Anatomy of Terror is the kind of book many people feel compelled to read. The subject of terrorism is foremost on our minds, surrounded as we are with images from the Syrian civil war, traumatized European capitals, one more lone-wolf attack in some nearby city. Whether from guilt or fear or compassion or fascination, we want to know more than we do. So we pick up the book with the best of intentions, hoping, above all, that it’s lucid and accessible enough to teach us something and to keep us involved — for this is a complicated subject.
Does Ali Soufan’s book meet the test? He seems a superb choice to write on the subject. A Lebanese-American, he’s a former FBI agent who took part in a number of antiterrorism investigations, including the bombing of the USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks. At his best, he’s a fine writer, which is clear, especially, from the opening and closing chapters of this book.
“Among the cold details of the special-forces operation that killed bin Laden, he ponders the man’s thoughts before the bullet strikes . . .”
He begins his book of terror poetically, with a pockmarked clay brick, which he picks up at the site of a bombed-out al Qaeda safe house and carries home. He uses vivid metaphors – an olive tree, coils of razor wire, a snake with broken teeth, a mythical hydra-beast – and audacious artistic license: among the cold details of the special-forces operation that killed bin Laden, he ponders the man’s thoughts before the bullet strikes. It’s a stunning passage.
While his narrative style can be dramatic, his rhetorical style is powerful and clear. The most valuable sections of his book are those in which he offers conclusions and solutions to the intractable problems of evil. Know your enemy, he tells us — and the enemy is not radical Islam but salafi-jihadism, of which Al Qaeda and ISIS are prime examples. Understand that the resilience of these groups lies in the way they cycle endlessly between terrorism, insurgency, and proto-state. Military force may be necessary to break the cycle but, in the end, will not be enough without other reinforcing institutions. Countermessaging, rehabilitation, and the bankrolling of education are crucial. His remarks are oddly reassuring in a book that is overwhelmingly dark.
Yet there is a flaw so fundamental in this book, that to my way of thinking, it almost overshadows everything else: Between the powerful opening and closing chapters lies a long, hard slog. The details of the history of terrorism in this region are complicated, convoluted, dense, problematic, and to articulate that history is difficult. To articulate it with sustained dramatic intensity is even harder. That Soufan fails to maintain the easy poetry that he opens with hardly seems a fair criticism. Yet if the general reader, the nonspecialist — you and I — fail to stick with it, what good is the anatomy to us?
All of this could have been easily remedied with a few simple, conventional addenda: a cast of characters, maps, a chronology, some photos. I say this confidently because, in order to fully engage with the content, these are the things I had to construct or consult for myself.
“I think it’s safe to say that Soufan wrote this book, in large part, to educate the masses.”
What Soufan contributes to our understanding of this vital topic is too valuable to undercut with an over-hasty publishing following hard upon an agonized, exhaustive research and writing process. If you’re reading the digital form of the book on Kindle, note how quickly the collective-readership highlights disappear. For me, this is always an indication of either a book that’s so engrossing, readers forget to take notes, or a book that’s so dry, readers give up.
If you manage to work your way through this important book, you won’t be sorry. Already, my understanding of the articles I read online is greatly enriched because of Anatomy of Terror. I think it’s safe to say that Soufan wrote this book, in large part, to educate the masses. That he does so admirably well, if imperfectly, is — I hope — not damning with faint praise.