Book Review: The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by Ali H. Soufan with Daniel Freedman
Ali Soufan’s recent book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda (written in conjunction with Daniel Freedman), has attracted a good deal of attention since its release a few months ago. Soufan—a native Arabic speaker who played a critical role in the FBI’s interrogations after the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole, and the World Trade Center—is uniquely situated to offer his thoughts and critique of the way these interrogations were conducted.
Many commentators on the book (including a September 11, 2011 “60 Minutes” segment) have focused on Soufan’s criticism of the Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) program that was implemented by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to extract information from high-value targets. Others, such as an extensive 2006 New Yorker profile, have focused on Soufan’s lambasting of the “wall” that inhibited information flow between intelligence and law enforcement. Soufan is a vocal opponent of both policies; that much is plain. Now that he has produced a firsthand exposition on the subject, untainted by space constraints and secondhand storytelling, it becomes feasible to evaluate his claims for what they are: an earnest and raw memoir from someone whose knowledge of al Qaeda and early U.S. investigations of them rivals anyone’s. But it also reveals what his account is not: something transcending his own personal experiences and interactions, or claims that should be treated with the force of scholarship.
Soufan opens with the frustration and tension that characterize his relationship with the CIA (seemingly to this day). In a preliminary note, Soufan explains that after he submitted his manuscript for approval to the FBI, they sent it on to the CIA for authorization. The CIA sent it back with two rounds of extensive redactions, which Soufan claims “range from the ridiculous to the absurd,” and include parts of an exchange he had with a U.S. Senator during a public, nationally broadcast hearing.
The redactions don’t begin to appear in bulk until the latter third of the book, beginning with Soufan’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value terrorist captured after 9/11 (and the first to be subject to the CTC’s coercive interrogation techniques). The redactions include every single personal pronoun in Soufan’s account—written in the first person—of leading the FBI’s Zubaydah interrogation. The result is, as Soufan asserts at the outset, absurd. In other places, the CIA redactions are lengthy and occasionally go on for pages. They disrupt the narrative considerably, and it is impossible to discern whether they properly censor classified material, or, as Soufan claims, are censoring information that is either public, is FBI information, is declassified CIA information, or is information that doesn’t meet classification guidelines. Either way, their presence in the text is a consistent physical reminder of the suspicion and frostiness that characterized many of Soufan’s interactions with CTC personnel during the years preceding and following 9/11.
The first third of the book provides a detailed history of the founding of al Qaeda and its early operations. Soufan is exceptionally knowledgeable on this subject, and he wants you to know it. In explaining his choice of title for the book, he cites a hadith—an action or saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad—describing an army carrying black banners coming from the region of Khurasan. Soufan confidently proclaims, “It is an indication of how imperfectly we know our enemy that to most people in the West, and even among supposed al Qaeda experts, the image of the black banners means little.” The implication is clear: the speed and surprise with which the terrorist threat was thrust upon us allowed many with only a superficial knowledge of Islamic terrorism and al Qaeda to claim expertise. By contrast, he is asserting himself as the real deal, able to explain the minutiae of al Qaeda activities including their adoption of the black banner as a symbol, which allowed it to claim religious significance as the army that will bring about the apocalyptic attacks predicted in the ancient hadith.
The narrative is full of similar tidbits from al Qaeda’s history, which begins around 1979, the year that Soufan points to as a turning point for radical Islamic fundamentalism. His narrative runs through the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the U.S.S. Cole, and into the aftermath of 9/11. Soufan’s style in telling this early story of al Qaeda, and subsequently his own story investigating the organization, is often disjointed. He weaves rapidly between years and locations, and supplies a huge compilation of names and personal details that is at once impressive and confounding. Nevertheless, he deftly supports his own claim to expertise before launching into his story, an account that asks a lot of readers by way of trust and confidence in its assertions.
