Anatomy of Terror

From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State

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Ali Soufan
  • London, England: 
    W. W. Norton & Company
    , May
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this engaging new book, former FBI agent Ali Soufan chronicles the evolution of Islamic terrorist movements of the last two decades, offering a rich background to the transition from the dominance of Al-Qaeda in the 2000s, to the rise and fall of ISIS in the 2010s, to what the author envisages as the “impending resurgence” of Al-Qaeda today. The author’s aim is to identify patterns within this history and focus on individuals that marked key steps in this transition, reflecting the author’s conviction—stated prominently in the introduction—that “personalities matter.” The book achieves these aims by drawing on a wealth of information and anecdotes which certainly owe to Soufan’s own involvement at the highest levels of US counter-terrorism. And yet, despite its richness, this ambitious volume leaves a lot to be desired. 

The main puzzle which the book seeks to unpack concerns the resilience and durability of the Islamic terrorist threat. As we learn from the blurb on the book’s dust jacket, the book aims to provide “a compelling, definitive account of how and why bin Laden’s ideology keeps rising from the dead.” As is often the case, the metaphors and imagery chosen are indicative. From early in the book, the author compares Islamic terrorism to the Greek myth of the hydra (v, 238), the ancient monster with multiple heads that proved impossible to kill, except to Hercules. A certain heroic theme runs through the entire book, in fact, with the author seemingly juxtaposing the “evil genius” of terrorist “anti-heroes,” or leaders, to the heroic efforts of ordinary people and counter-terrorism officers in the US. Amongst the key individuals which the book devotes sections or chapters to are Osama bin Laden himself (chapters 1-3), bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri (chapters 5 and 6), ISIS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (chap. 4) and ISIS current chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (chap. 7). Weaving a narrative that is, at times, rather disjointed, Soufan covers watershed moments and crises, such as the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya in 1998 (76), the October 2000 attack on the US Navy destroyer “USS Cole” stationed in Yemen (82), 9/11 and the Twin Tower attacks (83-90), as well as key battles and operations of the “Global War on Terror” campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including of course “operation Geronimo,” the killing of Osama bin Laden (35-41). The book’s descriptive strengths, however, are not matched by an equally robust analytical effort. Unfortunately, the result is that this volume’s contribution to the scholarly inquiry into the causes and consequences of the continued strength of Islamic terrorism after the end of the Cold War is limited at best, misleading at worst.

Despite the book clocking over three hundred pages, the author struggles to find adequate answers in response to the book’s main puzzle. Perhaps this is because he often abandons explanation for the sake of stereotyping, or perhaps because he stubbornly seeks answers in the wrong places. Over the course of the book, innocent clichés develop into fully-fledged and sweeping racialized accounts of what “the Arab world” is like—so much that the presence of Islamic terrorism is linked, according to a rather tired scheme, to some generic cultural traits, rather than specific economic or political issues. Thus, “the Arab world” (a problematic notion in itself, which however is never unpacked in the ten chapters of the book) would be prone to Islamic terrorism because of its “little intellectual openness to the wider world” (111), “its rampant corruption” (112) and its “zero history of liberalism, let alone participatory democracy” (207). 

Orientalist tropes aside, the book’s focus is exceedingly narrow, so that phenomena like the rise of al-Qaeda and the emergence of ISIS are ascribed to singularly endogenous processes—such as the “audacity” and “charisma” of bin Laden (xii), the brutality of al-Zarqawi (110), the sectarianism and infighting between different factions and groups (xvi)—rather than connected to the broader international relations of the Middle East, or indeed the wider landscape of world politics, including the role of the US. This dubious analytical choice is elevated to a paradigm when the author explains al-Qaeda’s resilience on the basis of its purported doctrine of the “management of savagery” (184)—that is, the exploitation by Islamic terrorist movements of “black holes” in the governance of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. This begs the question, however, of where exactly such “black holes” originated. How did the chaos that helped ISIS coalesce come about in Iraq after 2003? How did the Taleban and al-Qaeda manage to exploit the void left by the defeat of the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose murder preceded the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks by just two days? 

These developments remain simply incomprehensible without an account of the decades-long involvement of countries such as the US in Middle East politics—from its support of mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the USSR, to its dismemberment of Iraq in the wake of its “Global War on Terror.” Similarly, the current transformation and possible resurgence of Islamic terrorism is incomprehensible without an acknowledgement of how jihadism has become grounded in local reality, developing “from the bottom up,” and intersecting in rather complex ways with the struggles of the Arab uprisings. For instance, Egypt may well have “exchanged one autocrat with another” as the author dismissively quips (208)—but this is due in no small part to how the societal and economic demands voiced by Islamic parties were actively ostracized by Western powers, only to be pushed into the fold of jihadism. If Islamic terrorism can indeed be compared to a hydra, the feat of Hercules cannot certainly be equated to the penchant of ostriches for burying their heads in the sand. This is a failing strategy that does, indeed, explain why “Al Qaeda Won,” as Stephen Marche stated in his article “Al Qaeda Won” (Foreign Policy, Sept 10, 2018) on the anniversary of 9/11. In conclusion, what Soufan’s book offers in terms of an engaging description of twenty years of jihadism, it unfortunately lacks in terms of scholarly acumen, analytical insight, and sound political judgement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elisabetta Brighi is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Westminster, London.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ali Soufan is the author of Anatomy of Terror and the New York Times bestseller The Black Banners. A former FBI special agent, he has served on the front lines against al-Qaeda and gained an international reputation as a top counterterrorism operative and interrogator. He has been profiled in The New Yorker and featured in books, newspaper articles, and documentaries around the globe.


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