The Human Polygraph Machine
Witnesses who had seen Nashiri and the other al-Qaeda operatives around the Tawahi apartment told us that they had observed some of the suspects visiting a mechanic in the area. We tracked him down, and he confirmed the visits. He told us that the suspects had carried AK-47s and that they had brought in a white Dyna pickup truck and asked for a steel plate to be added to one of its sides.
Terrorists add steel plates to trucks that are to be used as conveyances for bombs; the plates help to direct the explosion toward the target. The trucks used in the East African embassy bombings, for example, were modified this way (they were Dyna trucks, too). We started investigating the truck in question in this case and found the dealership that had sold it. The truck had been purchased by Jamal al-Badawi—the second time that Badawi’s name had appeared.
The Yemenis searched for the truck but were unable to find it. This meant, most likely, that it was still available, fitted for a possible suicide attack. Sources told us that Yemeni extremists were becoming increasingly agitated by the U.S. presence in the country, and the U.S. National Security Agency had picked up chatter traffic (the term used for intelligence collected using technical means to eavesdrop and intercept e-mail) about an immiment attack. With every American in Aden packed into a single hotel, it was clear where the most effective strike would be. We heightened all our security, strengthening the hotel perimeter protection; and the Yemenis blocked off one side of the street with cement blocks.
John, Kevin Donovan, and I were having a meeting one evening in October in the command post when we heard shooting outside. When we realized that we weren’t being shot at, we edged toward the side of the windows to see if we could make out what was going on. A minute later Bob Hickey, the on-the-ground commander of the FBI hostage rescue team that was responsible for protecting us, rushed into our room and said that he was going to send some of his team outside to check what was going on.
“Hold on,” I said. “If there is a problem outside, non–Arabic-speaking HRT guys are unlikely to help the situation but may find themselves new targets. Let me go out. I have a better chance of blending in with the Yemenis.” Bob agreed that that made sense, handed me a bulletproof vest, and said he was coming with me.
Before we left, HRT snipers took positions on the roof to cover us. Bob carried a radio to keep in touch with them. As a security precaution, we decided to take the stairs down; if anything happened, we didn’t want to be trapped in an elevator. As we started down, John called out to me, with a hint of nervousness in his voice, “Ali, be careful.” It was unlike John to publicly show anxiety.
The lobby was empty, and we ran through it and opened the hotel’s front door slowly. The street was eerily silent. There were no cars around and the roads appeared blocked off. The silence was only broken by an ambulance going by, although it didn’t have its siren on.
We saw a group of Yemeni security agents standing at the end of the street. They were not wearing uniforms but traditional Yemeni dress, and they were carrying AK-47s. They noticed us seconds after we spotted them, and started walking toward us. Right behind them was a car, moving at their pace. Driving it was a Yemeni whom I recognized as the former chief of police in Aden.
They came to a stop right in front of us. “What’s going on?” I asked the driver.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“What was the shooting we heard?”
“Nothing. There was just a wedding, and people were shooting in celebration.”
“Why did you close the streets?”
“Don’t worry,” he said again, and drove off.
We reported the incident to headquarters. It was the tipping point for them, and they decided to evacuate everyone from the hotel. Everyone, “no exceptions,” we were told, had to leave. We packed all our gear, equipment, and weapons into trucks, and we went to the pier, where a team of marines were stationed. They had a small base there to monitor who boarded and left the Cole. Loading our stuff in boats, we headed out to the USS Duluth, a navy ship not far from the harbor.
Her captain and officers were waiting on deck to greet us. They were very hospitable; officers bunked together so that we would have rooms to sleep in. The plan was to stay on the Duluth for a couple of days while we monitored what was happening on shore. The Duluth moved constantly: since the attack on the USS Cole, no U.S. ships were permitted to remain stationary in the vicinity of Aden. We had to keep moving our satellite to keep in contact with FBI headquarters and took turns, day and night, positioning it.
