When The Black Banners. The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War against A Qaeda was published in 2011, portions of the text were redacted. Those redactions have now been lifted after review by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S. foreign intelligence service that the author engaged in a bitter bureaucratic feud with during the immediate post-9/11 period and about which he has written highly critically ever since leaving the U.S. government.
This restates the status of this book as an invaluable account of the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT) as seen from within. The present declassified version includes crucial details on the use of what he considers torture against terrorist suspects.
Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, uses his extensive experience to expose the failures of the U.S. government’s program of using enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) to get information from captured terrorists, and question the usefulness of torture generally.
The Black Banners Declassified includes a new foreword from Soufan that addresses the significance of the CIA’s decision to lift the redactions, and the stances on torture in contemporary counterterrorism environments.
The prohibition on torture has been repeatedly reaffirmed in international treaties and by Western governments. As Soufan notes, however, it would be foolish to assume that the matter has been confined to the history books: a majority of existing governments around the world use torture routinely, and, periodically, political efforts are made to revive the EITs.
In the words of the author:
Beginning in 2002, I witnessed the U.S. government’s implementation of interrogation techniques better suited to authoritarian dictatorships—sleep deprivation, forced nudity, freezing temperatures, confinement in what amounted to coffins, and of course waterboarding. I harbored little sympathy for those subjected to these torture methods—they were, for the most part, hardened terrorists responsible for the deaths of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of innocent people. Two things did trouble me, however. On a moral level, we just don’t do this kind of thing in America; we are meant to be better than our enemies. And on a practical level, the techniques plainly did not work. Again and again, I saw otherwise cooperative subjects clam up under torture.
The story is told firsthand through what Soufan saw and learned, and wherever possible the author uses dialogue to allow readers to experience situations as they happened. These features make this not only a highly informative book, but a very enjoyable one.
As far as the structure is concerned, the book is divided into eight chapters.
Chapter one, “The Early Years”, recounts the beginning of Soufan’s career within the Bureau and how he started to follow Osama bin Laden’s declarations more seriously, all combined with stunningly solid knowledge of the history and origins of jihadism, Salafism, Wahhabism, and takfirism.
Chapter two, “Declaration of War”, focuses on the phase started in mid-1990s, when al-Qaeda different cells were more structured and interconnected.
Al-Qaeda was organized so that different cells were responsible for different parts of an operation. Often one cell would set up a cover businesses in a country, another would conduct surveillance of targets, a third would carry out the attack, and a fourth would clean up afterward. This separation helped ensure that if one cell were compromised, other operatives would be safe.
This was the organization that in August 1998 perpetrated the attacks on the U.S. Embassies Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing over-200 people, the moment when al-Qaeda “arrived” on the international scene.
During those years, Bin Laden focused on remodeling al-Qaeda. In Sudan, the group had primarily acted as a sponsor of terrorism through bin Laden’s business enterprises. Now bin Laden worked, specifically and in-detail, on building al-Qaeda into an international terrorist organization that launched attacks under its own name. He built a network of safe houses and training camps across Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the group acquired a more intricate structure and became better organized.
At the same time, Bin Laden still tried to use non–al-Qaeda groups to further his aims. He recognized that al-Qaeda’s stated goal of expelling infidels from the Arabian Peninsula had limited appeal to many of the would-be terrorists who were flocking to Afghanistan for training. Many of the Islamic groups that sent their fighters to the country—such as those from Libya, Morocco, and Algeria—didn’t care about America. Their focus was on the immediate enemy: their governments back home, which they accused of being insufficiently Islamic.
Chapter three, “USS Cole”, referring to the U.S. warship that was the target of the last major al-Qaeda attack before 9/11, addresses the developments of al-Qaeda structure and operation in the late 1990s and provides some good insights about the power dynamics within the group:
Traditionally, Arabs from the Persian Gulf are accustomed to having Egyptians work for them. In al-Qaeda, Egyptians took many of the top positions: they headed most of the training camps and were in other positions of power as well, and they tended to order the Gulf Arabs around. Of the nine members of the shura council, seven were Egyptian.
And of the heads of al-Qaeda’s various committees, other than bin Laden himself and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, all were Egyptians. The division extended to recreation: when al-Qaeda members played soccer on Fridays, the teams were usually Egyptians versus Saudis and Yemenis (and everyone else).
This section, through Soufan’s personal accounts, gives detailed descriptions of al-Qaeda operations in different regions, from Yemen to Malaysia.
Chapter four, “The Attack that Changed the World”, is the crucial chapter, dealing with the preparation and the staging of September 11 attacks:
The four [Western-educated] men [Mohamed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah] initially resolved to travel [from Germany] to Chechnya to wage jihad but were advised to go to Afghanistan instead because of the difficulties of moving around Chechnya. To effect this plan, they met with Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a relative of Abu Hafs al-Mauritani’s. Slahi, a member of the al-Qaeda shura council, headed the religious committee. He told the four men to get visas for Pakistan and how best to proceed to Karachi. From Pakistan they were taken by al-Qaeda operatives to Afghanistan, where they met bin Laden. After some indoctrination, they pledged bayat [allegiance] to him.
Their arrival was celebrated by bin Laden, KSM [Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, the operational planner of 9/11], and other al-Qaeda leaders working on developing [what was called by al-Qaeda] the planes operation. Here were four men who were perfect for the plot. As they were based in Germany, they would have an easier time getting U.S. visas than operatives based in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And their education levels meant that they were probably intelligent enough to qualify for pilot training.
