Counterterrorist agent’s turn to get grilled

Reddit quizzes Ali Soufan, author of "The Black Banners," on his years as an FBI agent. Can crowdsourced Q&A dig deep?


Kevin Morris


Published Sep 26, 2011   Updated Jun 3, 2021, 2:35 am CDT

As an FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan went toe to toe with some of the most wanted terrorists in the world, including Salim Hamdan, Osama Bin Laden’s former driver, and Abu Jandal, his bodyguard.

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But Soufan’s fame has come less from his success as an interrogator than from his outspoken criticism of the Bush administration’s use of torture.

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That stance is a natural fit for social news site Reddit, whose users often lean left. So Soufan opened himself up to the intense scrutiny of Reddit, letting the site’s users “ask [him] anything” — a kind of crowdsourced group interview.

It’s the type of journalism that Harvard’s David Weinberger singled out in an essay he wrote last month called “Reddit and Community Journalism.” In the essay, Weinberger specifically singled out Reddit’s live interviews—”ask me anything” or AMAs—calling them “an important type of citizen journalism.“

Ali Soufan’s interview  gives some sense of what that journalism look like: intelligent, edifying, and yet also fractured.

Question-and-answer sessions on Reddit are somewhere between a mass interview and a pseudonymous town hall. Redditors upvote the most popular questions, which rise to the top and are hence the most likely to receive attention from the interviewee.

But once an AMA subject answers the top questions, he or she rarely continues with a follow-up. So while a broad range of topics are discussed,  few topics are delved into with any depth.

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Three of the top-voted questions today, for instance, were as follows:

“Had the PATRIOT Act existed before 9/11, would it have allowed you to prevent the terrorist attack on 9/11/01?”

“In your conversations with some intelligent terrorists, do you sometimes find yourself convinced by the detainee’s philosophy and reasoning? If yes, to which point?”

“What’s your take on al-Qaeda actually being much more of an ‘-Ism’ than any cohesive group? Do you think it’s best classified as something akin to the IRA or Shining Path, or more of an ideology like Marxism where anyone can just declare themselves an adherent?”

Good, smart questions, which led to some fascinating answers from Soufan—but little of the probing or argument that might have come from an experiencedinterviewer.

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Another problem with the Soufan interview: The main reason why Soufan was willing to participate was because he had something to promote.

Soufan recently released a book, The Black Banners, which he plugged directly in almost every response on Reddit. Even Soufan’s user name on the site, TheBlackBanners, was a plug for the book.

Book authors often agree to take time for interviews with conventional outlets because they see it as a marketing opportunity. But a traditional journalistic interview might have edited out the more blatant plugs.

In the end, Reddit’s Soufan interview was educating on the core subject of counterterrorism. But it was also a valuable demonstration of Reddit’s strengths and weaknesses. With the community acting as editors, the social news site doesn’t eliminate filters. Instead, it trades one set for another.

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*First Published: Sep 26, 2011, 5:55 pm CDT