Ali Soufan talks to Ali Velshi

Former FBI special agent Ali Soufan shares his thoughts on combating terrorism and the ethics of torture

Ali Velshi: You are a guy who has followed terrorism, as we know it today, this new incarnation of terrorism, since the beginning, and as a result, you know a lot about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Let's talk about who they are.

Ali Soufan: I think the Islamic State is just a manifestation of Al-Qaeda. It is the same group as Al-Qaeda. I think the division took place between Al-Qaeda, as we know it, and between the so-called Islamic State after the Syrian war.

The Islamic State of Iraq at the time, headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sent some people to Syria in order to participate in the war [and sent] Abu Mohammad al-Julani. He established a branch of Al-Qaeda over there, and he decided that he is loyal to Al-Qaeda central in Afghanistan and [Ayman al-]Zawahiri, not to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — that the operation in Syria should be Syrian-centric and should focus on Syria and it shouldn't be under the Islamic State in Iraq, which [was] Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. That created the division between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was the head of the Islamic State of Iraq at the time — and later the self-appointed caliph for the Muslim world — and Zawahiri and al-Julani. And a split took place between [Jabhat] Al-Nusra and between the Islamic State of Iraq.

As retaliation, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Baghdadi immediately issued a state called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] and later Khilafah, an Islamic state, which means that now Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the whole global jihad leadership has to operate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That's why everything we hear, that these two organizations are going to join efforts together, is just assumptions. I think there is theological divisions now that will prevent Al-Qaeda and ISIS to join efforts together, because I don't see … Zawahiri agreeing to be under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

When you say there are theological divisions, often it's easy for us to look at terrorism as something that is centered on the West, targeting the West. But in fact, as you studied this, you learned something different.

They believe that they are following Islam in its purest form, which is totally absurd. [Osama] bin Laden's 1996 declaration of jihad, yes, it's focused on the United States, yes, it's focused on the West, but it also focused on the Middle East. 

There are many incubating factors that lead to terrorism, that lead to violent extremism, that lead to recruitment. For example, an education system in the Middle East, in most of the Muslim world, that suffocates critical thinking, women's rights issues. You have economic corruption and political corruption that make any system in the Middle East, most of the Middle Eastern countries cancerous. 

When you look at what's happening now with ISIL putting out these videos of beheadings, what is that meant to do?

It's meant to deliver a message, especially a message to the West. Remember, groups like [ISIL], groups like Al-Qaeda, the only thing they want in this world is they want a religious war. They want clash of civilizations. I mean, the essential element was a sectarian war in Syria. And that brought a lot of recruits from around the world. But we cannot take that war in Syria without taking what's happening with the global jihadi movement, without taking the narrative that has been ignored since 2001 and has allowed to make bin Ladenism today a bigger force than it used to be in 2001.

In 2001, for example, September of 2001, bin Laden had 400 followers. Today there are thousands and thousands of people who adhere to the idea of bin Ladenism, all the way from Nigeria to Southeast Asia. So there are many reasons it's making people join.

However, for the most part, there is one thread in common between all these people that's coming from about 90 different countries to fight in Iraq and fight in Syria under the banners of the Islamic State, and that is a belief that they are participating in a battle for the end of times.

‘[In] September of 2001, bin Laden had 400 followers. Today there are thousands and thousands of people who adhere to the idea of bin Ladenism.’

Ali Soufan

How do you fight people who think it's of biblical or Quranic proportion, it's the end of time? And I ask you this because you were a guy who, during the Qaeda days, was at the other side of the table. You interrogated these guys. You met them. They challenged your own faith, and you challenged theirs because you spoke their language, you speak Arabic.

And I'm a Muslim. And it was very difficult for them to understand that somebody like me exists. It was very difficult for me to sit and hear someone hijacking a religion that [I] believe in. I used to argue with them about religion, hadith for hadith — verse, Quranic verse. If you look at the Quran, the concept of war is a very, very, very small little percentage of wider things. So they decided to ignore 99 percent of their religion and focus on 1 percent after they take it out of context and they put it through totally different lenses and through total different interpretation.