The reader’s trust becomes particularly important as Soufan begins to describe his investigations of the embassy and Cole bombings. They sometimes involve such utter pettiness and incompetence on the part of others in the CIA, military, and administration, that it either strains credulity or depicts our agencies (notably excluding the FBI) and decision-makers as hapless at best, and fatally flawed at worst. Soufan describes his CIA colleagues during the investigation of the millennium threat in Jordan as becoming so jealous of the rapport between the FBI agents and Jordanian intelligence officers that they filed a formal complaint for unauthorized interactions. He also recounts how the same CIA agents ignored a box of intelligence materials from the Jordanians, which Soufan promptly went through and found to contain important leads. He recalls an Arabic flyer prepared by the State Department after the Cole bombing and distributed on the ground in Yemen, that erroneously told locals not to cooperate with Americans. He describes CIA translators simply mistranslating Arabic documents found with Abu Zubaydah, until Soufan points it out to them. And he explains how novice military interrogators at Gitmo misinterpreted statements by one detainee as a “confession” that al Qaeda masterminded the 2001 anthrax attacks, which caused the Pentagon to brief Congress about the connection; Soufan subsequently interrogated the detainee and repudiated the claim.
Just as damning are his portrayals of the “wall” in action, which generally show a one-way flow of information from the FBI to the CIA, with little reciprocity. This was mostly due to an interpretation of the laws in place at the time that ostensibly forbade information sharing from those on the intelligence side with those on the law enforcement side. Soufan acknowledges that this view was held by many within the FBI as well as at other agencies, but only delves into instances of the CIA withholding information from the FBI—even occasionally information that originally came from FBI teams, or information that was given to other governments.
The most notable example (and what Soufan’s personal story is most cited for) was the multiple FBI requests beginning in November of 2001 that the CIA provide information about a meeting in Malaysia of al Qaeda operatives linked to the Cole bombing. The CIA did not respond to initial requests in 2000, nor to subsequent requests in mid-2001. Although the CIA was supposed to be monitoring these same operatives after the Malaysia meeting, and despite knowing that several of them had visas to enter the United States, they failed to alert any of the agencies in charge of no-fly lists to watch for these men until August 2001, after two had already entered the country. According to Soufan, the FBI was only alerted to the fact that one of these men might be in the country when an agent was accidentally copied on a CIA email. It was this failure of communication and rigid application of the information “wall” that allowed Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi to pass into the United States unhindered and unnoticed; they were both on American Airlines Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon. Upon receiving a file from the CIA with this and other information about the Malaysia meeting immediately following the 9/11 attack, Soufan ran to a restroom and threw up, despondent over what he might have done with this information had it been granted to him when he had asked.
It is unclear what we are supposed to make of these claims. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 was intended in part to dismantle the “wall” and increase cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence. Thus, some of these anecdotes, while disturbing, are simply outdated. Elementary mistakes and carelessness observed by Soufan are disconcerting, but it is unclear whether Soufan’s intent is to show that the U.S. government, like all behemoth organizations, is only a sum of its parts and includes personnel that can be careless and incompetent, or if he is making a more targeted claim about counterproductive institutional attitudes of territoriality and pride that pervade the CIA. If the latter is his aim, it is unlikely that these assertions stand as true in the wake of the post-2004 intelligence shakeup.
Moreover, in many of these anecdotes, Soufan and his FBI colleagues are depicted as the sole voices of reason—notwithstanding sporadic caveats to the contrary—compelled to right the mistakes made by others. That may be true in the confines of his personal experience, but the broader story is simply more complicated than that. The book’s message is veiled by a circuitous style as well as the eternal problem of the first-person narrative: it presents only one perspective. It is clear that Soufan has more confidence in the FBI than anyone else in handling terrorism investigations and interrogations, but he never brings this claim forth, nor answers the daunting legal and policy questions left dangling if our domestic law enforcement bureau were to take the lead in foreign counterterrorism investigations and interrogations.