Ambassador Bodine was annoyed when she learned that we had evacuated the Mövenpick. She felt it was an unnecessary insult to the Yemenis. It implied, in her view, that we thought that the Yemenis were unable to protect us adequately. That was true, of course. The bombing of the Cole, along with the fact that there was a truck suited for a suicide bombing loose on the streets of Aden, was evidence of that. Not to her, however.
She registered a complaint through the State Department against John, whom she blamed for “unnecessarily” ordering the evacuation. Because of her complaints, Kevin Donovan, myself, and some other officials were called to the bridge of the Duluth to speak to senior officials in headquarters about John’s performance. Once the purpose of the call became clear to me, I got very frustrated. “Look,” I told them, “we’re working here nonstop day and night. Our lives are being threatened and yet we’re making important progress. John is doing a great job. What we need here from you is support, not criticism.”
One of the senior FBI officials responded apologetically: “We just needed to have this conversation because the State Department is complaining.”
A couple of days went by, and we decided that a few of us would head back to shore to check the situation, as we didn’t want the investigation to come to a complete halt. John, Kevin, and I, along with Bob Hickey and a few members of his hostage rescue team, were selected to return to the hotel. We climbed down a rope ladder to a waiting boat and began sailing back to Aden. As we approached the harbor, the HRT guys scanned the shoreline and hills for threats. They noticed a couple of men with binoculars on top of a rugged hill watching us as we pulled in. On shore, we asked the Yemenis if the men on the hill were security officials. They didn’t know anything about them.
The hotel was empty and silent. Previously the corridors had been filled with U.S. officials moving to and from meetings, and a constant buzz of activity was heard; now very few people were around. We found one room with military officials from CENTCOM. We didn’t know if they had stayed or come back.
We spoke to Yemeni officials and evaluated the security situation on the ground. While we planned to return to the Duluth that evening, we were worried about the men we had spotted watching us with binoculars, as they could be al-Qaeda operatives planning to strike. We consulted Department of Defense officials, who said that it would not be safe to head back to the Duluth in a boat. Instead they said that a helicopter would be sent from the USS Tarawa, the command ship of the three-vessel amphibious readiness group of which the Duluth was a part, and that it would take us to the Duluth.
We needed permission from Ambassador Bodine, but she vetoed the decision. She refused to give the helicopter from the Tarawa a country clearance to come pick us up. We had come in a boat, she maintained, and we could leave in one. The Yemenis had told her that they didn’t like military helicopters flying into and out of Aden, and she decided that it was unnecessary. Her decision angered military officers, who felt she was risking U.S. lives.
On the DoD’s recommendation, we decided to stay in the hotel until the situation was resolved. Stuck there for the night, we went in search of food. Most hotel staff had departed for security reasons, but the few left managed to make us something. Although the hotel was empty, we still bunked with roommates for security reasons.
Early the next morning we were told that Ambassador Bodine had been overruled by her superiors in the State Department. They had ordered her to give us permission to take a helicopter back to the boat, and she reluctantly signed the authorization. The plan was to fly us first to the Tarawa; from there we would get to the Duluth in a boat. We prepared to take off from the Aden airport, the pilot aiming out to sea. It should have been a simple ride. But as soon as we were airborne, the helicopter’s alert siren went off. We were being “painted”—a missile system was locked in on us. The pilot swung into action and began emergency evasive maneuvers. He kept changing the direction we were flying in to try to lose the lock. There was silence in the cabin as we all held our breath and held on to the straps tightly (as if they would save us if a missile hit). After a series of maneuvers, the system stopped blinking red. The pilot had successfully evaded the lock. Seconds later we were out on the ocean heading toward the Duluth. We had no idea whether it was the Yemeni military or al-Qaeda locking on us. We didn’t know if it was a test or a warning, or if someone was really trying to shoot at us. It was a terrifying experience, and I learned then firsthand what it means when people say they’ve seen their life flash before their eyes.
