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!
- FBI agent’s ‘mental poker game’ against al Qaeda (cnn.com)
- Meet the Interrogator (cbsnews.com)
- Ex-FBI who interrogated Qaeda members speaks out (cbsnews.com)
- The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda by Ali H Soufan with Daniel Freedman (telegraph.co.uk)