Hi Redditors!

I'm Ali Soufan, a former FBI Supervisory Special Agent. During my time in the bureau, I investigated and supervised highly sensitive and complex international terrorism cases, including the East Africa Embassy Bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, and the events surrounding 9/11.

I just authored "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al Qaeda." It tells the story of our successes and failures against al Qaeda, including how 9/11 might have been stopped if my team had been passed information we requested, and costly mistakes made in interrogation practices. More on the book here: http://theblackbanners.com/

This Frontline special tells part of my story: http://video.pbs.org/video/2126520471

Verification via my company twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/TheSoufanGroup

I will be back at noon (EST) to begin answering questions.

Update: I need to head off now, many thanks for welcoming me to Reddit.

Comments: 1706 • Responses: 37  • Date: 

TheBlackBanners241 karma

This is an amusing question. I'm sure you understand my frustration, thankfully the redactions are less than 2% of the book, and I'm sure that a smart reader can work things out.

will7369 karma

What's the most creepiest thing you can tell us that we don't know?

TheBlackBanners262 karma

I don't know what you know.

mc66a73 karma

In the same train of thought, what was the most best part of such a demanding job?

TheBlackBanners40 karma

I loved the job. I worked with great people, and it's very rewarding in that you feel you are making a difference. In a way it's not a job, but a way of life ...

Scaredoftriangles263 karma

As somebody who has had such real experience with the 9/11 investigation, how do you feel when people make unsubstantiated claims regarding conspiracies and cover ups? Do you feel like it minimizes the work you've done? Or am I way off base and is there some serious shady government business going on related to that? Either way, thank you so much for your time today.

TheBlackBanners187 karma

I think conspiracy theories come because people don't find a satisfying answer. And there is a lot about 9/11, that people don't fully understand yet. In my book I try to explain the full story, of what happened and why we weren't able to stop it, as I saw it.

RaithMoracus248 karma

"I'm really curious to hear [your] thoughts on the Arab Spring and how it will affect the social mechanisms surrounding militant extremist groups. Does democratization reduce the funding and recruitment capabilities, or will it be business as usual?"


PS: Thanks for doing the AMA, I hope this turns out to be one of the better ones we've had.

TheBlackBanners177 karma

On a basic level is has undermined al Qaeda, because for the first time people see that they can change their destiny without resorting to terrorism.

But the second issue we have to consider is that we still have to see what happens later on, and what it turns into.

I think as a consequence the nature of the threat will change. How it develops will depend in part on how extremist groups behave if they feel as if they aren't accepted as part of the system, or don't do well in elections. Will they stay committed to the political process, or will they return to violence? And if they gain power through elections, how will they use it? Will they stay true to the system, or will they try and co-opt it?

The Arab Spring has often been referred to as a birth of the new middle east. At this stage we're yet to see what the baby looks like. How all the above plays out will determine the effect on militant extremist groups.

someguyfromcanada53 karma

You are good to your word. Well done.

TheBlackBanners78 karma

Thank you for encouraging me to do this.

Tokugawa237 karma

Had the PATRIOT Act existed before 9/11, would it have allowed you to prevent the terrorist attack on 9/11/01?

Do you agree with the findings of the 9/11 commission? Specifically, that inter-agency communication would have helped prevent 9/11.

Do you think that the-powers-that-be have learned anything from their torture failure? Or do you think they will continue to make the same mistakes like they made with Abu Zabaydah?

Not a question, I just want to thank you for the way you handled the Abu Zabaydah interrogation. I know you were ultimately pulled from that effort, but your actions uphold the American ideal and the belief that we are a nation of laws.

Thank you for your time.

TheBlackBanners134 karma

Thank you.

As I try to explain in the book, 9/11 was possibly preventable with the tools we had at our disposal. As the 9/11 Commission and the CIA Inspector General Report on the attacks make clear, information that should have been shared with the FBI, the State Department, and INS wasn't.

I tell firsthand about information we were requesting and wasn't shared.

