Ali Soufan spent his years at the FBI (1997-2005) tracking down terrorists and thwarting plots.
Soufan, who was born in Lebanon in 1971, then worked at Rudolph Giuliani’s security consulting business before setting up his own shop, The Soufan Group, which provides training and strategic analysis for clients ranging from police departments to government leaders.
His book, “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda,” is a personal look at what went right and what went really wrong during the “war on terror.”
We spoke in his midtown office in New York.
Lundborg: I was surprised how much detail you had gathered early on about al-Qaeda, an organization generally regarded as opaque and difficult to penetrate.
Soufan: I find it frustrating when people say about 9/11: “We never knew what hit us.”
Oh, we knew. We’d been tracking them around the world, even before the East African embassy bombings. We actually named bin Laden and al-Qaeda in a sealed indictment in June of 1998.
Lundborg: You successfully thwarted them at that time?
The Big ‘If’
Soufan: We disrupted their network in London, Albania, Italy, and ended up in Manchester, where we found the famous “Manchester Manual” for terrorist training.
And after the bombing of the USS Cole, we were able to put together a new blueprint of their organization. Then you go to the tragic events of Sept. 11.
Lundborg: You say those attacks might have been prevented if you’d gotten the info you requested from the CIA when you asked for it.
Soufan: If information was shared, 9/11 could have been a different day. There’s a big “if” here.
It’s not just me: The executive summary of the CIA Inspector General, or the 9/11 Commission report made it clear that if they’d passed along that information to the FBI, the State Department and to Immigration and Naturalization Services and put these individuals on a no-fly list, a lot of things could have happened that might have stopped 9/11.
Lundborg: Why didn’t they?
Soufan: I still don’t have an answer. I don’t buy the “connect-the-dots” theory or the Chinese Wall. Maybe it’s totally incompetency on the part of people over there.
But someone made a decision not to share the info.
Lundborg: Why did we invade Iraq?
Soufan: We were against it, reporting there was no connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda.
Unfortunately, as we know now from the Senate Armed Services Committee, torture produced results from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Liby, that Saddam and al-Qaeda were working on WMDs. Colin Powell went to the United Nations with that.
We later found out this was not true. When we asked al-Liby why he’d lied, he said ‘I gave you what you wanted to hear to make the torture stop.’ We ended up in a disaster.
Lundborg: Why was torture so popular during the Bush years?
Soufan: It was certainly driven by Washington, not the field. They may have been acting out of fear in a knee-jerk reaction.
Lundborg: Does torture ever work?
Soufan: Not in a democracy, but in a country where anything is possible, you may be able to break a person. Even so, you don’t know whether what they give you is accurate or not.
There’s a big difference between compliance and cooperation.
Lundborg: Your interrogation of the terrorist Batar might have led to finding bin Laden much sooner. What happened?
Soufan: It was a lead. The guy was connected to the Yemeni wife that we knew was with bin Laden. The families are connected, they’re from the same town. He’s the guy who delivered the dowry, who brought her and her family to Afghanistan for the wedding with bin Laden.
He wanted to make a phone call home to check on his family. We thought it was a great opportunity, because you never know who the family will call afterwards. We couldn’t get permission so he stopped talking.
Lundborg: Why say no?
Soufan: We don’t know. We were told Paul Wolfowitz (then deputy secretary of defense) said no.
Lundborg: What do you make of the death of bin Laden?
Soufan: It’s done great damage to al-Qaeda. It was a success ten years too late.
We knew about this Kuwaiti courier who finally led to bin Laden, but we didn’t follow him because Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said he wasn’t important.
If after 183 sessions of waterboarding KSM says he’s not important, he must not be important. He misled us. Torture doesn’t work.
Lundborg: What parts of your book did the CIA censor?
Soufan: Anything that had to do with the narrative of what produced information.
You don’t redact lies. They’re censoring the truth because they don’t want the narrative to be challenged.
To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)