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Defeating Al Qaeda With Pizza, Cookies, and the Koran

The story of Ali Soufan, a key interrogator of terrorist suspects for the FBI, is a firm rebuke to Bush-era torture policy and ongoing Islamophobia.

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

The title of the book stems from a hadith popular among Islamic extremists: If Muslims see an army rising from the historic region of Khurasan in Central Asia marching under the black banners, they should join them. The idea is that this army will defeat the enemies of Islam in an apocalyptic final battle. Yet despite its popularity among extremists, scholars consider the hadith to be of "questionable origin." Like all religious extremists, Al Qaeda's embrace of rigid textualism is selective.

"I saw you in Afghanistan!" Quso exclaims. "Maybe," Soufan says.

Soufan describes many instances in which he uses his knowledge and a savvy rapport to exploit the personal foibles and intellectual weaknesses of his subjects. He kneels down to pray with Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was originally meant to be one of the 9/11 hijackers. He engages Al Qaeda propagandist Ali al-Bahlul in a theological debate whereby he shames Bahlul into giving up information. And Soufan's encyclopedic knowledge of Al Qaeda helps him keep Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, one of the planners of the USS Cole bombing in Yemen in 2000, talking. Shocked by how much Soufan knows, and unwilling to believe an Arab Muslim could be an FBI agent, Quso convinces himself that Soufan is an Islamist double-agent. "I saw you in Afghanistan!" Quso exclaims. "Maybe," Soufan says. Quso starts bragging about his exploits, assuming he isn't telling Soufan anything he doesn't already know. He doesn't realize how much he's giving away.  

The story of America's most famous Arab American FBI agent couldn't come at a more poignant time, with the FBI fighting off institutionalized Islamophobia in its own ranks. A recent spate of stories from Spencer Ackerman at Wired exposed training that portrayed Islam as inherently violent, and mainstream American Muslims as terrorist sympathizers. FBI agents were being taught that the more religiously observant Muslims are, the more likely they are to be terrorists—a ridiculous proposition, especially when one considers that the 9/11 hijackers went out of their way not to be observant so as not to draw suspicion.

Soufan's story, implicitly an example of the triumph of American pluralism, nevertheless underscores the degree to which the FBI has largely failed to produce more Ali Soufans.

"Having grown up in a country pulled apart by sectarian discord, I had come to appreciate the greatness of the United States and admire the ideals that had created the nation," Soufan writes, remembering having to huddle with his parents as bombs exploded in his old neighborhood in war-torn Lebanon. "To those of us who have filled the alternatives, they are filled with meaning." This is why families like Soufan's have always come to the United States. Scores of America's Muslims have similar stories—and yet agents like Soufan remain uncommon. Last year, Lawrence Wright said in a conversation about his book that there were eight Arabic speaking agents in the FBI on 9/11, and still only nine now. In fact, as Wright told The Economist in 2010, "If Ali Soufan tried to work in the FBI now, he probably couldn't get security clearance."

Towards the end of the book, Soufan recounts an incident that occurred shortly before his retirement from the FBI in 2006. At a gala in New York City, a reporter asks FBI Director Robert Mueller, "Where do you see the future of the FBI?" Mueller points to Soufan and says, "That is the future of the FBI." It's a prophecy that, sadly, still shows little sign of coming true.

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