Leaving the FBI
April 29, 2003. Undercover Pakistani domestic intelligence officers saw the truck they were waiting for pull into the arranged meeting spot. As it came to a standstill, one officer casually strolled over to the driver’s window and peered inside. The officers were posing as arms dealers for a domestic terrorism case they were investigating—Shiite mosques were being blown up in Karachi—and a source had arranged the introduction between them and the men seeking to buy explosives.
One of the undercover officers studied the truck’s occupants and shouted at the driver, “Why were you looking at my sister?”
“What are you talking about?” the driver asked. He laughed and replied, “We’re not looking at your sister.”
In a swift movement, the officer snatched the keys from the ignition. The driver, now agitated, continued to insist that he did not know what the officer was talking about. The man in the passenger seat smiled silently at his friend’s dilemma and then stepped out of the truck, whereupon the undercover officers watching noticed that he had only one leg.
The driver had also stepped out of the truck, and a fistfight ensued between him and the officer. A crowd gathered, and within seconds the driver and the undercover officer were separated and the driver and the passenger subdued. The crowd was made up entirely of undercover officers; the “why are you looking at my sister” routine was a ploy to get the two men out of the truck. It was a good move, as the driver had a perfume spray bottle with cyanide in it, which probably would have been used if he had realized that the encounter was a sting.
The driver and the one-legged passenger were taken to the police station, where they denied any connection to terrorism. They weren’t known to local officers as domestic terrorists or dealers. The driver, however, had in his possession a compact disc with a letter to Osama bin Laden and two images of the World Trade Center, with United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the south tower. The police suspected an international link, and the case officer went to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists website to see if a picture of either man appeared on it. As only indicted terrorists appeared on the site, the men were not found.
One officer, bluffing, said to the one-legged passenger, “So I see that you’re a very important guy?”
Without blinking, the one-legged Arab replied: “Whatever the Americans are paying you, bin Laden will double.”
The passenger identified himself as Khallad bin Attash, bin Laden’s key operative, and the driver was later identified as Ammar al-Baluchi, alias Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, KSM’s nephew who had assisted the 9/11 hijackers and had himself tried to get a U.S. visa a week before the attack, perhaps to assist as a hijacker.
In one of the men’s pockets was a letter from Saudi Arabian scholars to bin Laden, discussing al-Qaeda’s strategy against the United States. Khallad and Baluchi wanted to buy explosives to attack the U.S. Consulate in Karachi. The two terrorists were handed over to the CIA. Later, defenders of enhanced interrogation techniques claimed that it was through their use on KSM that Baluchi and Khallad were arrested, but this was yet another falsehood propagated: the arrests were by chance, and entirely due to a quick-witted police officer, who told me the story himself when I later visited Pakistan to investigate the case.
Khallad was never given to the FBI for questioning, despite the fact that we knew more about him than anyone else in the U.S. government—from our anonymous source in Afghanistan, from the USS Cole investigation, from his brothers, from the East African embassy bombings case, and from Abu Jandal, Hamdan, Bahlul, and other al-Qaeda operatives we had successfully interrogated. [31 words redacted]
[3 words redacted] with Nashiri, the mastermind of the USS Cole investigation. He had been captured in November 2002, and those of us involved in the USS Cole case, who knew all about him from the years we had spent in Yemen investigating the case and speaking to his operatives, weren’t given access to him. [1 word redacted] KSM, who was arrested in March 2003 and put into the enhanced interrogation program: an FBI colleague who knew more about KSM than anyone else wasn’t given access to him.
When I publicly commented on this years later, Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission and a Bush administration official, publicly concurred with my assessment. The wrong people were questioning these top al-Qaeda operatives, with disastrous effects.
After Nashiri was arrested and bin Laden placed Khallad in charge of operations in the Arabian Peninsula, and before his arrest, Khallad was in contact with the al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia. He gave them the order, from bin Laden, that operations in Saudi Arabia were approved. Previously, bin Laden had been reluctant to hit his homeland. Two weeks after Khallad’s arrest, on May 12, 2003, residential compounds in Riyadh were attacked, resulting in the death of thirty-five people, including nine Americans. More than 160 people were injured. The bombing was led by Mu’awiya al-Madani and [2 words redacted]. One of the [1 word redacted] al-Qaeda operatives arrested with Binalshibh and [6 words redacted] was involved in planning an attack [3 words redacted]. Those interrogating Khallad had two weeks to get that information from him—a real ticking time bomb scenario. A few months later, on November 8, a suicide truck bomb exploded at another compound in Saudi Arabia, resulting in the death of eighteen people. One hundred and twenty-two people were injured. Khallad most probably knew of the operatives in Saudi Arabia and may even have given them their orders.
