WHAT DOES THE F.B.I. KNOW ABOUT ISLAM?
Posted by Amy Davidson
Yesterday afternoon, I was lucky enough to take part in a live chat, organized by Frontline, with Ali Soufan, the former F.B.I. agent who worked as tirelessly as anybody in the fight against Al Qaeda—and more effectively than most. His story has moments of honor and true frustration. As the lead investigator on the U.S.S. Cole bombing, he developed leads that might have helped unravel the 9/11 plot had the C.I.A. not refused to share information; as an interrogator afterward he used non-coercive tactics to get terrorism suspects to give him intelligence—until he was pulled back, and waterboarding was brought in. (Soufan has written a book about his experience, which was heavily redacted by the C.I.A.) What he had to say in the chat made me understand even more why an F.B.I. official once told Lawrence Wright, who wrote a long piece about Soufan, that he and John O’Neill, the head of the F.B.I.’s National Security Division, “often talked about the need to clone Ali.” (O’Neill, who had been Soufan’s mentor, died in the World Trade Center.)
Perhaps that left me ready to be especially dismayed by Spencer Ackerman’s report, for Wired’s Danger Room, on a briefing given to F.B.I. agents at Quantico on terrorism and Islam. But I think I’d be pretty dismayed anyway. The presentation argues that terrorism and “mainstream” Islam are inextricably linked: “There may not be a ‘radical’ threat as much as it is simply a normal assertion of the orthodox ideology.” It also refers to immigration as a jihadist “technique.”
And it includes the chart above, which is a masterpiece of ahistorical nonsense. The horizontal axis shows what I suppose are meant to be the publication dates for the “Torah,” “Bible,” and “Koran”—or births or the burning bush, or something; since the years are 1400 B.C., 3 B.C., and 610, respectively—it’s hard to tell. The vertical one starts with “violent” and rises to “non-violent,” and shows a steady, unbroken upward progress for the “adherence by pious and devout” to the Torah and Bible until the two simultaneously reach a pacific apex and converge somewhere around 2009, as if this were a chart mapping interfaith relations at a country club on Long Island, rather than world history. (Not even a teeny-tiny blip for the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century?) Meanwhile, the Koran tops out in its march to progress in 622, and remains absolutely flat from then until today. There are some crescents with the crosses and Stars of David in the upper reaches, but they seem mostly part of a celestial decorative scheme. And what the five-pointed star above the violent Muslims means is a mystery. (Communism? Bratz dolls?) The immediate concerns about the briefing are that it seems to be providing instruction in intolerance, that it draws a crude stereotype of Muslims, and that it will lead not only to harassment but to clumsy, unproductive law enforcement.
But there’s another concern, too: is this what history instruction looks like at this level? A chart like that would be worrisome enough in a homeschooling workbook for small children. Didn’t any of the grown-up people at the F.B.I. notice that it didn’t make sense?
The briefing was given just six months ago. Maybe there were other, better ones. An F.B.I. spokesman told Danger Room that it hadn’t been mandatory, and that “a disclaimer accompanied the presentation stating that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government.” One would hope not; but putting that in the fine print, and the briefer in front of a room of agents, is not good enough.
Ali Soufan told Frontline that when he interrogated suspects he would engage them about Islam, and his real knowledge worked in his favor--and in all of ours. In our chat, I asked Soufan about the note in Larry Wright’s piece that, before 9/11, he “was the only F.B.I. agent in the city who spoke Arabic, and one of only eight in the country.” Had that changed?
Soufan: There are people who speak Arabic now in the Bureau, as a second language, but in terms of native speakers I think we’re around the same place.
One wonders why—and how much less safe we are because of it.
Image: F.B.I. training document, via Wired.
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