The second theme of Soufan’s book is that coercive interrogation practices employed by the CIA on several suspected terrorists were inefficient, ineffective, and “un-American.” He is a staunch critic of their use on both moral and policy grounds. He asserts that they were conceived in the wake of the decision to place the CIA in charge of all post-9/11 interrogations, despite the fact that the Agency had little experience interrogating Islamic radicals. Their lack of capacity and knowledge led them to hire two psychologists as contractors, who—despite also never having conducted any interrogations—devised a program of coercive techniques designed to break down resistance. Soufan portrays the EIT program as largely a foolish and tragic experiment devised up by a petulant mad-scientist type, which was senselessly embraced by the administration and CIA despite few or no results (and certainly scantier results than would have been obtained through Soufan’s more traditional methods).
Soufan offers a simple explanation for what he considers the failure of this program: the fact that terrorists are trained to expect much worse from their capturers (which are likely to be Middle Eastern countries with fewer qualms about harsh tactics). In fact, the “Manchester Manual” (an al Qaeda training manual found by Soufan) teaches recruits to expect government captors to rape the prisoners’ female relatives in front of them. Thus, no matter what legal glass ceiling we impose on the methods we use—even if it allows the most controversial techniques we might consider, such as waterboarding, use of phobias, or confinement in a small box—it is far less than what al Qaeda members had prepared themselves to withstand. This, Soufan explains, is how Khaled Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) could have been waterboarded over 183 times, and yet never mention any information related to the impending plots in London, Madrid, or Bali, which he must have known something—if not extensively—about.
Soufan responds forthrightly to the most widely held defense of the EIT program: that information extracted through EITs led to the 2011 locating of Osama bin Laden, who was found through the tracking of his courier and Abbottabad housemate, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Soufan believes that these claims are far overstated, because they are based upon investigators being alerted to the significance of al-Kuwaiti when KSM and others were subject to coercive interrogations and patently denied his importance. Soufan claims that traditional interrogation methods revealed as early as 2002 that he was important, and that surmising information through omissions made despite these harsh tactics hardly proves the utility of EITs. Furthermore, Soufan believes that had the Pentagon not denied his request that a certain detainee, al-Batar, be allowed to call home, the detainee would have cooperated with him and told him everything he knew. This would likely have included critical information about bin Laden’s Yemeni wife, who was with him when he was captured and might have expedited the search.
For some on the political left, Soufan’s criticism of the EIT program has been hallmarked as a perfect vindication of their fierce opposition to the program. And for the most part, this is not overstated. He witnessed the inception of the program and opposed it from the beginning. The moral question is dormant: given our abandonment of the program and the legal arguments advanced to justify it, the “un-American” nature of the program is today a non-issue. The more interesting question, which remains alive, is the utility of the program. Many high-level Bush administration officials, like Dick Cheney and Gen. Michael Hayden, and even former Obama DNI Dennis Blair, have stated that the program produced a trove of valuable information. Soufan, on the other hand, shows that the program also had many instances of ineffectiveness. The point he makes most ardently—probably the most important take-away of the book—is that the same information could have been extracted through traditional FBI methods using interrogators like him, who had extensive knowledge of both the organization and the individual being interrogated.
His initial successes suggest that he might be right. Indeed, he makes it seem almost easy to push a certain personal button, different with each detainee, which causes them to give up information. However, it remains a fact that the FBI method was not the one implemented, and so evaluating how it would have performed is an impossible counterfactual. Furthermore, the redactions in the book show that many of the facts about the harsh interrogations and what was obtained from them remain secret. Thus, the book makes a compelling and often chilling case for abandoning one method (which has already been abandoned) in favor of more traditional methods (which are in place), but the overshadowing question of utility is not as settled as some would like to think.