Regarding whether the lesson has been learned from Abu Zubaydah and the failure of EITs, I sincerely hope so. But I'm not certain, which is one of the reasons I've written this book - to tell the full story of what happened and why EITs were a disaster. That is one of the reasons for the book.

redshrek36 karma

So was there any follow-up done to understand why the CIA did not share the photographs that you had requested of the Al-Qaeda courier working in SE Asia? In the Frontline documentary, you said that the CIA released the pictures after the fact but was there any work done to understand why the pictures were not shared with your team in Yemen before the fact?

TheBlackBanners65 karma

As far as I know, no.

someguyfromcanada189 karma

Welcome Mr. Soufan. If you could implement one change in the way America is conducting it's "war on terror", what would that change be?

TheBlackBanners206 karma

The one thing is for our laws and our strategy to always be in sync, and for us to operate out of knowledge and not out of fear. (One way to help achieve this would be to separate national security from partisan politics, and for officials in Washington to spend more time consulting those in the field before they introduce new policies.)

ps - thank you for encouraging me to do this.

walrod183 karma

In your conversations with some intelligent terrorists, do you sometimes find yourself convinced by the detainee's philosophy and reasoning? If yes, to which point?

Do you happen sometimes to believe that if you had gone through the same as he did, you could have ended up on the other side of the desk?

TheBlackBanners235 karma

No. One of the big things you notice when dealing with terrorists, is the absence of critical thinking. They see the world through a different prism; in interrogations I try and change that.

Salim Hamdan, bin Laden's driver, for example, told me that while he was operational, he didn't have time to reflect. It was only in prison he was exposed to different ideas, and had an opportunity to see the world in a different way.

You'll see this in the book through the discussions I had with different high-level terrorists.

Passerby2243 karma

kind of related, does it seem that the motivations/philosophies/reasoning at the top match the motivations at the bottom of terrorist organizations?

by this i mean, while one guy flys the plane into the building because he thinks there are 100 virgins waiting for him, does the guy who sent him to fly that plane think he is serving god, or is he serving himself, and simply using the idea of god to influence his followers?

TheBlackBanners112 karma

There are two main types of motivations I encountered: The ideological and the political. People at both the top and the bottom are true believers in both to a degree.

High-level operatives seemed to be more politically motivated, while lower-level ones seemed more religiously motivated. Of course their understanding of the religion is warped.

rmaniac145 karma

What are some common counter-interrogation techniques that you witnessed?

TheBlackBanners158 karma

The most common is when detainees tell you what they think you already know, as a way of disguising that they're really not cooperating. You need to manipulate this to your favor by making them think you know than you do.

Think of it as a mental poker game.

[deleted]137 karma

Does the FBI ever drug detainees (e.g. truth serum) while interrogating them? If so, how do you do it and furthermore, does it work?

TheBlackBanners95 karma


rmaniac134 karma

Have all of the detainees you have spoken with shared valuable information with you? If so, why do they share information knowing that you are their “enemy”? Why don’t they simply refuse to speak?

TheBlackBanners299 karma

For a start every detainee is different. There is no cookie cutter approach, and everyone talks for different reasons.

As I explain in my book, and as I told the Senate Judiciary Committee, an interrogator knows that there are three primary points of influence on the detainee:

First, there is the fear that the detainee feels as a result of his capture and isolation from his support base. People crave human contact, and this is especially true in some cultures more than others. The interrogator turns this knowledge into an advantage by becoming the one person the detainee can talk to and who listens to what he has to say, and uses this to encourage the detainee to open up.

In addition, acting in a non-threatening way isn't how the detainee is trained to expect a U.S. interrogator to act. This adds to the detainee's confusion and makes him more likely to cooperate.

Second, and connected, there is the need the detainee feels to sustain a position of respect and value to interrogator. As the interrogator is the one person speaking to and listening to the detainee, a relationship is built - and the detainee doesn't want to jeopardize it. The interrogator capitalizes on this and compels the detainee to give up more information.

And third, there is the impression the detainee has of the evidence against him. The interrogator has to do his or her homework and become an expert in every detail known to the intelligence community about the detainee. The interrogator then uses that knowledge to impress upon the detainee that everything about him is known and that any lie will be easily caught.

Abu Jandal, Bin Laden's personal bodyguard; Bahlul, his personal secretary; and Hamdan, his driver, all spoke for different reasons. In the book I take the readers through those individual interrogations, and what led them to cooperate.

ecafyelims125 karma

I know you're against them, but do you feel the enhanced interrogation techniques are as effective as we're being told?