We arrived at the Duluth flustered and angry. On the boat, military personnel were tracking the incident. They told us that it was the Yemenis who had painted our helicopter—the first time it had happened, as the U.S. military had been flying helicopters into and out of Aden without problems till then. From then on, painting became standard Yemeni practice, and not only for helicopters. Whenever a U.S. plane landed in Yemen—and they were constantly coming in and out, bringing supplies, personnel, and equipment—it would be painted. And whenever a U.S. plane is painted, the pilot, not knowing whether it’s a “friendly” procedure or an actual threat, has to go into standard emergency procedures to evade the missile lock.
Part of the emergency procedure for planes is to shoot flares. This helps to throw any incoming missiles off course, as the missile follows the flare rather than the plane. To all but the most experienced, flares look like small missiles, so when a U.S. plane came in and responded to the painting with flares, it seemed to the local Yemenis that the United States was shooting at them. The cycle of suspicion and mistrust worsened.
I was once at the airport with the local U.S. military attaché, Colonel Newman, when a C-130’s flares came directly at the airport, creating confusion and panic. The general who headed the military at the airport demanded to see us and angrily asked: “What’s going on? You’re making us look bad.”
“Let me ask the pilot what happened,” I replied.
Colonel Newman went to the pilot and asked why he had fired flares over the airport. He told Newman: “We were painted. They locked a missile on us. So we went into standard evasive procedures.” I returned to the Yemeni general and explained what the pilot had said.
“Well, don’t shoot flares, you’re scaring our population,” he said.
“Well, don’t paint them,” I told him. “And you know,” I continued, “when you paint a plane and we see that a missile is locked on it, to us that counts as an act of war. Are you declaring war on the United States? Because you’re painting our planes left and right.”
“No, no,” he said, “this is just training for our missile defense system.”
“Well, train on your own planes,” I angrily told him.
Newman jumped in. “Are you declaring war on the United States? Are you?”
“No, no,” said the general.
Back in the New York office there was mounting concern about the escalating threats we were facing. Eventually the decision was made to send everyone other than nonessential personnel back to the United States. Having fewer people on the ground would make us easier to protect and would offer a less appealing target to would-be attackers. John, myself, and other top officials organized the exodus. Military planes carried people to Germany, the United States, and Bahrain.
For those of us who remained, a decision was made to move to a different hotel, the Gold Mohur—site of the failed attack allegedly sponsored by al-Qaeda on U.S. Marines in December 1992. By moving there, we joked, we were either tempting fate or betting on the terrorists’ not striking the same place twice. Gallows humor, they call it.
Despite the history of the hotel, it was judged to be the safest place for us in Aden, and I understood the logic. The hotel was set far away from other buildings, surrounded by water except on one side. It could be easily secured, as anyone approaching could be seen from a distance.
While the hotel was safer, we still needed to move around Aden and visit sites, follow leads, meet with the Yemenis, and interrogate suspects. This was when the risk was greatest, so we took all the precautions we could. We traveled in unmarked cars and varied our route and times of departure and return every day. Still, there were daily scares. One day, for example, while we were on our way to an interview, we heard a bomb explode. The sound came from the direction of a route we often took. At our destination we asked the Yemenis the source of the explosion. “We’ll check it out,” we were told. Later, in the interrogation room, we were given assurances: “We checked it out, don’t worry, a tire exploded.”
“Come on,” I said. “We know the difference between a tire and a bomb.” But they insisted.
A few hours later, on our way back to the hotel, we passed an area near the harbor where there was a facility built by the British and saw from our car windows that the place was scarred and damaged. It was clear that a bomb had exploded. The next day I said to the Yemenis: “We saw the damage from the explosion.” They continued to insist that it was a tire. “Okay, you stick to your story,” I told them, laughing uncomfortably at their ridiculousness.
Steve Corbett was the Naval Criminal Investigative Service commander on the ground and also served as assistant special agent in charge for the NCIS. Their commanders remained on-site a long time, a better policy than that allowed by our thirty-day rotations for commanders, which kept only the team of agents and me in place. We also parted ways with the HRT. In their place the NYO sent over a SWAT team to handle security. Among the agents was Carlos Fernandez, who is like a brother to me. It took pressure off me to have him on the ground: he was someone I could bounce ideas off and discuss problems with in complete confidence.
