From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Mon Sep 12 2011 - 16:54:38 EDT
Interview with Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan-'We Did Exactly What Al-Qaida
Wanted Us to Do'
09/12/2011 <http://www.spiegel.de/artikel/a-749184.html> Info
SPIEGEL: How would you describe the state of the United States 10 years
after 9/11, four months after the death of Bin Laden? Is this the beginning
of the end of the story?
Soufan: It is the beginning of a new era. I think today, al-Qaida is
definitely, significantly damaged. The al-Qaida that attacked us on 9/11
does not exist anymore. Its central command is very, very weak. In these 10
years, because of mistakes made, the United States' reputation was seriously
damaged. But at the same time we have been working to reverse this damage:
All secret jails have been closed. The enhanced interrogation techniques
have been cancelled. Memos have been declassified, so we put it all out
there and we said we face up to what we did. That's very rare in any country
around the world.
SPIEGEL: You started investigating against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida
years before 9/11. Do you remember when you first heard bin Laden's name?
Soufan: The very first time I heard about him was in an Arabic magazine.
They did an interview with him in Sudan and I was like: Who is this guy?
Then I started reading about him in the papers and became a little bit
concerned about the level of his rhetoric. And for a kid who grew up in
Lebanon, I understood these kind of rhetorics. I kept following his
statements until I joined the FBI in 1997. I mean it wasn't like: Oh my God,
we have to pay attention to that guy. It didn't happen overnight. It was a
process. But then, with bin Laden's fatwa in February 1998, a new level of
interest started. Then I was 100 percent convinced that something was going
SPIEGEL: Your later boss at the FBI, John O' Neill -- who left the service
to become head of security at the World Trade Center and who died in the
9/11 attacks -- was also aware of the potential danger of al-Qaida at a very
Soufan: John definitely understood the threat and I never met anyone who
knows how to think about and work on a terrorism case in putting it together
more than John. I learned a lot from him. I think he was phenomenal. And he
saw the threat of bin Laden very early on, he continued fighting the fight.
He saw what was coming up, with the East Africa embassy bombing, with the
U.S.S. Cole. He fought the fight until the day he left and he knew that the
big one was coming. Unfortunately nobody paid attention to it.
SPIEGEL: As you explain in your book, you are convinced that 9/11 might have
been stopped if there had not been the so-called "Chinese wall" between the
CIA and the FBI.
Soufan: We always worked together. We worked together during the East Africa
embassy bombing. We had a great relationship. But suddenly that wall
appeared due also to the misunderstanding of new guidelines organizing the
relationship of intelligence and law enforcement. Unfortunately that
directly contributed to the lack of knowledge about 9/11. We had actionable
intelligence we transferred to the CIA but there was no follow-up.
SPIEGEL: What kind of information was that?
Soufan: We were investigating the Cole incident in Yemen. And we had a
person who participated in blowing up the ship -- killing 17 sailors,
injuring 39 -- tell us he delivered money to a main al-Qaida guy. So people
who were involved in the Cole incident delivered money to two people who
later flew a plane into the Pentagon. People in our government knew that
these two people were in the United States, in San Diego. So, when you're
doing an investigation and almost a year before you know about people moving
and money and meetings, I think you have to understand that there are some
limits to the wall. We had the lead, the CIA knew the identity of the two in
San Diego but they did not put them on a no-fly list, they did not
communicate their names to the State Department so that their visa would not
SPIEGEL: Did they ever apologize for that?
Soufan: Yes, on Sept. 12, 2001, they told us: "Remember those two guys that
delivered the money... Well they actually met two guys who we know and we
didn't tell you that before. Sorry." Why didn't they check their computer
screens before and say "Holy crap, look what's happening here." For me, this
is something beyond incompetence.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you also criticize the fact that the US never really
understood its enemy al-Qaida.
Soufan: I think we definitely underestimated the ideological motivations for
these groups: what makes people blow themselves up, the religious
signification of al-Qaida. It's not politics. The Chinese military
strategist Sun Tzu said a long time ago: "If you know your enemy and know
yourself, you will win a hundred times in a hundred battles." Unfortunately
with the war on terror we forgot who we are, but also we didn't know our
enemy. Look at al-Qaida. On the eve of 9/11, they had about 400 operatives.
They led us into a war longer than World War I and World War II. Not because
they are such smart people, but because we did not understand our enemy.
Instead, we applied waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques. We
did exactly what al-Qaida wanted us to do. When you do this, what are you
proving to the guy? You're proving that everything he thinks about you is
right. But if you come with a cup of tea, he doesn't know how to act.
SPIEGEL: That was your strategy as an interrogator, to come along with a cup
Soufan: Every interrogation is different. You have to get them out of their
comfort zone. Even if conditions are harsh, it can still be a comfort zone.
Because you behave like they expect the enemy to behave. You have to confuse
them. I interrogated bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, in Guantanamo.
Another American before me had promised him that he could make a phone call
to his wife. But he never could. When we came, he said to us: "All of you
Americans, you are lying." And we found out that indeed they did not fulfill
the promise they made. I said to him, "OK, we messed up. Sorry, I
apologize." And I gave him the phone.
SPIEGEL: Did your method work?
Soufan: He couldn't believe it. But after he made the phone call and he
heard his wife's voice, he kneeled and started crying and thanked God. We
took him back, we gave him some water, tea. For about 20 minutes he didn't
say a word. And then he started asking me about Yemen and then said: "OK,
what do you want to know?"
SPIEGEL: At the time you were one of the few agents who could speak fluent
Arabic and able to quote the Koran in interrogations.
Soufan: Sure, that helped. Many times I used to lay down on the ground next
to to him, as if we were taking a nap, but we were talking. We brought fish
sandwiches from McDonald's to Hamdan and US truck and car magazines from the
local shop in Guantanamo. He read them all.
SPIEGEL: Truck magazines instead of waterboarding -- that was your recipe
Soufan: You don't need to be tough. Why should you? Anyhow, he is in
custody. He knows that you are the boss. You don't have to act like a boss.
SPIEGEL: Sounds nice, but what about the intelligence you gained from
Soufan: He might have been a key witness in upcoming trials. He knows
everyone, being bin Laden's bodyguard, being bin Laden's driver, being the
person who always was with bin Laden, the closest to bin Laden. He was
driving the car when bin Laden and
al-Zawahiri were talking with each other about the fourth plane. He was
there when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (ed's note: the planner of 9/11) briefed
the leadership of al-Qaida about the 9/11 operation. He told us all that, he
was willing to talk. It is another example of where I don't think we played
SPIEGEL: You wanted him to be a key witness in the upcoming trials, even
perhaps with a plea agreement?
Soufan: Yes, but then they suddenly declared him an "enemy combatant"
without even coordinating with us. So when you declare him an enemy
combatant, you give him a lawyer. So the person who's talking, you give him
a lawyer so he can't talk anymore even if he was cooperating.
SPIEGEL: Who took that decision?
Soufan: The White House, based on Pentagon recommendations, being under a
lot of pressure to prosecute people. So they said, let's declare them enemy
combatants -- without thinking about the long-term effect of that. Hamdan
was a historical witness, he could have been very useful for other cases and
trials. Today, he is a free man, he had been sentenced to 5 years, time he
already had spent in Guantanamo. He left quickly after the judgment. He is
lost for us today.
SPIEGEL: You also interrogated another important key terrorist supporter,
Abu Zubaydah. President Bush praised his capture in March 2002 in Pakistan
as a great victory. The US government mistakenly considered him to be the
number three in al-Qaida. Later he would be the first detainee to be
subjected to waterboarding. What kind of condition was he in when you saw
him for the first time?
Soufan: He was in a very bad health condition when we saw him after his
capture. He was heavily injured because there had been a shooting, that was
a very big concern for us. But one of the things that happened is
immediately upon his capture he was cooperating with us and because of his
cooperation and because he was giving us some actionable intelligence,
Washington said: Death is not an option. So we needed to do everything
possible to keep him alive because he had a lot of good information.
