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."