Ali Soufan 60 minutes interview

What F.B.I. Agent Ali Soufan can teach you about innovation

Ali Soufan 60 minutes interview

As someone who at some point thought about choosing between becoming a spy or a Navy SEAL, I couldn’t hold myself back from not reading Ali Soufan’s The Black Banners: The Inside Story about 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda.

Ali Soufan was the FBI’s top Al-Qaeda interrogator.

During his FBI stint from 1997 to 2005, Soufan was the lead investigator on major terror investigations such as the October 2000 attack on the Navy’s U.S.S. Cole which killed 17 sailors. He helped the agency investigate the attacks on U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the late 1990s, and was a key interrogator of al Qaeda detainees after the 9/11 attacks.

To become the top Al-Qaeda interrogator he bluffed significant intelligence from major Al-Qaeda operatives. His secret: Knowledge.

Knowledge of the enemy to be exact.

This sounds surprising you might think but it is. As much information as the C.I.A., F.B.I., N.S.A. or any other agency have, the way they treat(ed) people was the complete opposite of Ali Soufan’s secret. It’s all laid out in the book. And most of that information is redacted so the general public doesn’t know the truth about how things really went down.

Instead of torturing terrorists, Mr. Soufan took the opposite approach to getting information from terrorists. He treated them like human beings. There is some strategic thinking behind this approach as caught terrorists expect to be tortured if caught, Soufan did the opposite.

With that said, it’s no surprise that Mr. Soufan is a fan of Sun-Tzu as one quote that appears in the introduction of the book is this one: “If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you will win 100 times and 100 battles.” – Sun-Tzu

Which translates to: Understanding your opponents, and using that knowledge to undermine them, is the key to ultimate victory.

In the world of business, this can be re-framed as understanding your customers and using that knowledge to delight them is the key to ultimate victory.

Lessons for Innovators

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m posting this. I freely advocate that we need to understand our customers better than they understand themselves. We shouldn’t ignore them, we should listen to them.

So what are some of the takeaways?

  • Empathy. Understanding our customers requires empathy, putting ourselves in their shoes. Living their life’s or getting as close as possible to becoming them. To understand their hassle-map. Mr. Soufan had a unique middle eastern background and it no doubt helped him connect with terrorists, but simply being human was enough to break resistance.
  • Question assumptions. Put simply, if you work in a government institution, there are a ton of assumptions about how things get done. An innovators paradise! Question the givens.
  • Conviction. Sticking to your guns and doing the right thing when everyone else is following the rule book.
  • Radical is a matter of perception. What’s unconventional to others might be common sense to you and viceversa. Mr. Soufan thought torture tactics where radical, others thought his humanistic approach to interrogation was radical. Remember: there’s a flip-side to everything, others might not see what you see, and viceversa.

Even if you’re not much into espionage or the history of Al-Qaeda, The Black Banners is a fascinating book. No doubt Mr. Soufan is an Agent of Change and Innovator. He made the whole Intelligence Community look his way and adopt his interrogation philosophy. Hopefully it stays that way.

In the videos below, Mr. Soufan is interviewed by 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan. It’s a must see!

Part 1

Part 2

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  • Bickel

    OK, so after lurking on this great blog for a while, time to weigh in – with a question of course.  Your comment about knowing your customers better than they do.  In some ways, this is a form of humility, to have taken the time to understand others and where they come from.  So, was Jobs being as arrogant as people say when he commented about not listening to focus groups, or was he in his own inimitable way expressing something closer to what you commented about (and we didn’t take the time to “hear” him)?

    • Hi Keith,

      I think it wasn’t outright arrogance but sensitivity. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that Apple wasn’t really first at anything, they waited for others to screw up and then they figured out how to do it a lot better. It also gave them a front row seat and figuring out how might people use technology and it also made them use it themselves.

      I’m of the belief that you build what you want to see out there in the world whether people like it or not. What matters is that if you’re passionate about it then other people might be as well. Steve Jobs was passionate about beauty, this resonated with others as well.

      What do you think?



      • Bickel

        So I completely agree with his passion around beauty, and why wouldn’t it resonate with a rather large fan base given the boxiness / lack of creativity of his corporate competitors?  And I agree with you that he was less an innovator and more an editor who just took pedantic history and made it Shakespearean theater.  

        Where the competitive strategist in me starts to cringe is in building what you want to see and then seeing whether people come.  That risks becoming a “build it and they will come” mentality that I see time and time again fail in the business world.  If you are an artist or architect or musician, you probably have a duty to yourself to do just that – be original.  If you are Howard Hughes and designing airplanes on your own dime, cool.  But if you intend to serve a customer base – and more importantly are doing it on someone else’s dime, like investors – then you probably need to be more focused on giving the customer what they want.  And I believe that the continued failure of startups actually is proof that customers know what they want better than most product and business developers do.  Jobs, in other words, was revered precisely because he was an exception to the rule, not the rule that should be followed.  

        I’ll be interested in seeing how much we agree or disagree on this.


        • I think it’s a mix of both. You have to not just listen to customers but also lead them. It’s a tricky balance no doubt. I’ve never been a fan of asking people what they want and giving them exactly that, because that would completely ignore my own imagination. Plus it’s also a very predictable and boring process IMO. That’s why I mix it up. Listen but also lead.



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