Most Americans first heard of FBI agent Ali H. Soufan in the spring of 2009. That’s when he testified from behind a black curtain in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing room and said that the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” not only didn’t work, but were “harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda.”
The testimony was explosive. Here was a man on the front lines of the battle against al-Qaeda, announcing that the CIA’s brutal interrogations were “ineffective, slow and unreliable.”
Now Soufan has fired another salvo, in a memoir titled “The Black Banners.” The book goes behind the scenes of some of the most important terrorism interrogations since 9/11, and it paints a devastating picture of the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA’s counterterrorism units.
Soufan, a fluent Arabic speaker, was the bureau’s go-to interrogator. He used the FBI’s traditional interrogation techniques — especially building rapport with the subject — to get actionable intelligence. And the book lays out, in exquisite detail, exactly how that happens.
Soufan is not a journalist. The conversations he re-creates in the early part of the book sound somewhat wooden and forced. But he redeems himself with detailed descriptions of what unfolded behind the closed doors of the world’s interrogation rooms. We learn that terrorists smirk when they think they have the upper hand. They quarrel over interpretations of the Koran. One burst into tears after he was allowed to telephone his family.
Soufan describes the tension between two men sizing each other up on either side of a table. In those moments, which make up the bulk of the book, the narrative soars, as Soufan allows readers to experience the high-stakes intellectual dance between foes.
Consider the interrogation of Abu Jandal, one of Osama bin Laden’s personal bodyguards. Soufan, who was in Yemen on 9/11, investigating the 2000 bombing of the American destroyer USS Cole, is asked to question Abu Jandal just days after the attacks. At first, Abu Jandal, known as the Father of Death, refuses to address Soufan and his FBI partner directly. Instead he will answer questions only through Yemeni guards. Soufan plays along.
Then one evening, Soufan leaves a plate of cookies for Abu Jandal as a way to flatter and show respect for him. But the al-Qaeda man doesn’t touch the sweets. After Soufan learns that Abu Jandal is a diabetic, he greets him the next time with a plate of sugar-free cookies. He tells Abu Jandal that he knows he has a problem with sugar, so he brought him cookies he can eat.
“Abu Jandal’s face registered surprise,” Soufan writes. “He had been taught to expect cruelty from Americans, not kindness. He seemed at a loss for how to respond. ‘Shukran,’ [Thank you] he said slowly, looking at me and again shaking his head. Under Islamic traditions, you need to thank someone for a kindness, and Abu Jandal was well versed in Islamic etiquette. Now he looked at me, rather than [the Yemeni guard], waiting for the next question.”
Abu Jandal ended up identifying seven of the 9/11 hijackers, providing the United States with the first concrete evidence that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks. The cookies weren’t the reason, but they were one of the ways Soufan was able to break through.
Six months later, Soufan was face to face with another operative, a man named Abu Zubaida, who had been shot during capture and transferred to a third country for interrogation. Soon after Soufan arrived to interview him, the prisoner began to succumb to his wounds and went into septic shock. The book provides never-revealed details about the lengths to which the United States went to keep Abu Zubaida alive.
Soufan and a team of agents and operatives rushed him to a hospital for treatment — but because they were questioning him in a third country (its name remains classified), the group had to go to the hospital disguised as soldiers. The episode, in this edition of the book, is highly redacted. But reading between the lines, one can get the outlines of the story:
“[Redacted] didn’t know if [redacted] cover story would be accepted, and there was a good chance that Abu Zubaydah would die at any moment,” Soufan writes. “People stared, no doubt trying to understand why all these soldiers were wheeling an injured and handcuffed fellow soldier through. [Redacted] spoke to the hospital staff and Abu Zubaydah was rushed into the operating room. Minutes later, the doctors began surgery.”
Soufan helped Abu Zubaida through his recovery. He spent weeks feeding him ice chips and cleaning him up when he soiled himself. Soufan writes that the rapport that developed during this convalescence helped the United States get actionable intelligence from Abu Zubaida. He ended up identifying Mokhtar, Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s alias, as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. (Before Abu Zubaida’s intelligence, Soufan writes, the FBI didn’t even know that Mohammed was a member of al-Qaeda.)
Abu Zubaida also provided information that led to the arrest of American Jose Padilla, who was later convicted of providing material support to al-Qaeda. All this was done with traditional interrogation techniques, Soufan writes.
Then, just as Abu Zubaida was opening up to Soufan, the CIA took over. “Washington wants to do something new with the interrogation,” the officials told Soufan as they took charge of the prisoner.
The CIA and its contractors eventually waterboarded Abu Zubaida 83 times. The waterboarding continued until he admitted that he was al-Qaeda’s No. 3 leader. In fact, he wasn’t — he ran training camps for al-Qaeda but wasn’t a member of the group. The CIA claimed later that its “enhanced interrogation techniques” were the reason that Abu Zubaida provided intelligence on Mohammed and Padilla. Soufan says that isn’t true. The waterboarding began, he writes, on Aug. 1, 2002. Padilla had been arrested four months earlier, on May 8, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Reading this section of the book isn’t easy because huge chunks of text have been redacted. Government employees who hold security clearances are required to have their books vetted for classified information before publication. What qualifies as classified has become so subjective that the pre-publication review turns into a test of wills. Among other things, the CIA appears to have required Soufan to redact any reference to himself — so the words “I” and “me” and “our” and “we” are all blacked out. The exercise seems a bit futile since these words can be supplied from the context.
Even with the missing text, Soufan’s story provides a new and important window on America’s battle with al-Qaeda. He was keen to get the book published, so he accepted the CIA’s reams of redactions. He writes in an author’s note that he hopes to reverse those decisions and provide a more detailed version of events in future editions.
“I trust that despite the black lines blocking portions of the test, a relatively unimpeded view of ‘The Black Banners’ remains,” Soufan writes in an author’s note. “I have requested that the FBI review the CIA’s concerns and dismiss them, and if they fail in their duty, I plan to compel disclosure of the redacted information through legal means.”
THE BLACK BANNERS
The Inside Story of 9/11 and
the War Against al-Qaeda
By Ali H. Soufan with Daniel Freedman
Norton. 572 pp. $26.95