What to do with these guys is, you have to counter the narrative. And countering the narrative is not something only the United States or the West can do. This is where the Muslim countries, this is where Muslim leaders and Muslim scholars, they need to stand up. 

There are nations that say, "We do not support terrorism." But they run these schools, the madrassas where these people go to get educated and, as you said, can suffer a remarkably suffocating noncritical education.

Sure. I think this is why we have to bring all these nations to the table. This solution is a regional solution. Because what's causing this chaos in the Middle East today, what's causing these murders in Syria and in Iraq is basically a vacuum that exists. And that vacuum exists because of a regional tension that's happening. 

Right. It's very hard to take over a country that is actually functioning.

Exactly. So sectarianism has been used in the proxy war between regional powers.

The situation in Iraq and the situation in Syria are both very different. In Iraq, we keep hearing about how Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia administration did not allow space for the Sunnis and that has fueled this growth. But the truth is the Sunnis before them didn't allow space for the Shias. And when the Shias took over, they may have done things to foment this. And you've just put out a paper called “From Bucca to Kobani.” Bucca is referring to Camp Bucca.

Well, Camp Bucca was a detention facility in southern Iraq. And Camp Bucca was a facility where anybody who was arrested because of activities against the coalition and against the Iraqi government, they used to take them and put them there in that detention facility.

And there were a disproportionate number of people who were loyal to Saddam Hussein and the Baathist regime.

Baathist and Islamists. So what happened is the Baathist and the Islamists met and we have a new brand of terrorism. We have new brand of terrorism that [is] half Saddam, half bin Laden. One of the detainees [in] Bucca is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And if you look at the No. 1 tier type leaders, the tier one leadership of [ISIL], most of these individuals were Baathists who met each other and met al-Baghdadi in Bucca. So basically, the oil and the fire got to know each other in Bucca, and we have the new brand, explosive brand of terrorism is [ISIL]. It was rebranded with Baathists giving strategy to Islamic ideologues.

We worry a lot about these Western fighters who are going over, Canadians, Americans, Brits.

We have, today, about 16,000 foreign fighters from about 90 different countries. But about 60 percent of them, they come from five countries — No. 1, Tunisia; No. 2, Saudi Arabia, then Morocco, then Jordan, then Turkey. We have to put that number in perspective and put it in perspective of the regional struggle that's happening around these areas and the tension — cultural, religious, economic tensions and political tensions within these countries that's sending a lot of fighters.

So the Western ones who are going over, what is that about? 

It is different. In the U.K. most of the people that are going to Syria, they come from the Indian subcontinent.

In France most of the people that are going to Syria, they come from North Africa. Well, if you look at the No. 1 recruitment pool, if you wanna call it for [ISIL], is Tunisia and Morocco. So there are cultural links.

There are issues that have to do with political situations in these countries. You know, the Arab Spring, for example, uprooted dictatorships around the Middle East. But until now, it did not provide an alternative that can fill the vacuum. And a lot of people have taken advantage of that.

Ali Soufan

The fighters who go from the West are not well-trained as soldiers, and you said they can be dangerous. In what way? 

Well, when they go there, they will get trained. They establish networks with other extremists. They become battle hardened. So if they come back home, [ISIL] or Al-Qaeda or Al-Nusra or Khorasan or whatever organization that they worked with in Syria and Iraq will reach out for them. And they can utilize them to do attacks. 

With the technology that we have today, the whole issue of people from the West or from the Middle East or from Southeast Asia going to fight in Syria and building that network [is] 10 times more dangerous.

Are you worried about those who never go over? Because ISIL puts out messages to say, "Commit crimes" or "Do these things in the name of Islam, in the name of ISIL."

