Former FBI agent Ali Soufan has investigated numerous terrorism cases, inside and outside the United States, including the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole. His role in shedding light on the 9/11 attacks also raised his profile. It is believed that he came very close to preventing the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, but that did not happen because the CIA refused to share critical information with the FBI shortly before September 11, 2001.
He has received numerous awards and commendations for his work, including one from the US Department of Defense that described him as “an important weapon in the ongoing war on terrorism.” In this interview, the author of two best-sellers on 9/11 and the wider network of terrorism in the world today and head of security consultancy the Soufan Group tells Kathimerini how dangerous the world is today, discusses the intensifying competition of the great powers and its correlation with terrorism, and also shares some of the secrets of his work regarding effective interrogation.
Your interrogation of Abu Zubaydah led to the naming of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11. You have proved that conventional interrogation methods are more effective than torture. What makes humanism and empathy work better than pain and cruelty, and why did the most advanced nation succumb to using cruel measures while knowing they were ineffective? On the other hand, why do some detainees make false confessions?
The matter of torture cost America greatly. And it’s really important for people to know that these are not just my conclusions. Extensive US government reports (the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency’s own inspector general) showed that torture does not work and that the intelligence generated through torture was also unreliable. I know for myself that I was able to obtain credible information and actionable intelligence through conventional techniques. These proven techniques help to ensure cooperation, while torture results in compliance, with someone willing to say anything to make the torture stop. Additionally, the use of torture complicates and potentially prevents any future criminal prosecutions under US law, as we are seeing with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed today. Most importantly, the use of torture in America’s recent history came at a tremendous cost to our reputation and moral standing in the world. The loss of credibility keeps haunting America today.
Is the world a safer place today because of the advanced surveillance and after 20 years and trillions of dollars thrown at Afghanistan, or will terrorism networks inevitably grow again under the Taliban? What has been the biggest mistake in the war against terror?
In spite of the tremendous military and financial resources committed to the war on terror for two decades, the situation we see today is very troubling. Today, there is an arc of chaos stretching from West Africa to Somalia, from the Sahel to Syria, and from Yemen to South Asia. Our big mistake has been overlooking these political and security vacuums and allowing them to grow. This is very concerning as we now see a host of anti-Western militant groups who are the dominant force in these areas. This climate will continue to present ideal conditions for violent extremists to expand and thrive. Over the past two decades, we have seen al-Qaeda successfully transform from a hierarchical organization made up of several hundred fighters into a decentralized network of groups and affiliates boasting tens of thousands of members. For al-Qaeda, Afghanistan is where their strategy has paid off, and groups and affiliates everywhere will be watching and seeing how they can take advantage of similar vacuums across the world.
We have dangerous regimes in Afghanistan and North Korea. We have the ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorist networks. Are they independent agents acting against the US or proxies in a broader chess game between state superpowers?
We are presently witnessing the United States shift its efforts, energy and resources to embrace the challenge of great power competition. When it comes to counterterrorism, my concern is that the US views this as an “either/or” scenario when the reality is that we cannot afford to divorce counterterrorism from great power competition. What we are seeing today is an overlap between regional and global challenges to the West and threats from terrorism. Further, the way we withdrew from Afghanistan negatively impacted many of our relationships with key allies in Europe and around the world. To maintain our leadership and influence, we need for the US to rebuild its relationships and alliances, so that these rifts do not impact us elsewhere on other security issues in the future. As I said before, I worry that the situation today is more dangerous than it was before September 11, 2001.
Is disinformation run from abroad a new type of terrorism aimed at making Western democracies ungovernable? What is the remedy?
I recently wrote in TIME magazine that the US must view democratic values as a strong foundation on which to build, not an impediment to be overcome. I think this idea very much applies to other Western democracies, like Greece. On the matter of disinformation, the Soufan Center released a report earlier this year looking at the conspiratorial QAnon movement and how the movement is serving as a tool for America’s adversaries. The report identified how the movement has received the backing, through intense amplification efforts, of multiple external actors. We found that actors in states like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran all contribute to amplifying the QAnon conspiracy theory online to reach a broader audience. Our conclusion was that such activity certainly blurs the line between domestic and foreign disinformation, representing a significant challenge for the US government and international action. Still, our adversaries seek to exploit polarization and grievances that already exist in our societies. So, a lot of the problem is already internal and we have to find ways to be unified as Americans again.
Recently, former British PM Tony Blair, speaking at the Royal United Services Institute security think tank, warned that the world may face the threat of bioterrorism by non-state actors, while the report requested by US President Joe Biden concerning the origin of Covid-19 remains inconclusive. Do you share those fears, suspicions and worries?
In the United States, our CBRN-defense apparatus was significantly bolstered after the anthrax attacks in 2001, which happened shortly after 9/11. The possibility of a [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] attack rightfully gets a great deal of attention because we can imagine that an attack with biological or chemical weapons would be a tremendous shock to society and the perception of safety that we aim to protect. It’s also important to keep in mind that while there are still significant institutional and intellectual barriers keeping terrorists from replicating chemical and biological weapons, technology is changing faster than regulators can keep up, and we’ve been apprehensive about the possibility of a CBRN attack for decades. If terrorists are successful in launching a CBRN attack, even if not a highly lethal event, it will still have a profound psychological impact on society and government.