Ali Soufan Q&A: “Hotel California is the story of my life”

The former FBI agent talks Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Seinfeld.

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Ali Soufan was born in Lebanon in 1971. His efforts to expose al-Qaeda terror plots are explored in Lawrence Wright’s book “The Looming Tower” and the Hulu series of the same name, for which Soufan was executive producer. He has been described as the man who came closest to preventing 9/11.

What’s your earliest memory?

Playing with my toys in my grandparents’ house in Lebanon. I remember being barely able to walk, having a ruler in my hand, and trying to hit my aunt with the ruler.

Who are your heroes?

Abraham Lincoln. He was a pure man who had to endure so much to keep the nation together, and he sharpened the moral compass of America. He was in the middle of everything: war, politics and passing the 13th Amendment, and doing what he needed to do for the greater good.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. He knows the art of war, the art of politics, but it has a very soothing effect on me – some healing effect on the soul. I’m reading it again.

Which political figure, past or present, do you most look up to?

George Washington because he imposed limits on himself, quit politics and went back to farming – do you ever see a politician who just has “retired”? And my former boss, Robert Mueller. He’s a silent warrior, he’s humble and he is needed in this extraordinary moment in our history.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Seinfeld. I know every episode.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Fifty years in the future. I’d like to see if we’re doing anything right.

What TV show could you not live without?

I’m not into serious TV shows. I love sitcoms – so, Modern Family reruns.

What’s your theme tune?

“Hotel California” is my life: once you get into the intel world, you can never get out.

Who would paint your portrait?

There’s an app for that now isn’t there?

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Never look back – I got that from my dad. I have more control from moving forward than crying about the stuff I cannot change.

What’s currently bugging you?

What’s happening to global security, and the internal factionalism within the US. The cornerstone of the world order is the alliance between the United States and our allies in Europe. We’re weakening it. If we destroy it, we’re in deep trouble.

What single thing would make your life better?

Less work and less travel. I live out of a suitcase. Unfortunately, I can’t retire because I don’t have the wealth or the intellect that George Washington had.

When were you happiest?

Whenever I’m with my wife and boys. My twins are seven. And my eldest, the poor guy, he finds out he’s having a brother or sister, and then he has two.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I wanted to go into academia when I was recruited into the FBI – to teach at college for the rest of my life.

Are we all doomed?

You know what? No. As Churchill said, America will always do the right thing after it has exhausted all other possibilities. 

Ali Soufan’s “Anatomy of Terror” is published by WW Norton

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis