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Behind The War On Terror's Dark Curtain

Originally published on September 12, 2011 6:40 am

On Sept. 12, 2001, Ali H. Soufan, a special agent with the FBI, was handed a secret file. Soufan had spent nearly a decade investigating terrorism cases, like the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He says that this file was one he had requested before the attacks, and that had it been given to him earlier it may have helped to prevent them.

Following 9/11, Soufan interrogated suspects as one of the few FBI agents at the time who spoke Arabic. In a new book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, out today, he reveals many long-held secrets about both the operations of terrorists as well as the American efforts to find and bring them to justice, including how he was able to elicit confessions from members of al-Qaeda.

According to his book, and as he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, Soufan's interrogations did not involve the physical technique known as waterboarding, but rather involved conversations that hinged on what each man knew.

"You interview a lot of people and the most important thing during interviews is to have the person talk," Soufan says. "And then you can figure out: he's lying here, he's not lying there, maybe he's trying to hide something here."

One of the men he interrogated was Abu Zubaydah, who had been captured in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks, and whom the Bush administration thought was a high-ranking al-Qaeda official. Soufan says though assessment was incorrect, Abu Zubaydah did give up valuable information.

"From the very beginning, Abu Zubaydah was very cooperative, and he provided the information that led us to identify the mastermind of 9/11, which is Khalid Sheikh Muhammed," Soufan says. "He also provided significant details about the plot and how the plot came to be."

Why would a terrorist volunteer such information?

"We were nice to him," Soufan says. "I mean, we had a lot of things going on, you know? He knew that we knew everything about him. We knew even what his mother used to call him as a child. He was not providing information just because he wanted to provide information. He was providing information because he's trying to convey to us that, 'Look, I am cooperating with you.' But at the same time, he didn't know what we knew. And we started playing this mental poker game with him, if you want to call it, and [got] more and more information from him."

Soufan says that the information stopped flowing after the arrival of a man he calls Boris.

"At the time, we were really surprised, because we had a good team on the ground and then we found that someone had hired this psychologist who supposedly was an expert. And when I spoke with him about his level of expertise, we were dumbfounded," Soufan says. Boris had not ever conducted an interrogation and lacked the team's depth of knowledge about al-Qaeda. He told Soufan, "I do know human nature."

"Unfortunately, he knew neither," Soufan says.

Boris employed what was referred to by former CIA director George Tenet as "standard interrogation techniques."

"And the standard interrogation techniques at the time was believed to be nudity, was believed to be sleep deprivation, loud noise," Soufan says. "And we had many problems with this technique. First of all, if it's working, why break it? if someone is talking, the best thing you can do is keep him talking. The number two issue is al-Qaeda and their associates, and Islamic extremists in general, they are anticipating to be tortured when they get caught."

Many of these extremists have been through jails in the Middle East, Soufan says, and "expect to be beaten, they expect to be burned, their nails to be pulled out, they expect to be sodomized. I mean, there is a lot of sick things that happens over there. And now we are saying that we're going to take your clothes off, we're going to put some loud music on, and you're going to cooperate. He's not going to cooperate because he's gonna see how long can he endure the treatment that you're giving him. And you know with 'enhanced' interrogation techniques, you hit the last one we have, which is waterboarding. So when you get [to] waterboarding, what do you do? You keep doing it again and again, in the case of Abu Zubaydah 83 times. In the case of KSM, 183 times. You know when do you realize that it's not working? 102nd time? 101st time? When?"

After his retirement from the FBI, Soufan testified before a Senate Administrative Oversight and the Courts subcommittee on the Bush administration's interrogation and detention program. He spoke to the subcommittee from behind a black screen to protect his identity.

"As I mentioned in my Senate statement, Abu Zubaydah stopped talking. So for a few days we didn't get one single piece of information. Just a day before that started, we get that KSM is the mastermind of 9/11," he says.

In The Black Banners, Soufan repeatedly uses a word not usually associated with interrogation to refer to another suspect, a man by the name of Ali al-Bahlul. Soufan visited Bahlul in Guantanamo, where the military explained that the prisoner was cooperative, and that there was no reason to believe that he was dangerous. His story: that he went to Afghanistan to teach the Quran to poor Afghanis.