Another of the new FBI agents was Joe Ennis. A skinny redhead from Alabama, his nickname in the FBI was “Alabama Joe.” Easygoing and good-natured, always smiling and willing to help, Joe quickly became loved by the FBI team.
It had taken Joe a while to adapt to New York, however. On his first day he drove into New York City in his pickup truck with Alabama plates, wearing a cowboy hat. That same day, a small Ku Klux Klan rally was taking place near our offices, and opposite it was a much larger anti-KKK rally. As Joe drove into the city, he passed through the anti-KKK rally and they mistook his car and hat as signs of his allegiance to the KKK. He barely escaped.
Those of us in Yemen had never met Joe before he arrived in Aden, as he had been transferred to New York after we’d left. We received a phone call from New York one day at the Gold Mohur Hotel that a new agent would be arriving the following day. Because of the time difference, we thought he was coming a day later than he actually was, so Joe arrived at the Aden airport (his first time in Yemen) with no one waiting for him. He called to let us know that he was in town, and we rushed to the airport to find him standing and laughing with a group of Yemenis. His southern demeanor enabled him to bond easily with people, despite the language barrier.
Joe’s efforts to befriend the Yemenis were a constant source of entertainment. Many whom we worked with were from South Yemen—the half of the country that had lost the civil war. Joe would tell them, “I’m from the South, too. I know what it’s like to lose a civil war.” The Yemenis were by turns confused and amused to learn that an English-only-speaking white-skinned redhead from the United States thought he had something in common with them.
Once he had learned some Yemeni words, Joe told the Yemenis that they should call him Yusef al-Kabili al-Janubi. Yusef is Joseph in Arabic; Janubi means southerner; and Kabili means tribal. Joe thought that Kabili was the Yemeni equivalent of “redneck.” The Yemenis couldn’t stop laughing.
Alabama Joe was one of the most hardworking agents I have ever met, and he fit in well with our group, which worked around the clock. Joe was in charge of administrative issues. In a case of the magnitude of the Cole, you need a first-rate agent handling administration. If that gets messed up—registering evidence, tracking documents—the entire case collapses.
Joe shared a room with George Crouch, and one day George came to me looking agitated. “Ali,” he said, squaring his hand on his jaw as he always did when he was focusing on a problem, “you have to speak with Joe.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. It turned out that when Joe slid his slim frame into bed, he barely mussed the covers; when he slid out in the morning, the bed looked almost untouched. It left the impression that he hadn’t been in his bed at all. When the Yemeni housekeepers came into the room, they would see what they thought to be one used bed and one unused bed, and two men in the room. They would wink at George, as if they “knew” what was going on. It didn’t sit well with George.
John O’Neill and Ambassador Bodine continued to clash. As the top FBI official, it fell to John to represent our interests in meetings with her. Whoever represented the FBI in meetings would have had the same problems he did, but Bodine’s persistent complaints through the State Department to the FBI led to a second review, by headquarters, of John’s performance.
A few days after we had moved into the Gold Mohur, the assistant director in charge of the New York office, Barry Mawn, came to visit. Barry was newly appointed and I had never met him, but it annoyed me (and the others) that my boss’s boss was coming to ask me about my boss.
“We’re trying to investigate a major attack on a U.S. ship, and rather than helping us deal with the Yemenis, people seem more concerned about them,” I told John. He shrugged. He never openly let this type of thing bother him.
“We can only do our best, Ali,” he said, “and hope that others come to recognize situations for what they are.”
