Ten years after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, many remain convinced that tough techniques like torture are a necessary weapon in the war on terrorism. But do such drastic measures really produce reliable information?
By Zakir Hussain
Hardly, insists a former leading Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent who pursued Al-Qaeda.
In his tell-all account of that fight published last month, Mr Ali Soufan argues that techniques such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding have produced resistance and false information instead and fed a deep resentment of America among militants.
AL-QAEDA'S PLOT IN SINGAPORE
This edited extract from Black Banners tells of how Jemaah Islamiah members linked up with Al-Qaeda operatives to plan an attack here.
September 2001. The phone rang twice in the Internal Security Department (ISD) duty office in Phoenix Park, Singapore, before an inspector, Charlie, answered it. The muted television in the office showed search and rescue efforts at ground zero, where the World Trade Center towers had once stood.
The caller, whose distinctive accent Charlie's trained ear recognised as being that of a Singaporean Malay, told him about a man named Mohammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan who said he knew Osama bin Laden, had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and intended to return there soon to rejoin the mujahideen.
An investigation showed that Mohammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan was serious, and uncovered associates of his who had been part of Darul Islam (DI), an Indonesian group that had fought for independence against the Dutch and then, after independence, had fought to turn the country into an Islamic state. DI emir Abdullah Sungkar would go on to form Jemaah Islamiah, a DI splinter group.
Jemaah Islamiah was very security conscious and used a system of codes to arrange meetings. When their members gathered for what were supposed to be prayer sessions in private homes, they all brought their shoes into the house instead of leaving them outside, as Singaporeans usually do. The members also stayed away from mainstream religious activities, and dressed in modern fashions. On Oct 4, Mohammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan made a move to leave Singapore on a flight to Pakistan, and, after weighing the situation, the ISD decided to let him go. There was little to hold him on, but, more importantly, his arrest would alert the rest of the group that they were being watched.
Two weeks after Aslam left, an Asian who called himself Mike arrived in Singapore and met group members. Many knew him from a bomb- making class he had given in Malaysia in 2000. Mike told the group that an Al-Qaeda operative with the alias Sammy would be arriving shortly to plan a terrorist attack, and that they should help him.
When Sammy arrived from Kuala Lumpur on Oct 13, members of the group met him in a hotel just outside Orchard Road and drove him to a carpark in Marina South. There Sammy briefed the Singaporeans on his plan to use truck bombs to attack the US Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and US naval bases in Singapore.
Using a video camera, Sammy and group members cased the selected targets, creating a tape that they labelled 'Visiting Singapore Sightseeing' to disguise its contents: the soundtrack to the video was the theme music from the Hollywood hit movie Armageddon. Through data mining and investigative footwork, the ISD later identified Mike as an Indonesian named Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, who was based in southern Mindanao. Sammy was identified as the Canadian who had been arrested in Oman, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah. When I interrogated Jabarah with fellow FBI agent George Crouch, he told us that he had tried to get a Yemeni Al-Qaeda member to be a suicide bomber in Singapore, as none of the Singaporeans wanted to martyr themselves.
The Black Banners by Ali Soufan is published by Allen Lane. Copyright (c) Ali Soufan 2011.
In fact, Mr Soufan believes that Osama bin Laden might well have been tracked down back in 2002 had leading Al-Qaeda operatives not been tortured. He also insists that false information linking Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda would not have emerged either.
Mr Soufan left the FBI in 2005, partly because he disagreed with the methods used to interrogate terror suspects. He now runs security consultancy The Soufan Group, based in New York with offices in London and Doha.
And given his intimate knowledge of the network, the plots he thwarted and the confessions he coaxed out of terrorists, it is hard to be sceptical of his conclusions.
Mr Soufan's work helped break up a 'Millennium Plot' to bomb Christian, Israeli and American targets in Jordan in 2000.
He also uncovered the link between Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers within days by interrogating Osama's former personal bodyguard Abu Jandal - without laying a hand on him.
And his questioning of high- value detainee Abu Zubaydah uncovered the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind 9/11.
But as the hunt for the key people behind 9/11 intensified, he watched with dismay as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its contractors limited, then denied, him and his colleagues access to a number of high-value detainees.
Even worse, he says, they squandered any chance of winning their cooperation when they began using 'enhanced interrogation techniques'.
Mr Soufan, in narrating his interviews with Al-Qaeda members from their 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, makes a compelling case for thorough research, intelligent questioning and treating terror detainees with even a modicum of dignity. Such an approach yields valuable information and wins them over, he says.
'Our greatest successes against Al-Qaeda have come when we understood how they recruited, brainwashed, and operated, and used our knowledge to outwit and defeat them,' he writes. 'Our failures have come when we instead let ourselves be guided by ignorance, fear, and brutality.'
Indeed, Mr Soufan, 40, a Muslim who was born in Lebanon but moved to the United States with his parents as a child and joined the FBI in 1997, drew on his knowledge of the Arab world and Islam in winning the confidence of detainees and getting them to reveal intelligence.
He and several colleagues soon found they knew far more about the Quran and classical Arabic than did some Al-Qaeda operatives, and used this against them to convince them they were wrong.
The book's title refers to the 'black banners' Muslim extremists often invoke. These are mentioned in a reported saying of Prophet Muhammad: 'If you see the black banners coming from Khurasan (the old name for Central Asia and parts of Afghanistan), join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them - and they will finally reach Jerusalem, where they will erect their flags.'
Muslim scholars have questioned the authenticity of this passage for centuries, but that does not matter to Al-Qaeda's leaders. They have effectively created their own faith and counterculture, and cite it anyway in drawing and motivating recruits, believing that they are the select few who will kick-start Armageddon even though they disregard key religious tenets.
Mr Soufan points out that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his nephew Ramzi Yousef were well known in Philippine brothels.
This book is unlike the many other treatises that have been produced on the subject. It is refreshingly narrated largely in the first person, with matter-of-fact yet vivid accounts of interrogation rooms and techniques in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.
Indeed, one of the most startling things about this book, its disclosures aside, is that there are words, and in some cases whole paragraphs, that have been blacked out of the text.
The CIA had, shortly before the book was sent to the printers, requested that these portions be redacted - blanked out - even though much of the information in them is already public or declassified.
Mr Soufan has asked the FBI to review and dismiss the CIA's concerns.
Throughout the book, Mr Soufan does not mask his anger at the missteps taken by the CIA's leaders and Bush administration figures.
These wrong turns dragged out the hunt for Al-Qaeda, and while Osama is gone, the abuses that were perpetuated have meant that the threat is not going to be licked any time soon.
The book is not available here yet. It costs around US$15 (about S$19) on Amazon.com