"So when we had him brought to the interrogation room, I just felt that there is something wrong with this guy," Soufan says. I mean, he is saying all the rhetoric. He is repeating all the counter-narrative of al-Qaeda. He is very knowledgeable about it. But that means he is also very knowledgeable about al-Qaeda's rhetoric. So I was the devil's advocate here."

Soufan says that he began arguing on behalf of al-Qaeda, "from political perspective and from ideological perspective," and that during the debate, he stopped taking notes, which upset Bahlul.

"He asked me, 'So why are you not taking notes?' And I said, you know, 'I respected you this whole time. I never lied to you. I'm telling you who I am and why I'm here, but I don't see the same from you.' And this is the last thing somebody like him, who claims that he is pious, want to hear from someone," Soufan says. "So I explain to him that I know a lot about him, I know who he really is, and then I ask him to go and pray. So he went, he prayed, he came back. I gave him a cookie, if you want to eat a cookie. So he was chewing on the cookie and he was looking down on the floor and then he looked at me and he said, 'I am Anas al Makki. That's my Qaeda name.'"

The man they had known as Bahlul explained that he was actually a leader of al-Qaeda, and a personal secretary of Osama bin Laden. "What do you want to know?" he asked.

"I said, 'Do you want some tea?' He almost spit the cookies from his mouth," Soufan says. "He said, 'I just told you who I am, and you're just asking me if I want tea?' I said, 'Well, I knew that, but now I know you're respecting me, so I'm offering you some tea.' I had no clue who the guy was."

Al Makki eventually revealed that while the Sept. 11 attacks were being carried out, bin Laden was attempting to use a satellite to watch the destruction on television.

"He said that he was not able to get a signal because they were running away and they were hiding in the mountains somewhere," Soufan says. "So they ended up listening to it on the radio. He talked about different individuals in the group. He talked about the structure. And he is now going to be serving his life in jail."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's an unusual experience to read the new book by Ali Soufan. As an FBI agent, Soufan conducted counterterrorism interrogations before and after 9/11. The CIA blacked out many of the words in his book, called "The Black Banners."

I'm trying to remember another book where one-letter words were redacted. A sentence might be blank attended the interrogation and it's obviously a one-letter word that was blanked out.

Mr. ALI SOUFAN (Author): Yeah. Actually, I think you're right. I kind of made history by being redacted from my own book.

INSKEEP: Ali Soufan still recounts a history of al-Qaida as he came to know it, and also details high-profile interrogations. They were conducted with different methods, so they reflect on the debate that erupted after 9/11 over torture.

We're going to discuss those interrogations, and some people may find this interview disturbing. Soufan says enhanced interrogation, as he calls it, didn't work. In 2002 he questioned Abu Zubaydah, a man captured in Pakistan, believed to be a leader of al-Qaida. At first agents politely questioned the man as they would any criminal suspect.

Mr. SOUFAN: From the very beginning, Abu Zubaydah was very cooperative, and he provided the information that led us to identify the mastermind of 9/11, which is Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, and he also provided significant details about the plot and how the plot came to be.

INSKEEP: This may surprise people even today, the notion that a hardened criminal, a terrorist, would give up valuable information just because you were nice to him.

Mr. SOUFAN: No. Not actually because we were nice to him. I mean, we had a lot of things going on, you know? He knew that we know everything about him. We knew even what his mother used to call him as a child. He was not providing information because he just want to provide information. He was providing information because he's trying to convey to us that, look, I am cooperating with you. But at the same time, he didn't know what we knew. And we start playing this mental poker game with him, and get more and more information from him.

INSKEEP: And this is true of any interrogation in your view, right? You get the guy talking...

Mr. SOUFAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: ...and you see what drops out, and you pretend none of it's news to you and just get him to spool it out.

Mr. SOUFAN: You interview a lot of people, and the most important thing during interviews is to have the person talk, and then you can figure out, well, he's lying here, he's not lying there, you know. Maybe he's trying to hide something here. And interrogating terrorists, or interrogating criminals, it's the same.

INSKEEP: Now, you write that after Abu Zubaydah had been interrogated for a while, there was a gentleman who arrived, you name him as Boris. What was Boris's background and what did he want to do?

Mr. SOUFAN: At the time, we were really surprised, because we had a good team on the ground, and then we found that someone hired this psychologist, supposedly an expert. And when I spoke with him about his level of expertise, we were dumbfounded. The person never interrogated a person in his life. He doesn't know much about al-Qaida, and you need to know a lot about the subject that you're interrogating in order to get actionable intelligence.

