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Book Review: Anatomy of Terror

​Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State. By Ali Soufan. W.W. Norton & Company;; 384 pages; $18.95.

In his book, Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, former FBI special agent Ali Soufan takes the reader on a journey of al Qaeda's evolution from a locally organized jihadist movement with global ambitions to a globally active organization with regional offshoots. Soufan's goal is to provide a definitive account of the organization's lifetime in a way that moves the Western reader beyond the current discourse surrounding radical Islamism and towards a more "clinically empathetic" point of view, arguing that we still do not fully understand our enemy, even nearly two decades into the War on Terror.

To be clear, this goal is not altruistic—Soufan argues that this kind of empathy is a critical and heretofore missing ingredient required to build a better understanding of al Qaeda, which in turn helps the security community build more precise and effective countermeasures.

Soufan's account is useful to the security community that is interested in gaining a more nuanced perspective of al Qaeda's organizational development and the personalities behind it. He draws the reader in, using vivid, occasionally flowery, language, and makes characters out of al Qaeda members, such as "wily security chief" Saif al-Adel and "cold bureaucrat" Ayman al-Zawahiri. This approach makes the book an easy, engaging, and interesting read.

What compromises the book's utility, at least in an academic sense, is that it is difficult for the reader to know where fact ends and fiction begins. Despite his "Note on Sources" and "Notes" sections, which are indeed helpful, Soufan provides few citations for direct quotations and perceptions of al Qaeda's key players. The result is an interesting tale that requires the reader to conduct additional research to fact-check its contents.

Reviewer: Margaret D.M. Barber is a national security researcher in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses.​