Furthermore, the book would have been well served—as we mark the tenth anniversary of bringing terrorist detainees to Gitmo—by a more thorough and straightforward tackling of the primary question still racking the country: what to do with terrorists after we capture them. There is still no clear policy, seen most recently with the unsatisfying decision to release Ali Musa Daqduq to the Iraqis rather than try him criminally or by military commission. Soufan describes a pattern of poor decisions when it comes to rendering terrorists to other countries. He recalls his frustration upon hearing that Abu Assim al-Maghrebi—the supervisor of bin Laden’s bodyguards whom Soufan and other FBI agents positively identified—was transferred to Morocco from Gitmo, before any useful information could be extracted from him; al-Maghrebi was subsequently released by a Moroccan judge. Similarly, ten prisoners convicted of involvement in the Cole attack escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2003, and twenty-three prisoners jailed for other plots escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006.
Soufan appears to hold a clear opinion on the highly relevant debate of criminal v. military prosecutions for terrorists, yet he never firmly states it. He gives only sparse accounts of his post-investigation involvement with those he interrogated. For example, his frustration is palpable when he describes how the criminal case against bin Laden’s driver and trusted aide, Salim Hamdan, was suddenly thwarted by the administration’s decision to label Hamdan as an enemy combatant. Soufan and SDNY prosecutors had been working on a plea agreement requiring Hamdan to testify against other detainees, but he was instead tried by military commission at Gitmo. Hamdan’s first commission led to the eponymous Supreme Court decision declaring the commission system unconstitutional, and his second (procedurally revamped) commission resulted in a sentence of five and a half years, of which he had already served five and was released soon after. (Lawfare has covered Hamdan’s post-conviction appeal, the first to be adjudicated under the Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009.) Soufan maintains that the criminal plea agreement being formulated would have put Hamdan away for longer than that, but offers few other details of the deal and how it was being crafted.
Soufan was also instrumental in identifying and eliciting information from top al Qaeda propagandist and personal bin Laden secretary, Ali al-Bahlul. Soufan subsequently testified at his military commission trial, which resulted in a life sentence. Scholars have attempted to account for the starkly varying outcomes of the Hamdan and al-Bahlul military commissions, including an analysis by Peter Margulies posted on Lawfare. Margulies points to differences in their positions: Hamdan, he believes, was a mere foot solider who provided material support, which should not be considered a war crime, while al-Bahlul was a propagandist who was an “indispensable participant in a murderous organization.” Soufan’s firsthand interactions and vast knowledge of both men makes him well-situated to weigh in on whether this role-based explanation is accurate; his account of Hamdan’s extensive involvement with bin Laden and presence during key al Qaeda events suggests that it may not.
Soufan’s account could have benefited from a more vigorous account of his early successes using the traditional criminal investigation model for al Qaeda operatives. One of the earliest al Qaeda members he interrogated was L’Houssaine Kherchtou, from whom the FBI extracted key information about the structure and leadership of the organization. Kherchtou cooperated and testified at the 2001 trial of four al Qaeda members who planned and helped execute the African embassy bombings, each of whom received a sentence of life without parole. It is understandable that Soufan offers few details of these individuals—Hamdan, al-Bahlul, Kherchtou, and others—beyond the time he spent interrogating them. But a more robust account of whatever role he played in the processing of terrorists through both the criminal and military systems, and his apparent preference for the former, would have provided anecdotal insight useful in the current debate about those models.
As a memoir, Soufan has written a richly detailed account of the most important recent years for the counterterrorism community. His singular position in this period—as an Arabic speaking al Qaeda expert who was instrumental in key investigations and who successfully handled numerous high-value interrogations—makes his viewpoint a uniquely valuable one. His criticisms are at times scathing, but are largely reserved for problems that have already been resolved. Nevertheless, understanding his experiences and the broader systemic policies that brought them about will be highly beneficial for those working on the next generation of policy decisions that will inevitably arise as we continue to fight global terrorism.
Dana Stern Gibber is a second year student at Yale Law School.