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

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THE BLACK BANNERS: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda, Ali H. Soufan with Daniel Freedman, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011, 572 pages, $26.95

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ALI SOUFAN, AN FBI agent and interrogator, was in Yemen investigating Al-Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole when the 9/11 attacks took place. Many of his friends and colleagues died in the twin towers, including John O'Neill, his mentor and former boss. The next day, his headquarters ordered him to reinterrogate Fahd al-Quso, a member of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The CIA sent him a file explaining why. When Soufan read the file, his hands shook. He ran to the bathroom, fell to the floor next to a toilet and threw up, unable to comprehend why the CIA had withheld such key intelligence for more than a year. If this intelligence, which the FBI had repeatedly requested, had been shared with the FBI before 9/11, "at a minimum, Khalid al-Mihdhar [one of the hijackers] would not have been allowed to just walk into the United States on 4 July 2001, and Nawaf al-Hazmi, Atta's deputy [another hijacker], would have been arrested." The interrogation of either of these hijackers could have then led to more arrests, and perhaps, foiled the entire plot.

This powerful anecdote is just one of many in Soufan's remarkable memoir, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda. An Arabic-speaking Lebanese American, Soufan served at the "tip of the spear" in America's fight against Al-Qaeda from 1997 to 2004. During this period, using traditional, noncoercive interrogation techniques, Soufan's team convinced many die-hard Al-Qaeda members that they should cooperate. After his team questioned L'Houssainne Khertchou, this Kenyan Al-Qaeda operative became the star witness in a trial that put four other operatives in prison for the 1998 East African embassy bombings. Interrogations of Quso and Jamal al-Badawi led to confessions and convictions for their roles in the 1999 bombing of the USS Cole. His team "turned" Abu Jandal, Osama bin-Laden's personal bodyguard, which led to testimony that convinced Pervez Musharaf, Pakistan's president, that Al-Qaeda was indeed behind the 9/11 attacks. Soufan's interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, a midlevel Al-Qaeda facilitator, yielded the intelligence that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had orchestrated the attacks. Notably, during these and other interviews, his team uncovered Al-Qaeda plots that were then stopped.

As spectacular as these successes are, history will find far more interesting the institutional failures that Soufan's experiences illuminate. There is the failure of the CIA to adequately share intelligence with U.S. law enforcement agencies, thus ensuring the 9/11 attacks could take place. Just as damning is Soufan's eyewitness testimony concerning the utter ineffectiveness of so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques. …