Ali Soufan worked at the FBI from 1997 to 2005. An American citizen of Lebanese descent, he first applied for the FBI as part of a college bet, though his fluent Arabic and passing hobby of following a certain Saudi businessman named Osama Bin Laden led to a career following al-Qaeda suspects around the world from Italy to Kenya, Yemen to England and ultimately the USA to Pakistan.
In his first book, The Black Banners, Soufan seeks to educate readers about the history underlying the creation of al-Qaeda, activity leading up to the September 11th 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the real ideology espoused by al-Qaeda as well as the reality of interrogations and why torture just doesn’t work.
Soufan opens a window into a world that cannot be divined from memos or official reports – the first attempt to attack a US warship in the Port of Aden in Yemen was abandoned because the suicide boat got stuck in the sand at low tide. Another attack was foiled because one of the cell members setting up a missile walked across a carpet to help the engineer and static electricity from the carpet set the missile off, killing both operatives. Al-Qaeda often played soccer at their training camps in Afghanistan – apparently Osama Bin Laden was a great goal scorer who everyone wanted on their team – and one Guantanamo inmate, Tarek Mahmoud el-Sawah was especially fond of ice cream.
For anyone studying the structure and individuals involved in al-Qaeda, The Black Banners serves as a fantastic starting point, though one must maintain a vast capacity for recalling names. A helpful guide to the al-Qaeda operatives mentioned is provided at the back of the book.
One outstanding feature of the book is the CIA redactions somewhat melodramatically printed in full. The censorship reaches laughable heights on pages 365 – 366 in the hardback version, where entire pages have been blacked out by order of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency. Soufan promises to appeal these redactions, which he terms unjustified.
The greater portion of the redactions relate to the 2002 Bali bombings and the relationship between Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaeda in South East Asia, especially the efforts to arrest members of the cell which allegedly carried out the attack. Those involved fled Indonesia and the eventual arrest of Riduan Isamuddin, otherwise known as Hambali, in Thailand appears to be the subject of the most secrecy, possibly because it involved co-operation between several countries’ intelligence agencies.
Mr Soufan has made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic for his position on “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT’s), which he says are “un-American” and most importantly, not useful in the search for actionable intelligence. In interview with The Global Herald, he defended the initial set up of Guantanamo Bay, saying that “in the beginning it was an important base, but was mismanaged after that”. What was initially used to discern the terrorists from farmers who had been picked up and sold to the US by Pakistani forces in Afghanistan, became a “black hole”.
Soufan criticised the lack of an “endgame” which would have upheld interrogation standards in Gitmo, thus enabling the future prosecution of suspects in US Courts. The early lack of vision is now “biting us in the behind” as dangerous terrorists “must” be kept locked up because of the threat they present to national security, but all the useful evidence against them is tainted, meaning that they will never see trial.
Despite some stinging attacks on the CIA, including its smear campaign against him, Ali Soufan still has a lot of time for members of the agency saying that Enhanced Interrogation Techniques were “part of a much wider program” and that they stopped completely in 2005. Secretive jails have now been closed, according to the agency’s director, Leon Panetta, and the interrogation techniques of the intelligence agency have “got better”. Indeed, Soufan insists that the problem was rather politicking and outside contractors believing that on the most part, brave professional interrogators within the CIA refused to do Washington’s bidding with regard to torture and brought abuses to the attention of superiors.
Ali Soufan himself was witness to some of the first use of EIT’s on Qahtani. Using aliases for many names in the book, the outside contractor and professional psychologist who tortures Abu Zubaydah is called simply “Boris”:
“The message came back that Boris could deprive Abu Zubaydah of sleep, but for no more than twenty-four hours. Boris was jubilant, and said that after the sleep deprivation, Abu Zubaydah’s will would be broken and he would automatically give up all the information he knew.
“The sleep deprivation lasted for twenty-fours hours. But like the nudity, the loud noise, and the white noise, it didn’t work.”
The escalating horror of Boris’ treatment is contrasted by the patient questioning and use of cultural sensitivities to lying and thankfulness, which Ali Soufan uses to trip up his suspects. The concerns over treatment and eventual bureaucratic cover up, eventually convince Soufan to leave the FBI, especially when the CIA begins refusing permission for his flights abroad.
In his book, Soufan describes how al-Qaeda used NGO’s as cover for their work and to provide social services for their members. In particular an NGO called “Help Africa People” was used to aid the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa. In interview, Soufan explained that many NGO’s have been used in this way, including legitimate NGO’s working in Bosnia, Croatia, Somalia and Kenya. He said that al-Qaeda learned these techniques from their time fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and that various services and governments have worked with the charities to clean them from the effect of al-Qaeda.
In response to a question about alleged links between al-Qaeda fighters and Chechen Muslim fighters, Mr Soufan explains that there were al-Qaeda members who had fought in Chechenya, and that al-Qaeda had supported them as fellow mujadheen, but that there was no organisational cooperation such as that between the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda.
Mr Soufan also took time to explain how the threat posed by al-Qaeda has changed following the death of Osama Bin Laden. Ayman al-Zawahiri has taken the leadership of an organisation which is now much more “spread and franchised”, capitalizing on local, tribal and sectarian grievances to hijack localised cells for the global anti-American aims of al-Qaeda. Mr Soufan describes a splintering group operating in Algeria, Mauritania and the Arabian peninsula and recruiting new members in far flung states through the use of internet chat rooms. These new members would not have the expertise or training of earlier generations of al-Qaeda members, many of whom met and fought together against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.
Asked about the prospects for al-Qaeda after the so-called “Arab Spring” and the position in Yemen, where President Saleh pardoned the men involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in 1998, Mr Soufan said that unrest in Yemen represent legitimate rebellion over salaries, land and inequalities. Mr Soufan explained that US policy should be very careful and proceed based on the facts. A civil war “could be chaotic” and a negotiated settlement based upon the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people and a redistribution of power is necessary to ensure that the past cannot happen again.
Ali Soufan is now the CEO of Soufan Group “a bunch of us who worked together” from the FBI, NCIS, CIA and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies providing training on law enforcement, counter terrorism, consultancy and advice of the “disengagement” of terrorists through targeted local and regional propaganda.