Monday, June 5, 2017
ANATOMY OF TERROR From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State By Ali Soufan 359 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.
CreditAlessandra Montalto/The New York Times
In his revealing and timely new book, “Anatomy of Terror,” the former F.B.I. special agent Ali Soufan compares Al Qaeda and its vicious spinoff, the Islamic State, to the Hydra from Greek mythology: Cut off one head and two more quickly sprout.
More than a decade and a half after Sept. 11, and a half-dozen years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, he writes, “the cancer of bin Ladenism has metastasized across the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, carried by even more virulent vectors.”
“Whereas on 9/11 Al Qaeda had around 400 members,” he goes on, “today it has thousands upon thousands, in franchises and affiliates spread from the shores of the Pacific to Africa’s Atlantic seaboard.” And he notes that bin Laden’s 20-something son Hamza — who “grew up with a fervor for jihad and a determination to follow” in his father’s footsteps — is “being prepared for leadership” with several of his father’s most trusted lieutenants. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has brought mass murder to Iraq and Syria, and conducted or inspired attacks in more than two dozen countries; the group claimed responsibility for last week’s deadly bombing in Manchester, England.
As he did in his best-selling 2011 book, “The Black Banners,” Soufan writes with immense knowledge and authority. He was the lead investigator of the bombing of the American destroyer Cole and a supervisor of counterterrorism operations and the investigation of events surrounding Sept. 11. He was instrumental in identifying the Sept. 11 hijackers and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the architect of those attacks, and he extracted such crucial information not by torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (E.I.T.s), but by building a rapport with his subjects, sparring with them over interpretations of the Quran, and using old-fashioned logic and psychology.Photo
Soufan, who left the F.B.I. in 2005, has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s so-called E.I.T.s, arguing that torture is both morally wrong and ineffective and dangerous — generating false leads and unreliable information, and helping terrorists find new recruits.
In “The Black Banners,” Soufan provided a compelling insider’s account of American efforts to track down the perpetrators of Sept. 11, and recounted the story of Al Qaeda up through the death of bin Laden. His new book covers some of the same ground, but focuses on that terrorist group after bin Laden’s death, and how it and the Islamic State have evolved since — their different philosophies and divergent trajectories, and how the personalities of their leaders have shaped the organizations. Of the relationship between the soft-spoken bin Laden and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the fiery militant who founded the group that would become the Islamic State, Soufan quotes an intelligence officer: It was a case of “loathing at first sight.”
Much of this has been covered in books like “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” by Joby Warrick, “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, and “ISIS: The State of Terror” by Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger. But Soufan brings firsthand, on-the-ground experience hunting down and interrogating Qaeda members. “Anatomy of Terror” not only tells a gripping story but is filled with insights that put today’s terror attacks by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in perspective with the history and complicated geopolitics of the region.
Soufan underscores the disastrous role that the United States invasion of Iraq and its bungled occupation played in fueling terrorism, creating chaos and a power vacuum in Iraq — the perfect incubator for insurgent violence and bloodshed. Two calamitous decisions made by the Americans (dissolving the Iraqi Army and banning members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from positions of authority) would prove fateful. Soufan writes that embittered and unemployed “former Baathists soon became the backbone of the new Islamic State of Iraq.” He adds, “With their governmental, intelligence, and military experience, these men made themselves essential both to ISI’s battlefield achievements and to the terror tactics it has deployed against ordinary citizens.”
He lucidly describes the nefarious modus operandi (borrowed, in part, from Hussein’s regime) by which ISI — which would be renamed ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), and later simply IS, the Islamic State — began aggressively conquering territory in Iraq and Syria in 2013. It would start, in each town, by opening what appeared to be a religious community center, then selecting fervent young men “to inform on their neighbors and spy on any rival rebel groups in the area.”
While gathering intelligence and blackmail material on residents, Soufan explains: “ISIL would begin concentrating its fighters in the area — typically foreigners who would have less compunction about killing or subjugating the natives. When the local faction judged that it had amassed enough manpower and enough leverage with the local population, it would go public and seize the municipal government, violently if necessary.” Leaders of rival groups would be assassinated, and anyone who opposed ISIL’s rule would be killed — terror tactics that compelled allegiance from local tribes.
In other chapters, Soufan gives a detailed portrait of Al Qaeda’s more bureaucratic operation, describing bin Laden’s long view of history and his penchant for micromanagement. (“Please send me the résumés of all the brothers who might be nominated for high administrative positions now or in the future.”)
Such passages give a keen sense of how these terrorist groups operate day to day. Soufan also uses some of the techniques he learned as an interrogator to get inside the heads of his subjects, mapping the factors that lead many to become jihadis, and the ways Al Qaeda and the Islamic State use publicity and propaganda to recruit members and promote their brand.
“Know your enemy,” he quotes Sun Tzu, adding that empathy is a useful tool in this war — “not in the colloquial sense of sharing another person’s perspective, but in the clinical sense of being able to see the world through another person’s eyes.” By understanding Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, he writes, we can better “combat the destructive ideology they represent.”