Those individuals are dangerous. And it's very difficult to figure out where they are because [of the] individual nature of the threat, the individual nature of the radicalization process and of the operational process they go from radicalization to being operational is very personal and sometimes very short. However, I think with every threat, I look at it as an equation. Threat equals intention plus capability. The intention will always be there. You're always going to have people who want to attack us. Will they have the capability to do it? That's what our system is designed — the national security system — is designed to identify and disrupt. However, they need to be successful only once. We need to be successful all the time.

Is there a counternarrative that the West can present? 

One of the biggest mistakes we did after 9/11 [is] we didn't have a strategy, actually. We had tactics. We had a set of tactics. And these tactics were very effective. These tactics kept us safe. These tactics disrupted plots. These tactics helped us to arrest operatives and kill operatives, even kill Osama bin Laden himself. But we did not tackle the ideology. We did not tackle the incubating factors that leads into terrorism.

So think of terrorism as a tree. And it has different fruits. In one branch it's called Al-Shabab. In another branch, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, AQAP and so forth. But that tree is being fed through a lot of different roots. And you need to cut these roots … to eliminate these poisonous fruits. And that, unfortunately, we didn't do. We were not comfortable in dealing with the issue of religion. We're not comfortable in dealing with the issue of ideology because, you know, we have our constitutional issues and, you know, who are you to say who's radical and who's not radical and who's going to have ownership of a program like this?

And unfortunately, we kept the area open for extremists. 

‘One of the biggest mistakes we did after 9/11 [is] we didn’t have a strategy … We had a set of tactics. And these tactics were very effective … These tactics helped us to arrest operatives and kill operatives, even kill Osama bin Laden himself. But we did not tackle the ideology.’

Ali Soufan

You've written a book called “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda.” The title is very interesting because when we see on the news video of these groups, particularly ISIL and many of these groups, these militant groups, they've got a black flag, black banners. Tell me this history.

The prophet says that at the end of time you will have a group. They come from Khorasan, which is a historic area that includes part of Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia. Their flags are black, and they will bring back Islam to the way the Prophet [Muhammad] wanted it to be. And they will be victorious until they reach Jerusalem. And bin Laden in 1996 ... when he declared his war against the United States in the declaration of jihad, he actually signed it Khorasan. He didn't sign it Afghanistan. And they believe that the headquarters of Al-Qaeda, the leadership of Al-Qaeda stays in Khorasan. This is what we hear today every now and then, the Khorasan group and there are Khorasan individuals in Syria.

This means that those individuals follow the leadership of Al-Qaeda central, not necessarily Al-Qaeda affiliate. So those are the black banners. Now, the prophet allegedly went on to describe them, saying that they are individuals who don't have names. Their names are aliases, and their aliases is after cities.

If anybody hasn't read this book yet, I'm going to give them a really good reason to read it. If you go to page 377, it's all blacked out. What on earth were you saying here that was blacked out? 

Just before we went to print, the agency, the CIA, claimed authority over the manuscript. And they did a lot of redactions of information that I don't believe should be redacted.

Which, by the way, the FBI didn't see fit to redact.

No, no. The FBI approved it after three months. And you had three different departments in the FBI, they looked at the book, and we didn't have one single redaction on the book.

Pages from Soufan’s “The Black Banners,” with text redacted by the CIA.

But there appear to be things redacted that were in the public domain, that have already been reported or have been out there, including a TV appearance at one point.

For the most part, most of it has been in public domain. And I think they tried to control the narrative. The redactions, they come at every specific moments where, you know, the reader will understand the truth about what happened or the truth about, you know, EITs, enhanced interrogation techniques, or as the president now calls them, torture. 

The USS Cole bombings happened in 2000. 9/11 happened in 2001. You were involved in the interrogations, including the interrogation of Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah. The part that is most interesting is the CIA also interviewed and waterboarded him 83 times but didn't get better information than you got without waterboarding. And you became a bit of a poster child for those arguing, "You don't have to waterboard."