Our team in Yemen often felt that headquarters wasn’t supporting us enough, with regard to our problems both with the State Department and with the CIA. Over time, I began to see that this stemmed in part from the fact that no one in headquarters really understood what we were up against in Yemen. They probably never guessed that the U.S. ambassador was more concerned about the feelings of Yemeni officials than with meeting the needs of the investigative team. Moreover, none of them understood the nature of the country itself. Their lack of knowledge was summed up in a single incident that took place one day when John was on the phone with headquarters and we were in the backyard of the al-Burayqah house. John told headquarters that he needed evidence sent to Washington, DC, for DNA analysis. Headquarters, weary of Ambassador Bodine’s complaints of us not trusting the Yemenis, asked him: “Why don’t you just have the Yemenis do the testing?”
To anyone who knew Yemen, this was a ridiculous question: the Yemenis didn’t have any forensic labs or expertise in the area. But to some in headquarters who had never operated in third world countries, every country was presumed to have the same equipment as the United States. John replied in frustration, “Look, these guys don’t have shoes on their feet, and you want them to do forensics?”
When Barry Mawn came to look into Ambassador Bodine’s complaints against John, we vented our frustration, explaining that the problem was not with our boss, who was representing our needs ably, but with Ambassador Bodine and the Yemenis. We told him that we were disappointed that, rather than helping us find justice, he was here to investigate John. Barry appeared genuinely sympathetic to what we said. Once again, headquarters had simply been forced to respond to complaints from the State Department. Before very long he had taken our side and become a friend and a great supporter of our investigation.
The lack of support we were receiving from the White House and the State Department, and the pressure they were putting on FBI headquarters, never ceased to surprise us. While people in the United States were focused on the presidential election, we still thought that everyone would make it a priority to see that an investigation into a major terrorist attack was given full support. We didn’t quite know how to explain the lack of support, but we tried to remain hopeful. “We’ll soon have a new administration,” I said to John, “and we’ll get the support we need.”
John disagreed. “It’s not that the administration doesn’t want to support us. The problem is the director,” he said. John felt that because of the bad relationship Director Freeh had with the Clinton White House—stemming from the agency’s investigation into the Clintons’ personal lives—he had limited access to the president to make the FBI’s case to him.
“We have to remember we are a government agency,” John added. His position was that unless the director of the FBI was close to the president, the secretary of state was likely to get the final say in any disagreement between the FBI and an ambassador. So, in disagreements between Ambassador Bodine and John, she would usually win. I was uncomfortable with John’s criticisms of Director Freeh, for whom I had, and still have, much admiration.
“Well, either way, there will be a new administration soon, and we’ll find out,” I replied.
President Clinton told the 9/11 Commission that before he could launch further attacks on al-Qaeda, he needed the CIA and the FBI to “be willing to stand up in public and say, we believe that he [Bin Ladin] did this.” One of Clinton’s top aides, Sandy Berger, said that the intelligence agencies had reached “no conclusion by the time we left office that it was al-Qaeda.” That just wasn’t true, and I was surprised to read it. Not long after the attack, we had concluded that al-Qaeda was responsible—which was why the FBI’s Washington field office was pulled out and the New York office placed in charge.
I had worked for a Republican senator in Pennsylvania after college and identified with the seemingly strong national security approach of the party, so later in November, when President George W. Bush won the election, I (and many in the bureau) felt happy, especially because as a candidate Bush took a hard line on the Cole, telling CNN: “I hope that we can gather enough intelligence to figure out who did the act and take the necessary action. There must be a consequence.” After President Bush’s election, I hoped that things would change. I expected more support for the Cole investigation and in our battle against al-Qaeda. We waited and waited. No change came.
Much later, in June 2001, when we had to move our investigation to Sanaa because of the threats from al-Qaeda against our lives, we had a meeting with a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, along with his chief of staff. After our official meeting ended and the senator walked out, the chief of staff closed the door, trapping us in the room.“Just a moment,” he said. Thinking we were about to get some deep insight, we waited. “I’m sympathetic to everything you’re saying,” he said, “but you have to be patient. Unfortunately, people in the White House can’t have al-Qaeda linked to the Cole attack.” His tone was apologetic and sympathetic, as if he were trying to help us understand what was coming.