The mission was presented to them, and they accepted it. It was the perfect opportunity to wage the ultimate jihad and have their names heralded as the greatest of mujahideen [holy warriors]. Al-Qaeda leaders encouraged this thinking, reinforcing the idea that the martyrs would receive seventy-two virgins in heaven and would be celebrated as heroes across the Muslim world. They were put into al-Qaeda’s special operations branch, the organization’s name for its terrorism branch. Led by the head of the military committee, Abu Hafs al-Masri (whose given name was Mohammed Atef), and the head of the security committee, Saif al-Adel, the branch itself has individual cells and operations, each functioning separately from the others for security reasons.
The chapter describes the training and the movements of the different attackers. Even more interestingly, the author explains that, when the 9/11 Commission published their findings, everything he said was confirmed by their investigation, in particular about some crucial missed “operational opportunities”.
Chapter five, “A New World Order”, covers the aftermath of the momentous attack. After the Taliban refused the U.S. ultimatum to stop harboring al-Qaeda, on October 7, 2001, the U.S. military launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Supported by U.S. air cover and Special Operations Forces, the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance, the Northern Alliance, pressed south from the pocket of Afghanistan they held.
Once the invasion began, Bin Laden and his entourage kept constantly on the move, traveling between Kabul and Jalalabad, areas Bin Laden was very familiar with, having lived and traveled in the region since the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Soon, in order to escape the Alliance, al-Qaeda regrouped into the tribal regions of Pakistan and Iran, a state whose relations with al-Qaeda do not get much attention in the book.
The attack and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan forced al-Qaeda to reconfigure. The author explains that, before 9/11, the network had a highly centralized command and control structure and a defined territorial sanctuary.
After the United States responded to 9/11 decisively, and effectively dismantled what was then considered al-Qaeda’s “center of gravity,” the terrorist network adapted. Instead of the centralized command and control that had been its trademark, it became less “Chief Operator” than “Chief Motivator,” a move that helped spur Internet recruitment and domestic terrorism.
The terror network’s focus turned to manipulating regional, local, tribal, and sectarian conflicts in order to promote its interests. It also “franchised” the al-Qaeda name and encouraged other terrorist groups in places such as North Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of the Middle East (later, notably, Iraq) to operate under the al-Qaeda banner.
In 2004, al-Qaeda released a list of eighteen attacks they claimed to have successfully perpetrated against the United States. Of those listed, seventeen were known to the U.S. government.
The top threat within the jihadi galaxy had definitely shifted the focus of the fight from the “near enemy” to the “far enemy”.
Chapter six, “The First High-Value Detainee”, covers the arrest and the role of Abu Zubaydah, whom Ali Soufan would help to interrogate.
The FBI had been looking for Abu Zubaydah for a while. He was originally wanted for his connection both to Ahmed Ressam’s attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999 and to the Jordanian end of the “millennium plot”.
The author explains that, while he was not a member of al-Qaeda, his role as external emir of Khaldan training camp was of considerable importance. Senior al-Qaeda members, such as KSM, regularly turned to Abu Zubaydah for help with passports and travel. In turn, al-Qaeda guaranteed Abu Zubaydah’s protection elsewhere in Afghanistan, and he often stayed in their guesthouses.
When the author saw Abu Zubaydah, “his face was covered by a bag, a normal procedure when transporting terrorists. He was barely moving. Parts of his body were bandaged up, and elsewhere he had cuts and bruises. He was in critical condition. His wrists were handcuffed to the gurney.” The following pages describe the subsequent interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the process of building trust and inducing him to cooperate.
This chapter is also the one delving more deeply into the issue of the EITs, and where Soufan most extensively sets out his case for their uselessness.
In the author’s words:
Cruel interrogation techniques not only serve to reinforce what a terrorist has been prepared to expect if captured; they give him a greater sense of control and predictability about his experience, and strengthen his resistance. By contrast, the interrogation strategy that Stephen and I employed—engaging and outwitting the terrorist—confuses him and leads him to cooperate. The art of interview and interrogation is a science, a behavioral science, and we were successful precisely because we had it down to a science.
Chapter seven, “Successes and Failures”, deals with Guantanamo, where the author arrived in February 2002, when the United States had just begun bringing detainees captured in Afghanistan to the detention facility. According to Soufan, there were many initial successes—and many frustrations—at Gitmo.
The problem, as Soufan tells it, is that there was no plan, and there were no rules of engagement aiming toward an endgame:
The seasoned investigators started out doing everything by the book, but soon we were being given contrary orders from above.
There was also a series of disagreements between experienced and novice interrogators about how interrogations should be carried out. The problem was that after 9/11, the U.S. military and other government entities rapidly expanded their teams that dealt with terrorism and put people in positions they didn’t have the training or experience for. People were put on the job at Gitmo after just a six-week training course, without having ever conducted a real interrogation, let alone interrogated al-Qaeda terrorists.
Their knowledge of al-Qaeda was thin and largely based on media accounts and press conferences. When these inexperienced interrogators started doing their own interviews, they didn’t have much success, and began trying different methods to get information. They were under pressure from officials in Washington to “produce results.”
“I’m playing mind games with them,” I told him, “playing on their notions of respect and dignity. When I treat them well, they feel they have to be polite and responsive, and in return I get the intelligence I need. For that, I’ll be nice.”
Chapter eight, “Final Missions”, describes the author’s intense experience as an undercover agent.
In all, the book represents a precious source of primary information from one vantage point within the post-9/11 U.S. system, and, at the same time, an ethical and strategical milestone for counterterrorism operatives, decision makers, practitioners, and the public at large.