If you were successful with your own techniques, why were you removed from the interrogations?

Before becoming president, Senator Obama campaigned that he would stop the torture techniques and close Guantanamo Bay, but when he became president, he changed his mind. Do you know why?

TheBlackBanners87 karma

As I explain in the book, EITs were not successful, and I left after reporting to FBi Headquarters what was happening, and that we were going down the wrong path. The Director the FBI agreed and said the FBI doesn't do that.

Logical1ty111 karma

As a Muslim, can you describe some of the theological/philosophical arguments you had with some of the detainees/prisoners? How do you convince yourself of the rationality of your own take on your religion versus theirs?

Speaking as a Muslim myself and for the others here, we'd be really interested to hear more details on how these men think and rationalize their actions to themselves despite the overwhelming evidence against targeting civilians during war in the canonical source texts.

TheBlackBanners129 karma

For the most part they see themselves as part of a heavenly plan. They create a counter-culture within Islam, cult-like even.

What helped sometimes in the debate with them, is that their knowledge of religion is often less than skin deep. So when you go beyond the rhetoric and the slogans, it's very difficult for them to justify their positions.

In a discussion with Bin Laden's personal secretary, we debated the justifications of killing innocent people -- and it didn't withstand religious reasoning.

rmaniac90 karma

What are some common misconceptions about the FBI and CIA?

TheBlackBanners157 karma

From my experience in the field most of the time the professionals in the CIA and the FBI see things in a similar way. Problems come when officials in Washington have different ideas.

For example, the most basic one is when people portray disagreements over the use of so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques as being an FBI v. CIA disagreement.

In reality it was a disagreement between FBI and CIA professionals in the field, who strongly objected, versus officials in Washington who insisted on their use.

tremblethedevil201159 karma

What's your take on al-Qaeda actually being much more of an "-Ism" than any cohesive group? Do you think it's best classified as something akin to the IRA or Shining Path, or more of an ideology like Marxism where anyone can just declare themselves an adherent?

TheBlackBanners82 karma

I think it changed.

Al Qaeda used to have a very strong command and control system. But after 9/11 it switched to being more of a chief motivator than an operator, and began to promote itself more as an idea than simply a group.

rmaniac59 karma

Why do terrorists hate America?

TheBlackBanners83 karma

It depends who you are talking about, but different terrorists have different reasons. For example al Qaeda's main problem is our presence in the Arabian Peninsula, at least that's how they started. Hezbollah, Hamas, and similar groups have different reasons.

CountVonTroll53 karma

When you build rapport, does it, to a degree, go both ways? What I mean is, can you set aside the obvious differences, and still find actual common ground on a personal level?

Were you nervous when you went face to face with Lara Logan?

After all those interviews you've given recently, did any of the journalists ask you about techniques that they could use themselves? Are there even any parallels where the skill set between the two professions is transferrable, at least to a degree?

TheBlackBanners55 karma

I like the redacted question.

Rapport does go both ways. You don't forget that the terrorist is a person who would even kill me if they had the opportunity, but to gain information you need to put that aside and interact on a personal level. While you do this, you naturally find common ground in some areas, even if it's as simple as liking the same food or movies.

But in the end of the day, my job is to get actionable intelligence, and I know that the confession will ultimately be used to lock them up.

rmaniac41 karma

Why do you think that Abu Zubaydah is a borderline genius?


TheBlackBanners51 karma

From spending days and weeks talking to him.

nojusticenpeace36 karma

Can you tell some stories that can restore some faith in the US government. We often hear only the bad things, but when i've traveled the world and met local government officials, I've often heard some awesome things that our government has done abroad that no one ever hears about. Please no book plugs, i live in China and frankly won't buy a book and have it shipped here

TheBlackBanners51 karma

Absolutely. With all the mistakes, I still believe we are the greatest country. Just look at how we faced up to mistakes of the past and declassified documents. How many countries would do that?

Also we are still the number one country involved in not only guaranteeing the security of its own people, but also operating around the world to guarantee the security of citizens everywhere. I was involved in disrupting plots around the world - in London, Italy, Albania, Jordan, and elsewhere.

