There can be little doubt that we are entering the age of extremism. For until now, there has never been a means by which to gather together the world's disenchanted, from the hateful to the hopeless, and have them be forged, by a single manipulative force, into weapons of ideological warfare. The Internet and the personal computer, notwithstanding the immense good they have wrought, have made this possible. For they have allowed the confused and the vulnerable to reach out from their loneliness to access propaganda they are ill-equipped to refute. Once converted, these malleable souls then become dangerous munitions, loaded guns that need only be pointed at the most convenient targets. Thus, there has never been a time in which the resources of the national security have had to be more thoroughly and wisely marshalled if our countries are to be protected from the misguided aims of nihilists. What is it like to be on the frontlines of this new war? Of this new and more ideological world? Mr. Soufan demonstrates in this history of his career at the FBI which is bound to leave its readers quietly terrified.
From the East African embassy bombings to the crippling of the USS Cole, from the wilds of Yemen to the mountains of Afghanistan, Ali Soufan, a veteran of the FBI, describes, in riveting detail, his decade-long hunt for Al-Qaeda. From the interrogation of captured assets to the tracing of financial and political connections, this most staunch counterterrorist illuminates how Osama Bin Laden came to the attention of the West in the 1990s, how he channeled the disenfranchisement of Middle Eastern Arabs into an anti-American crusade, how the organization he created entered into a political marriage with the Afghani Taliban, how he was able to plan attacks on American assets, and how he was able to dispatch his agents to the United States where they executed the most destructive terrorist attack in American history. What emerges is a vivid portrait of the day-to-day challenges of counterterrorism: the egos that must be managed, the laws that must be adhered to and the intelligence that must be properly applied if our world's most violent souls are to be subdued.
Though The Black Banners is something of a grind, the extent to which it illuminates the lives of Islamic terrorists and those who pursue them makes it an invaluable read. Mr. Soufan foregoes the extensive lessons on the roots of Islamic terror so wonderfully illuminated in The Looming Tower and, instead, chooses to fixate on the anatomy of the criminal investigation of terrorist attacks. Here, Mr. Soufan is at his best. For he grants us a front-row seat to the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole. We watch as leads are pursued, bureaucracies overcome, money traced, and terrorists caught and interrogated until a broader picture of Al-Qaeda emerges, one in which Osama Bin Laden is seen to be desperately trying to provoke his ginned up enemy, the United States, into a rash attack that he can then use as fuel for Jihad. When the bombing of the USS Cole fails to yield the desired result, an even more audacious plan is hatched, one that will bring down the World Trade Center, ignite two wars in the Middle East and eventually lead to the death of Bin Laden and many of his fellows.
As much as Mr. Soufan can rightfully claim numerous, investigative successes, he devotes many more of these 600 pages to a spirited condemnation of the intra-agency conflicts that characterize the United States' national security establishment. Mr. Soufan sides with Mr. Weiner and the 9/11 Commission in laying at least partial responsibility for 9/11 at the feet of the CIA which could not bring itself to deviate from pigheaded doctrine to protect the country that spawned it. Perhaps this is why the CIA has responded by redacting so much of Mr. Soufan's work. The text here is shot through with so much black that numerous chapters are hard to follow. Consequently, The Black Banners fails to reach the brilliant heights of The Looming Tower.
This is an intensely personal memoir that paints a grim picture of our future, a future in which we must worry as much about those who purport to protect us as those who purport to hate us. For make no mistake, we in the West live in security states that eat away at our liberties in the name of keeping us free. This cannot be forgotten. To the extent that Mr. Soufan has shown us how this is done, he has done us all a service. To the extent that he and his efforts, both here and at the FBI, have protected his country and brought some measure of solace to the victims of the USS Cole, he should be commended. Difficult but engaging work. (3/5 Stars)