INSKEEP: But you quote him saying, I do know human nature.

Mr. SOUFAN: Unfortunately, he knew neither.

INSKEEP: What did Boris do?

Mr. SOUFAN: Well, the technique is what former director Tenet called as standard interrogation techniques. And the standard interrogation techniques at the time was believed to be nudity, was believed to be sleep deprivation, loud noise.

INSKEEP: You start by stripping the guy of his clothes.

Mr. SOUFAN: Yeah. And then he has to earn everything back.

INSKEEP: This is an effort to humiliate the guy.

Mr. SOUFAN: Yeah, absolutely. And we had many problems with this technique. First of all, if somebody is talking, the best thing you can do is to keep him talking. The number two issue is al-Qaida and their associates, and Islamic extremists in general, they are anticipating to be tortured when they get caught.

They expect to be beaten, they expect to be burned, they expect their nails to be pulled out, they expect to be sodomized. And now we are saying that we're going to take your clothes off, we're going to put some loud music on, and guess what, he's going to cooperate. He's not going to cooperate because he's gonna see how long can he endure the treatment that you're giving him.

And you know, with enhanced interrogation techniques, you hit the last one that we have, which is waterboarding. So when you get waterboarding, what do you do? You keep doing it again and again. In case of Abu Zubaydah, 83 times. In case of KSM, 183 times. You know, when do you realize that it's not working? A hundred and second time or a hundred and first time? When? Abu Zubaydah stopped talking. So for a few days we didn't get one single piece of information. Just a day before that started, we get that KSM was the mastermind of 9/11.

INSKEEP: There is another interrogation I want to ask you about, where I think the theme was not humiliation, but respect. That word comes up again and again in your account of your interrogation of a man who goes by the name Bahlul. Who was he?

Mr. SOUFAN: He was in Guantanamo Bay. So we went down to get Gitmo, the main idea down there from the military that this person is cooperating. He is not a member of al-Qaida, and there is no reason to believe that he's dangerous. Basically his story was that he went to Afghanistan to teach the Koran for poor Afghanis.

So when we had him brought to the interrogation room, I just felt that there is something wrong with this guy. I mean, he is saying all the rhetoric. He is repeating all the counter-narrative of al-Qaida. He is very knowledgeable about it. But that means he is also knowledgeable about al-Qaida's rhetoric. So I was the devil's advocate, and I was defending al-Qaida's ideological rhetoric, and I...

INSKEEP: Oh, so he's pretending to argue against al-Qaida, and so you start pretending to argue for al-Qaida?

Mr. SOUFAN: From political perspective and from ideological perspective. So during the debate, I stopped taking notes, which bothered him a little bit, and he asked me, so why are you not taking notes? And I said, I basically respected you this whole time and never lied to you. I'm telling you who I am and why I'm here, but I don't see the same from you. And this is the last thing somebody like him, who claimed that he is pious, want to hear from someone.

So you know, I explain to him that I know a lot about him, I know who he really is, and then I ask him to go and pray. So he went, he prayed, he came back. I gave him a cookie, so he was chewing on the cookie and he was looking down on the floor and then he looked at me and he said, I am Anas al Makki. That's my al-Qaida name. And I am one of the (foreign language spoken), you know, one of the leaders of al-Qaida. I am bin Laden's personal secretary. So what do you want to know?

I said, do you want some tea? He almost spit the cookies from his mouth. He said, I just told you who I am, and you're just asking me if I want tea? I said, well, I knew that, but now I know you're respecting me, so I'm offering you some tea. I had no clue who the guy was.

INSKEEP: So what did he tell you in the end?

Mr. SOUFAN: He actually gave us information about what bin Laden was doing on the day of 9/11. He told us that bin Laden asked him to put the satellite so they can watch the operation live.

He said that he was not able to get a signal because they were running away and they were hiding in the mountains somewhere. So they ended up listening to it on the radio. He talked about different individuals in the group. He'd talk about the structure, he'd talk about the ideology, and he is now going to be serving his life in jail.

INSKEEP: Ali Soufan, thanks very much.

Mr. SOUFAN: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: He's author of the new book "The Black Banners." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.