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From Lebanon to American dream, via FBI and 9/11

New York: To television viewers, he is the FBI agent who hunts down Al-Qaeda. But in real-life, Ali Soufan is just as extraordinary, a Muslim immigrant who fled war to live the American dream.

Born in Lebanon, a child of the Middle Eastern country’s brutal 1975-1990 civil war, he migrated to the United States as a teenager, was student president at college and dreamt of studying for a PhD in Cambridge, England.

 

Except he applied to the FBI as a dare and was the only one of his friends selected. With “The X-Files” big on television at the time, Soufan jokes that he was “more interested in aliens than terrorists.”

Instead, the only Arabic speaker on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, he was thrust onto the frontline in the hunt for Al-Qaeda after the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa and the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen.

He travelled the world conducting investigations and interrogating suspects, but US intelligence proved ultimately unable to stop the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, among them Soufan’s former boss.

He calls the Al-Qaeda hijackings, which he watched on television from Yemen, “probably the most gut-wrenching moment in my life.” Afterward, he was handed a manila envelope with intelligence he had been asking for since November 2000.

“I don’t know if angry is the word. Crushed. I don’t know the feeling. I don’t know the term to describe it, still today,” he tells AFP in a recent interview in his New York office, an enormous US flag and framed awards on the wall.

The bitter CIA-FBI rivalry that inadvertently paved the road to 9/11 is dissected in “The Looming Tower,” a television mini-series on Hulu and Amazon Prime adapted from Lawrence Wright’s best-selling, Pulitzer-prize winning book.