Few Americans know the name Ali Soufan and those who do recognize his story as one of the great secret tragedies of 9/11. At the time of the attacks, Soufan was one of only eight Arabic-speaking agents in the whole of the FBI, described by Guantanamo military commander Major General Michael Dunleavy as “a national treasure” for his skills as an investigator and interrogator¹, an accolade echoed by Soufan’s National Security Division boss John O’Neill. Soufan had risen to fame in the counterrorism world during his investigation of the USS Cole bombing in Yemen and a New Yorker profile in 2006 bluntly claimed Soufan was “America’s best chance to stop the attacks of September 11th,” if only the CIA had been willing to share crucial information with him.
After 9/11, Soufan would repeatedly clash with the CIA, and specifically director George Tenet, over interrogation methods at Guantanamo, eventually leading to Soufan’s resignation in 2005 and subsequent decision to form his own organization the Soufan Group and speak out against waterboarding and other ineffective, barbaric interrogation techniques. Despite Soufan’s attempts to educate the intelligence community and politicians about the practices that are holding back effective intelligence gather that could stop terrorist activity, we’ve seemingly learned nothing and with the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban have even taken steps to stop future Ali Soufans from rising in the ranks of our intelligence agencies.
That Soufan managed to rise to prominence in the FBI at all is amazing. As noted, in the post-9/11 world, Soufan was one of only eight Arabic speaking agents within the FBI and literally the only Arabic speaking operative in all of New York (five years after 9/11, the Washington Post reported “only 33 FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism,” and there is no indication that this has improved since). A Lebanese-American who grew up in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war and moved with his family to America when he was 16, in our current political climate Soufan might not have even made it to America at all. Indeed, Soufan told the New Yorker that he applied for the FBI “almost as a joke” and “thought it was nearly inconceivable that the bureau would hire someone with his background.” But when Soufan joined the FBI in 1997, he immediately became an invaluable asset, connecting the 1998 embassy bombings to Osama bin Laden and helping a clueless American intelligence world become aware of the extent of al Qaeda’s reach and aims. Information gathered by Soufan frequently served as our only real peek inside the organizations seeking the dismantlement of our government and without him, we would be even further in the dark.
Though the American intelligence community has publicly stated its commitment to the war on terror for decades now, one of its biggest problems has been its lack of resources in the Middle East and pathetically low number of agents with any background in Arabic let alone an ability to blend in and connect with the region. Pulitzer prize winning journalist Tim Weiner explored that problem in his twin histories Legacy of Ashes, about the CIA, and Enemies, about the FBI, detailing the vast resources both agencies committed to the Cold War and the war against communism and the comparatively weaker, more chaotic efforts the agencies have made in the war on terror. Weiner’s work has exposed these agencies as ineffectual and disorganized and their inability to recruit agents of Arabic descent is a key component of their ongoing failures. Similarly, the successful litigation of top Arabic FBI Agent Bassem Yousef against his employer for their discrimination against Arabic agents indicates that even if the FBI refuses to acknowledge the impact its diversity problem has, our judicial branch is well aware of it.
Which makes the current administration’s Muslim Ban order all the more tragic, since it not only impacts innocent people who have legally immigrated to the US or have been here for quite some time, but also shuts down any hope of either agency recruiting more agents like Soufan and thus puts our country at higher risk for terrorist attack rather than lower. This was immediately clear when it was revealed that one of the first detainees at JFK Airport was an Iraqi interpreter who served with the 101st Airborne Division beginning in 2003. As one Iraq War veteran’s account of his personal experience with an interpreter who saved his life pointed out, interpreters are vital to our operations and put their lives on the line for their work, all in the hope of being allowed to immigrate to our country. Taking blanket stances against all people of a region and religion makes it that much harder to recruit assets, endangers the lives of our troops and field operatives and further elevates the chance that terrorist organizations like ISIS will use such bans to increase their own recruitment numbers.
A real commitment to reducing the risk of terrorist activity in the United States would be based around better outreach, not further alienation of groups seeking to help in the fight against these terrorist organizations and oppressive regimes. What Trump and his cabinet are doing with the Muslim Ban is not about safety or protection or sense, it’s a slap in the face of accomplished, patriotic agents like Soufan and Youssef and interpreters like Hameed Khalid Darwesh that serves to endanger and divide America and its allies. Americans who believe in freedom and also want more success in the war on terror must acknowledge that the biggest strides the FBI and the CIA have made on this front have come from the Soufans and Youssefs of the intelligence community, and fixing the pathetically low numbers of agents we have like them should be our top priority, not unconstitutional executive orders that bar them from entering our country and aiding us.
¹Weiner, Tim. Enemies. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover