might have prevented the attacks on the Twin Towers: a failure which is by now well attested but which Mr Soufan chronicles in painful and angry detail.

A third aim is to argue the case against torture. Mr Soufan was part of an FBI team which ran the initial interrogation of an al-Qaeda “facilitator”, Abu Zubaydah. He found that the man was not the al-Qaeda number-three (as George Bush and others claimed at the time) but nevertheless gained important information from him, some of which was used to thwart planned attacks. When a CIA team took over the interrogation, however, Mr Soufan watched aghast…


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