We looked at him in shock. “What do you mean not linked?” I said. “Al-Qaeda is already linked. Everyone with access to intelligence briefings in the U.S. government knows that.”
“Look,” he said nervously, “you need to understand what’s really going on.” He paused. “To tell you the truth, we completely don’t agree with the White House on this one, but from their perspective they don’t want bin Laden involved in the USS Cole. The president is weak right now. The country is not united behind him and is still split over his election victory over Al Gore. He’s not going to risk capital going after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and splitting the country more. But if the Cole bombing is publicly declared to be an al-Qaeda attack, he’s going to look weak on national security if he doesn’t act. So the White House doesn’t want al-Qaeda blamed for the Cole.”
“That may be,” I replied to the chief of staff, “but we report the facts. And the fact is that al-Qaeda is behind the attack on the USS Cole. What the White House does with that information is above our level.”
Bob McFadden and I brushed past him and walked out, as did the others. We were getting daily death threats from al-Qaeda while investigating the death of seventeen U.S. sailors, and for political reasons it seemed that no one in Washington gave a damn.
According to the 9/11 Commission, some members of President Bush’s team opposed responding to the USS Cole attack. The commission reported that defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld “thought that too much time had passed and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, thought the Cole attack was ‘stale.’” Maybe to them, but not to us, not to the victims and their families, and certainly not to bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Toward the end of November John left the country to go home for Thanksgiving. When he tried to return, Ambassador Bodine refused to issue him a country clearance. This shocked FBI headquarters, as it was the first time in memory that an ambassador had banned a senior U.S. government official from entering a country to investigate a terrorist act. I was also out of the country at the time, following leads first in Jordan and then in the United States.
At that stage we were finished investigating the crime scenes, and the leads we were following had been taken as far as they could. We were waiting to see what happened with two Yemeni interrogations then under way: of Badawi and Quso. Quso, whose alias was Abu Hathayfah al-Adani, had turned himself in after some of his family members were questioned. Aden PSO head Hussein Ansi, our old nemesis, initially told us that Badawi and Quso had sworn on the Quran that they were innocent. Ansi had told us that he planned to let them go. General Qamish had overruled him and ordered the men to be subjected to further questioning. The Yemenis were to question the two men alone; our agents would not be allowed to join the interrogations, as David Kelley’s painstaking negotiation of the interrogation agreement, though by now nearing its final stages, was as yet—unbelievably—not finalized. That soon changed.
While I was in the United States, I received an urgent call from Kelley. “Ali, you need to get to Yemen right away,” he said. “We’ve finally signed the agreement with the Yemenis allowing us to interrogate Badawi, but there’s no one who can interrogate him.”
“What about Bob and George?” I asked, “They’re both first-class interrogators and are capable of handling the interrogation.”
“They can’t,” Kelley replied. “The Yemenis gave their own interrogation reports to our team, and Bob, George, and everyone else read it.” I understood the problem: a person reading the existing interrogation report would not know how the Yemenis had conducted their sessions—whether they had used reliable methods or had obtained information by torturing the detainee, for example. But the information would be in their minds, affecting their questions and their judgment, and thus any information gained would be potentially tainted and unreliable. It’s a risk we were not prepared to take, as it could jeopardize the prosecutions. “You’re the only team member who hasn’t read the report,” Kelley added.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll leave as soon as possible.”
“Whatever you do,” he added, “don’t read anything about Badawi from the Yemenis before you interrogate him.”
I caught a flight the next day to Aden.
My main partner for the Badawi interrogation was an NCIS agent, Ken Reuwer. He and I prepared extensively for the interrogation, studying everything we knew about al-Qaeda, especially anyplace Badawi may have visited or information concerning any al-Qaeda operative he may have interacted with. All this was standard preparation—you can’t pause during an interrogation and ask suspects to repeat names and places, or be unaware of basic information. If you do that, they’ll realize they’re giving you information you don’t know. At best they’ll simply slow down, but their train of thought will be ruined.