SPIEGEL: So you were treating his wounds and establishing a real relation
Soufan: Yes, and when his condition became really critical so that we got a
call that he would die and that we should hurry up with our questions, we
took him to a hospital where he underwent surgery. In the hospital, we
continued the interrogations. During that time he told us about the last
time he spoke with bin Laden, the people who were there, and what he wanted
to do in this operation. And he gave us a location. I said: "So, who's in
charge of that operation?" He said so and so from bin Laden's gang. And we
knew so and so. We had his picture, it was on the 22 "most wanted"
SPIEGEL: So, once again your method was successful?
Soufan: In fact, by accident it was. I said to my partner: "Give me the
photo of that guy." And he loaded it out of the poster of the 22 most wanted
on his Palm Pilot, as we had no FBI photobook with us. We both had the same
guy in our mind. Then he gave his Palm to me, you know these old ones, with
the small screen. We hit the wrong photo without realising. So, I gave the
Palm to Zubaydah asking him if this was the guy we were talking about. And
he said: "No." And I really got pissed off, because we had cleaned the guy,
we kept him alive, we thought we had something and now he was lying to us.
And I said: "Oh yeah, and who is this?" And he looked at me and said: "Don't
play games with me, brother. This is Mukhtar. This is the guy who did 9/11."
I'd been hearing about this guy Mukhtar, I knew he was important, so I
looked at it and it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. At that time we did not know
that KSM, as we called him, was a member of Al-Qaida. So Zubaydah gave us
the details of what happened on 9/11. It wasn't waterboarding. It wasn't
torture. It was an accident and a lot of luck and a certain kind of relation
we had with him.
SPIEGEL: President Bush confirmed that the important revelation that KSM had
been the chief planner of 9/11 came from Zubaydah but said it was one of the
results of the "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Soufan: I know that version. Bush presented it as the success of the EITs.
It was not. The CIA contractors who later used enhanced interrogation
techniques on Zubaydah in a blacksite prison, at a location I cannot reveal
to you, were not even on the ground at that time. It was Zubaydah in his
hospital bed who told us how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed came up with this idea
to him. KSM was trying to find a sponsor for the operation and Zubaydah said
to him: "Go talk to Bin Laden. He will sponsor you." He told it to us, not
to the CIA.
SPIEGEL: Do you know of any really decisive intelligence that was obtained
under torture or under the special interrogation techniques?
Soufan: Nothing I can think of. If you tell me that we saved lives because
of that, maybe I'll shut my mouth. But most of the people who went to Iraq
to fight against us in Iraq, their motivation were the pictures of Abu
Ghraib. So, basically, it cost lives. And I just do not believe in these
methods. After 183 sessions of waterboarding, 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed still lied about the so-called Kuwaiti, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the
courier who finally led us to bin Laden this May. KSM claimed that he was a
low-level guy and not important. We now know this was not true.
SPIEGEL: The CIA heavily redacted your new book
<http://books.wwnorton.com/books/The-Black-Banners/> "The Black Banners" and
blacked out numerous parts, especially those about the enhanced
interrogation techniques. Did you expect this kind of reaction?
Soufan: As a former FBI agent I had to submit the book to my former agency,
which I left in 2006 because I could no longer continue there. I wanted to
start something new. I was very surprised by the CIA's reaction. They even
blackened it when I said "I" or "me" or "our." They blackened things I said
in a public Senate hearing. I mean, it is all public. They redacted things
that were already in the public domain. This is absurd, completely absurd. I
plan to compel disclosure of the redacted information through legal means
SPIEGEL: Mr. Soufan, thank you very much for this interview.
Interview conducted by Britta Sandberg.
<http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/fotostrecke-72719.html> Photo Gallery:
Interview with Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan successfully interrogated captured Islamist
terrorists after 9/11 without resorting to "enhanced' techniques. In a
SPIEGEL interview, he revealed how he got jihadists to talk using tea and
trucker magazines and explained how 9/11 could have been prevented.
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