'Looming Tower's' Muslim-American Hero on 9/11 Lessons for Trump White House

Ali Soufan is the real-life FBI agent portrayed by Tahar Rahim in Hulu's new 9/11 drama.
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images (Soufan); Courtesy of Jojo Whilden/Hulu (Still)
Jeff Daniels and Tahar Rahim in 'The Looming Tower'; Inset: Ali Soufan

Those unfamiliar with the name Ali Soufan will soon be getting a lesson in his role in American history with the debut of Hulu's forthcoming 9/11 drama The Looming Tower.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, who also exec produces the limited series, The Looming Tower is a dramatic retelling of the events leading up to 9/11. Beginning its 10-episode story in 1998, the series tracks the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, while shining a light on the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA that inadvertently set the path for the tragic Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

In the series, Peter Sarsgaard runs the counter-terrorism division of the CIA as a composite character, while Jeff Daniels portrays flawed hero John O'Neill, the real chief of the FBI's 1-49 squad. When the series opens, O'Neill recruits Soufan (portrayed by Tahar Rahim) as his protege. At the time, the Muslim-American FBI agent was the only officer in the New York bureau who spoke Arabic; a language only eight agents across the country were fluent in, despite the growing al-Qaeda threat. Soufan's storyline also highlight's the country’s inherent bias against Muslims.

Showrunner Dan Futterman linked Soufan's story to the current climate while speaking to an audience filled with former and current government agents at the show's recent New York premiere: "The prospect of making a show about a Muslim-American hero — a teenage immigrant from Lebanon who probably these days would have a hard time getting into the country and who is one of the most patriotic people that I know — was irresistible to me."

The series tracks the efforts of the FBI and CIA in the ensuing years and the mistakes that resulted from top-level miscommunication between the two government agencies. As is detailed in Wright's 2006 best-seller, had the CIA shared pertinent information — like the fact that two al-Qaeda operatives who would become 9/11 hijackers were in the U.S. — O'Neill and his unit might have been able to thwart the attack.

As a producer on the series, Soufran was integral in bringing the story to the small screen. He believes that institutionally the U.S. government has learned from previous mistakes, but that today's politicians have not.

"I hope that everyone who is working on terrorism has already read The Looming Tower. Because if you didn't, you need to go back and read it," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I hope when people watch The Looming Tower, they know the hard work the law enforcement and intelligence services do every day; how they put their life on the line. It's such an easy, cheap shot for politicians to criticize them, but they are the people who keep the line between the life that we live today and anarchy, and I hope people appreciate the hard work that they did."

Soufan likens the TV series to a public service. "People like to watch TV shows about terrorism and stuff like that — but this is based on reality," he points out. "Every single story in this is real. You're going to see about the Albania operation and the East African U.S. embassy bombings. These things happened. People lived through this."

During the 1998 embassy bombings, American media was consumed with covering the scandal between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewisnky — something that is highlighted in Looming Tower with the use of real news footage, a narrative decision made by executive producer Alex Gibney.

"Everyone is paying attention to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and no one is paying attention to this guy named Osama bin Laden — they had to fight hard to get air time," Gibney tells THR. "These are real events we're portraying, so to have the backstage material fuse with the real-life material was important in how we wanted to tell the story; that it would feel real because these are real events. What we're seeing is the stuff that was maybe in the shadows, but when you come to the forefront you see the real Osama bin Laden. That was terribly important."

Ultimately, Soufan — who was active in the bureau for five years after 9/11 — admits that reliving this portion of his life through the lens of a TV series is an odd experience. 

"You have a lot of mixed feelings," he says. "I love the fact that Tahar is playing me, but every time I watch the show, it's so weird in so many ways that you're looking at some parts of your life staring you in the face. And unfortunately, it's not really the good parts of your life. It ended up with a tragedy."

But this year, he says, is the right time to be revisiting the events on such a large scale. "The story of 9/11 has been told and written, but really hasn't been shown to the American people," he says. "It hasn't been really told in a way where people can relate to the characters and understand the complexity of all the events that led to 9/11. Hulu is doing a big service to the country, and to the world, in showing the event that impacted the life of every American and changed the world."

Michael Stuhlbarg — who portrays another real life character, White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke — met with Clarke when researching his role and agrees that those who are in these respective positions today could learn from the division of the past. "[Clarke] did everything he could to keep us safe," the Oscar-nominated actor tells THR. "For whatever reason — and there were reasons for it — people kept their mouth shut when they should have said something. Maybe we can glean that we should trust each other with information; that the CIA and the FBI should be working together. I understand they are individual institutions with different purviews, but look what happens when you don't communicate. I think there's a lot to learn from looking at history and I hope that Looming Tower will do that."

Ultimately Futterman hopes to send a message and answer looming questions with the series. "If we made the show for anybody, it's for the families and friends of the victims of 9/11," he said. "They've been asking for 17 years for some answers: 'How and why did this happen?' We tried to answer some of those questions and when we couldn't answer those questions, we asked them again — loudly and in Technicolor."

The Looming Tower debuts its first three episodes on Hulu on Feb. 28; subsequent episodes bow weekly.