You have to convince the detainee that you know all about him, and that any lie will be easily uncovered. To do this you plan the interrogation around what you know. You prepare different hypothetical situations to predict what the suspect might say and where the evidence can lead, thereby lessening the chances of the suspect’s taking you by surprise.
The interrogation room in Aden was oddly shaped. It was divided into two; a wall with a window-shaped gap was in the middle. Interrogators sat on one side of the wall and suspects on the other, and we spoke through the gap.
Badawi was plump, with a potbelly and a round face, dark eyes, black hair, and a full black beard. I read him the Arabic version of the Miranda warning, which he said he understood, and he waived his right to remain silent. He said that he had nothing to hide.
He was initially uncooperative, however. While he admitted to training with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and purchasing a boat, he claimed that he thought it was for business and commerce and denied any knowledge of the attack. We could see that his “admission” followed the standard al-Qaeda counterinterrogation process, a method we were familiar with from the Manchester Manual. The manual advised al-Qaeda operatives to admit things they knew the interrogator knew, giving the impression that they were cooperating, while withholding the real truth and any new information.
I asked Badawi about Khallad and Nashiri. He admitted to knowing them, and as he was pretending to cooperate, he gave me more information on them—details that he thought were unimportant. But often these small, “unimportant” details that suspects give are very useful to us, as they were in this instance. Badawi told us that Nashiri and Khallad were intimate with bin Laden. “Is Osama bin Laden involved in the Cole?” I finally asked him.
“I’m not going to tell you that bin Laden was involved so you can write in the paper that Badawi said bin Laden was involved.”
“Do you think we’re waiting for you to tell us that?”
After that, Badawi tried downplaying Khallad’s role, claiming that Khallad wasn’t in Yemen and had just introduced him to Nashiri via a letter of introduction.
We pretended to “accept” whatever Badawi told us, trying to draw out some more details that might help us. Badawi at one point mentioned that Nashiri had him help purchase a truck to pick up a boat. Later we found the dealership at which the sale had been made and searched the records of the transaction. An ID had been submitted by the buyer: it featured a picture of Nashiri over the name Sa’eed al-Mansouri. Thus we learned another alias that Nashiri used.
When I was asking Badawi questions, Ken sat silently next to me, as he didn’t speak Arabic. But whenever he thought of something I should ask Badawi, he would write a note on a sticky pad and pass it to me. Badawi did not know what the notes were for, and I saw him repeatedly glancing at them. He seemed unnerved by them. I guessed it confused him why Ken never opened his mouth and just passed notes.
“I see you looking at these notes,” I said. “You’re wondering what’s written on this paper?” I held up one of the notes, with the blank side facing him.
“No, no,” Badawi replied, his face turning red like a schoolboy caught cheating. “No, I wasn’t.” He paused and then continued, “It’s your business, I don’t care.” He tried to look disinterested, but his eyes kept darting back to the notes.
“Well,” I continued, “I’ll tell you anyway. My friend here is like a human polygraph machine. He’s an expert in human behavior. And every time you lie, he passes me a note telling me that you’re lying.” Ken had no idea what I was saying and just stared at Badawi, unsmiling, as before. This only seemed to unnerve Badawi even more.
From then on, whenever Badawi was going to lie, he would either move away from the window and attempt to maneuver himself into an angle that would prevent Ken from seeing him, or he would look to see whether Ken was reacting. Instantly we knew he was lying. Badawi himself became a human polygraph machine.
“What passport did you use to travel to Afghanistan?” I asked Badawi.
“My passport,” he replied.
“In your name?”
“Yes, in my name.”
Puzzled, he asked, “What do you mean?”
“Is it Jamal al-Badawi, or is it one of the other names you use? Is it the name you used to travel to Bosnia?” Here I was guessing, but almost everyone we questioned had a second (fraudulent) Yemeni passport.
Badawi hesitated. I looked at Ken, and Badawi fidgeted. “Look, I’ve got a copy in our other office of the passport in the other name you use. Do you want me to get it?” I asked.
“No, no, it’s Jamal al-Tali.”