Right. This whole incident took place in 2002. I reported to the FBI. The FBI said, "We don't do these kind of things," and they pulled the FBI out of the program, the EIT program. Enhance interrogation techniques. This is what the government called it. So I came back, and I continued to do my job. And I left the government in 2005. And it wasn't until all these things with the declassification of the OLC memos, the Office of the Legal Counsel memos, I start hearing all these arguments by different people to include the former director of the CIA, the former attorney general, the former vice president of the United States talking about EIT saved lives. And they gave examples.

Interestingly enough, in one of the OLC memos, for example, let's pick on Jose Padilla and the dirty bomb, you'll see that they mentioned waterboarding led to information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla and basically saved the Washington, D.C., area from a dirty bomb attack. But they say that he was arrested in May 2003, not May 2002. So, I start noticing that they claim that these things are typos, but there are a lot of typos. There's another declassified document that say Ramzi bin al-Shibh was picked up in December of 2002. Well, I know that Ramzi bin al-Shibh was picked up in Sept. 11, 2002. I was part of the operation.

Ali Velshi and Ali Soufan

So people were simply using it as a justification that we got all these results from enhanced interrogation tactics, and those results were not tied to those.

And my firsthand knowledge, as I testified in the Senate, my firsthand knowledge, that we got this information not because of EITs, not because of waterboarding. And I still, until today, I don't know after 83 sessions of waterboarding with Abu Zubaydah, what accurate actionable intelligence that they were able to get. Yes, Abu Zubaydah admitted to them that he was the No. 3 guy in Al-Qaeda. But we knew when we arrested him that he was not the No. 3 guy in Al-Qaeda. 

In your book, you give a lot of detail about interrogation. You were very young when the USS Cole happened. You were in your 20s still, were you not?

Twenty-nine. I didn't attempt to be an interrogator. I'm an investigator. And a part of investigations sometimes is to sit down and talk to people. And it's things you do on a daily basis. No. 1 is knowledge. You have to do your research, know exactly who the person is, know the group, know how they function. And you play that poker mental game with that individual. 

And the No. 2 is empathy. It's basically just, put yourself in their shoes. What do you think? What do you feel? What do you think guided what they did? And that's the only way you can really go into their head.

How do you have empathy for a terrorist? I mean, these guys after 9/11, you had two close friends die in 9/11.

It's very, very difficult for me. But I have to keep my feelings outside the door. I mean, remember, I'm interrogating individuals. I'm dealing with individuals. I always have to check my feelings, my emotions at the door before I start. You have to think about the facts. You have to think about the law. You have to think about how you can make people safe. And that's my job. My job in that interrogation room is not to be angry, is not to be upset, is not to retaliate against or avenge my friends who have been killed by terrorists. I think I will give them the best revenge when I convince that person to cooperate with me, when I get intelligence from them that disrupts the plot, when that person that I'm talking to with blood on their hands most probably will never see the light of day again.

In your acknowledgments, you write to John O'Neill, the guy who really brought you into this whole thing, who died in the twin towers, and you dedicated the book in large part to him. 

I learned a lot from John, and John was a legend in the FBI. John left the FBI just before I went to Yemen, just before 9/11. And we went to get sandwiches together. I was heading to the airport, and he was going to clear his desk. And that was the last time I've seen him. So it was difficult to have your mentor, a person that you learned a lot from, killed by the people that you are chasing — ironic on so many different levels.

Because it wasn't personal for you in the beginning. It was a mission.

Well, after 9/11, I believe, and for me, after the Cole, it became personal. I mean, it's very difficult when you pull bodies from the USS Cole of innocent sailors that had nothing to do with anything, lining up to go to eat lunch and they died. And you meet their families. You meet their mothers and fathers and children and wives. It's very difficult not to take it personally. And after 9/11, if there's anyone in this field that tells you they are doing it just for the sake of mission and there is no personal, emotional drive, I don't believe them. So it became personal after 9/11, absolutely.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

‘I’m interrogating individuals. I’m dealing with individuals. I always have to check my feelings, my emotions at the door before I start. You have to think about the facts. You have to think about the law. You have to think about how you can make people safe.’

Ali Soufan

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