And even in the darkest of moments, you see the professionals in the field standing up for what's right. That's inspirational.

ijizzedinmypants34 karma

Sir, welcome to Reddit.

Are you trained to be a human lie detector?

TheBlackBanners187 karma

One of my favorite stories is when I convinced a detainee that my colleague was a human polygraph machine.

The detainee and I were speaking in Arabic, which my colleague didn't speak, and he would pass me notes with possible questions. The detainee kept trying to work out what the notes were, and I told him that my colleague was letting me know when he was lying.

After that every time the detainee wanted to lie, he'd try to move to a position where my colleague couldn't see him, and we'd know he was lying.

pagit29 karma

Mr. Soufan,

I was reading an online article July 1996 New Yorker by Lawrence Wright and the article mentions about rifts between the CIA and FBI and how the CIA is intelligence gathering and FBI is about evidence gathering and how information is sometimes not shared between the two departments. Can you elaborate on the FBI's roll internationally and is there, in your opinion, still "rifts" between the two departments? If so, why are there rifts and what could be done to eliminate them?

Also, can you tell us of the water bottle incident on the tarmac with Yemen Special Forces?

TheBlackBanners101 karma

I discussed the FBI role internationally in a different post, but here's the water bottle incident.

When we arrived in Yemen to investigate the USS Cole bombing, as we taxied on the runway, we were surrounded by Yemeni special forces, with guns trained on us.

A U.S. official who was in Yemen came onto the plane and said the Yemenis wanted us to hand over our weapons, which was something we weren't prepared to do: A terrorist attack had just occurred, and we had no idea what we had just walked into.

I got off the plane and went to a Yemeni official who looked to be in charge, and after greeting him asked if he was thirsty. He was surprised at the question, but then nodded yes. I brought some bottles from the plane, and gave it to him. He asked if it was American water. I said yes, and he then distributed it among the soldiers. Apparently US water is a luxury there.

That broke the ice, as they thanked me. I then asked why their guns were pointed at the plane, and got them to lower them.

1stGenRex27 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA. Really interesting so far.

How did you get into your line of work? Do you have any prior military experience? If so/not is that typical of the people that work in your field?

TheBlackBanners56 karma

It's actually a funny story how I first ended up applying to join the FBI, it was a bet with fraternity brothers.

1stGenRex23 karma

If you could kindly expand upon that, it would be awesome.

What qualified you to work for the FBI? What was your major/field of study, and from where?

Thanks again!

TheBlackBanners39 karma

During a conversation at university with the vice-president for student affairs about my prospects, he suggested the FBI. Something I had never considered, and when I mentioned it my fraternity brothers, they thought it was funny, and it turned into a bet.

The process itself took a long time, more than year. During that time I researched more into the role, and it sounded more and more fascinating and something I'd want to do.

pusgums23 karma

In your experience (or to your knowledge) has there been any intelligence gathered from enhanced interrogation that you absolutely believe could not have been acquired through more humane interrogation?

Additionally, how common is it for detainees to experience Stockholm Syndrome, and how beneficial or detrimental is it to an investigation?

TheBlackBanners44 karma

It's not just my opinion. The CIA Inspector General looked into the program (after CIA officials complained) and found that not a single imminent threat was stopped because of the program.

My experience is that the claims made in secret memos about successes of EITs, were actually successes gained without EITs.

anotherbozo19 karma

Pretty basic question. How true is it that the terrorists don't like to be called terrorists and claim they are doing "jihad" and doing god's work?

If so, as a Muslim yourself (me too), have you ever considered teaching them or getting them something to read, which would clear up their wrong teachings of what Jihad means?

TheBlackBanners40 karma

Actually some of the al Qaeda guys like to be called terrorists, thinking it is mentioned in the Quran - which is actually incorrect. Other groups might have problems with the term.

When I was speaking to them, my focus was on getting actionable intelligence rather than trying to rehabilitate them. You need to be careful not to open topics that can distract you from that goal.

ehullz18 karma

Any significance to "TheBlackBanners?"

TheBlackBanners27 karma

It's from a hadith - an alleged saying of the Prophet - that al Qaeda members liked to quote when I asked them why they joined the group.

The hadith reads "If you see the black banners coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis where they will errect their flags."

