He spent eight years in counter-terrorism before his objection to the US’s use of torture led to his departure. Now, he says, the west must learn from its mistakes: ‘If we don’t, we will suffer for years to come’
Some American teenagers dream of a glamorous career in the FBI, a chance to shoot guns and catch criminals, but the idea had not occurred to Ali Soufan. At least, not until The X Files. “Mulder and Scully were going round the world looking for aliens,” he says, laughing. It looked fun. Besides, he did not believe he would get in; he was just intrigued by the process. Why did he think they would not accept him? “Well, look at me; I don’t look like an FBI agent, at least I didn’t at the time.” He was an Arab-American and a bit of an intellectual. “I just felt that I wasn’t a law-enforcement guy, that wasn’t what I wanted to do in my life. But I went, I took all the tests.” They offered him a job. Soufan, who had just completed a master’s in foreign relations, thought he would return to academia if it did not work out.
It was 1997 and Soufan was in his mid-20s. Because of his background – he was born in Lebanon and spoke Arabic – he was assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was focused on Palestinian and Iraqi groups. But he had become interested in Osama bin Laden while reading Arabic newspapers as a student and in 1998 wrote a memo on Bin Laden for his superiors. It made it all the way up to the head of the national security division, John O’Neill, who would become a mentor and friend (O’Neill later became head of security at the World Trade Center and was killed on 9/11). The FBI and the CIA were already monitoring Bin Laden but Soufan claims “they only looked at him as a financier of terrorism, not as a terrorist operative”.