I had been bluffing, knowing that al-Qaeda terrorists like Badawi like to think they’re outwitting you. They don’t want to be caught lying. It’s both a game to them—one they want to win—and a question of honor, as they don’t like being called liars. As self-proclaimed religious Muslims, it’s embarrassing for them to be caught lying.
The PSO interrogator present told me during a break that he was shocked that Badawi had admitted to using the name. Now we had an admission of one of his aliases, and we put out a search to see where the passport had been used. We found that a pager had been bought under the name, and we questioned Badawi about it. He admitted that it was for the attack: he would be paged when the attack was about to be under way so that he could record it, using a videotape provided by Nashiri for the purpose.
Bit by bit, we teased out details about the operation from Badawi. Throughout, he tried minimizing his own role. He consistently told us that it was Nashiri who had both provided the videotape and instructed him to buy the pager. He had passed both duties on to Quso, who became his deputy for the operation; he had trained Quso in how to use the video and the pager. Quso had not recorded the attack, however, Badawai claimed, because he had overslept.
Al-Qaeda members commonly had the same problems with timelines that Yemenis did. Part of the reason is cultural: in the West we are trained to think in a linear manner, and we learn that the truth can be arrived at by following a series of logical steps. Al-Qaeda members, however, are greatly influenced by conspiracy theories, and they suspend their critical thinking. Rather than logic, they have a culture based on relationships and impressions, and there is considerable willingness, on their part, to accept conspiracy theories to explain certain events. Bin Laden capitalized on this by reiterating long-standing assertions that America, Israel, and the West were trying to subjugate the Arab and Muslim world and destroy the Islamic faith.
Concomitant with pledging bayat to their leader, and in preparation for the possibility of capture by Western intelligence, al-Qaeda operatives are trained to come up with a false narrative that follows linear thinking; but they find it hard to stick to lies when questioned in minute detail. A key part of successful interrogations is to ask detailed questions related to time and whereabouts. Such questions are easy for a detainee to answer if he is telling the truth, but if he is lying, it is hard for him to keep the story straight. Often Badawi would not lie completely but give a partial lie. By zeroing in on the details, we could see where he was lying. I would point it out, he would correct himself, and slowly we’d get the full picture.
Going through events in great detail eventually trips up most liars. At times it felt, as John put it more than once, like pulling teeth. We would ask a series of questions and trap Badawi in a lie. When he was caught or felt that he was about to be caught, he would change his story slightly, inserting more of the truth. He also got angry sometimes when he was caught in a lie, and then he would spill more information. The process required patience; interrogators can’t show frustration. That would only encourage the detainee to hold out, thinking the interrogator would soon give up. Instead you have to show you’re not in a rush, and are prepared to spend as long as it takes. Persistence is of paramount importance. A mistake some people make is giving an interrogation a fixed time slot. Doing so only alerts the suspect to the fact that all he needs to do is outlast you.
One day of interest was January 3, when the five young fishermen had reported finding the boat on the beach. It seemed to us that al-Qaeda had been planning a second attack, but that something had gone wrong. We checked with the U.S. Navy to determine what ships had been in the area at the time and found that on the night of January 3, the USS The Sullivans, a guided-missile destroyer, had been scheduled to be there. It was named after five brothers who had died when their ship, the USS Juneau, was sunk in November 1942 by the Japanese. This was the greatest military loss that any one family had suffered during World War II in any single action.
We guessed that Badawi must have known about a planned attack because he had been helping Nashiri. Eventually he admitted that there were two separate plots. Based on the January 3, 2000, timing, we concluded that the initial plan was to attack the USS The Sullivans. That plan had failed, and the plotters had turned their full attention to the USS Cole.
Badawi eventually pieced together for us his history with al-Qaeda, his friendship with Khallad, and his role in the Cole bombing. He also named operatives and training camps, and provided a lot of other detailed information on al-Qaeda. His confession was enough to warrant a full conviction for his role as a co-conspirator in the death of the seventeen U.S. sailors.