Khurasan is a term for the historical region spanning northeastern and eastern Iran, and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajkistan, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan. Because of the hadith, this is where jihadists believe they will beat their enemies in the Islamic version of Armageddon.

Bin Laden signed the 1996 declaration of war as being in Khurasan, and that's why he made al Qaeda's flag black - so members believe by joining al Qaeda, they're fulfilling the hadith by following the black banners.

temp980514 karma

Once the 9/11 events took place, it became clear that government leadership leading up to that moment did not take sufficient steps to respond to the Al Qaeda threat.

Why do you think the findings of the FBI investigations into the USS Cole bombing did not elicit the sufficient government military/policy response necessary to clamp down on Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network in time?

Does the Clinton Administration share an equal part of the blame as the Bush Administration does for the gross lack of successful retaliation against the USS Cole bombing?

TheBlackBanners26 karma

Early on in the Cole investigation, we gained confessions and found evidence confirming al Qaeda was responsible. But officials in Washington didn't want to know. We reported it, but they didn't want to take action.

SRyJohn11 karma

I'd like to know whether you're discouraged from speaking to foreign subjects in their native tongue. I can't help but wonder whether the theory prioritizes rapport (speaking to them in their most comfortable language) or the tearing down of comfort zones (forcing them to cross cultural and language barriers).

TheBlackBanners18 karma

I spoke in both languages. Sometimes it makes it easier when you're speaking in their native tongue, but at times it can also fire back on you.

odinsbane10 karma

Regarding the man who said he wanted to slaughter you like a sheep. When you handed him a knife was there genuinely a chance he could have done it? Also in that regards, it doesn't seem safe to have a knife at such close proximity, is that standard?

TheBlackBanners14 karma

The standard of security in a Yemeni jail are very different. He might have taken advantage of it, but I was already to defend myself if he did.

TheBlackBanners12 karma

The standards of security in a Yemeni jail are very different. He may have taken advantage, but I was ready to defend myself if need be. But I guess I called his bluff and it worked.

thebballkid5 karma

How are you allowed to go to the public and talk about all of these things? Even write a book? Did you have to sign some sort of a document saying you will never disclose x and y and are henceforth allowed to speak about everything else?

How has the public interaction affected your personal & professional life? Have you been threatened by anyone or have you been socially rejected by your former FBI colleagues? Does the professional world see you any different because of you divulging information (positively or negatively)?

Thanks for doing the AMA, looking forward to reading your book.

TheBlackBanners9 karma

When you join the government you had a non-disclosure agreement with the entity you join, and anything you write on leaving has to go through a pre-publication review to ensure nothing classified is in it.

Unfortunately in my case the book had to go through the double jeopardy of pre-publication reviews. The FBI spent 3 months reviewing it, and approved it and then the CIA insisted on redactions.

GeorgeLiquor5 karma

Do you think an uncensored version of your book will ever be available?

TheBlackBanners7 karma

I certainly hope so. We're working to get it unredacted.

pefyeah5 karma

During your interview with 60 Minutes, you talked about how terrorists would be in almost disbelief at the cordiality of American interrogators, and they had been taught to believe they would be tortured and abused upon capture. How does this mindset come to be? Is there no media connection to the western world for everyone? Or do terrorist cells actively shield their recruits from the outside world? How does such a large fighting force exist without having any of the flaws in their ideologies exposed?

TheBlackBanners5 karma

You are talking about individuals who come from very different regions and don't necessarily have access to our way of life and thinking. You can't look at it as if they live in New York. They come from a different cultural and tribal environment and with different kind of access to the media. Their educational level and cultural upbringing makes them very susceptible to conspiracy theories.

One of the things Abu Jandal (bin Laden's personal bodyguard), to paraphrase, told 60 Minutes that he had a new respect for the FBI. We made him think in another way.

Ctorpy4 karma

Hello, first thank you for doing this AMA. I've seen you speak before and were very insightful then and I'm sure your responses today will be equally insightful.

My question: How long prior to 9/11 did the US obtain the information that you claim could have helped you prevent the attacks?

TheBlackBanners10 karma

The information we first asked for in November 2010, during the investigation into the October 12, 2000, bombing of the USS Cole, had been in the CIA possession since January 2000.