The same was true of KSM, who after 9/11 headed al-Qaeda cells around the world. It’s highly unlikely that he didn’t know about cells in London, Madrid, and Bali. But he was put into the EIT program, and on March 11, 2004, al-Qaeda bombs exploded in Madrid’s train system, killing 191 people and injuring around 1,800; on July 7, 2005, al-Qaeda bombed London, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700; and on October 1, 2005, bombs in Bali killed 20 people and injured more than 100. All of these acts were perpetrated by cells that it’s virtually impossible for KSM not to have known about. For example, Mohammad Sidique Khan, the oldest of the four suicide bombers who blew himself up in London, reportedly trained in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan while KSM was running operations, and with Jemaah Islamiah in Southeast Asia, another part of KSM’s fiefdom.
Approximately five months after KSM was arrested, the JW Marriott in Jakarta was hit, the operation funded by $100,000 KSM had given Hambali after the first Bali bombing as “a sign of congratulations.” Another $30,000 had been given to Hambali for further operations; he gave the money to Azahari Husin and Noordin Top for the bombing. But KSM’s interrogators never got this information.
Those [2 words redacted] in the FBI who had seen what had happened with Abu Zubaydah, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Liby, Qahtani, Ramzi Binalshibh, [1 word redacted], and others now had to sit on the sidelines as even more important al-Qaeda terrorists were put into a program that didn’t work and created faulty intelligence.
On May 14, 2004, I arrived in Yemen at 11:30 PM with Carlos Fernandez. We had come to help the Yemenis prosecute the Cole suspects. Stephen Gaudin and his wife, Casssandra, met us at the airport; they had married earlier that year and I had been unable to attend the wedding, so I was excited to finally meet Cassandra and give my congratulations in person. Steve wasn’t in the mood for well wishes, however. I saw that he was fuming.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Did you see yesterday’s New York Times article?” There was anger in his voice. I hadn’t seen the article; I had been on a plane, I told him. He said that the CIA had publicly taken credit for our successes in getting information from Abu Zubaydah. “They actually connected the success with KSM and Padilla to the special treatment,” he said, making quotation marks in the air with his hands as he said special treatment.
The next day we met the ambassador, Edmund Hull, who said that he was happy we had come and that he hoped my special relationship with General Qamish would influence the Yemenis’ cooperation with the Cole detainees.
On March 19, 2005, the Doha Players theater in Qatar was blown up by a suicide bomber. A British citizen was killed, and fifteen people were injured. The operation was possibly conducted by the same cell we were warned about by one of the Yemenis arrested with Binalshibh and [1 word redacted]. A few hours after the attack, al-Jazeera’s website posted a picture of the bomber: someone we had been searching for since the East African embassy bombings. Two days before the bombing, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia had released a recording hinting at an attack. One of the leaders of the Saudi al-Qaeda cell at the time was [12 words redacted].
I walked into Pat D’Amuro’s office and showed him the picture of the bomber and asked, “What the hell are we doing here?” It was a rhetorical question. Pat was aware of all these issues, and he was as angry as I was. He had already announced that he was leaving the FBI and heading to a private consulting firm, headed by the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. I added, “Aren’t you glad you’re leaving? I wish I could leave, too, but I’ve got too many years left.” To retire from the FBI, you need at least twenty years of service and to be age fifty or over. I had been in the FBI less than ten years.
“Why don’t you come with me?” Pat asked. I thought he was joking, but then he kept asking, and after a series of discussions over several weeks, I accepted. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life, but I realized that either I’d have a heart attack by the time I was forty or I’d have to leave.
It wasn’t only that we weren’t involved in investigations abroad; it was also clear that some high-level people at the CIA at the time were specifically targeting me—I was told that by more than a few FBI executives and CIA colleagues. Ever since I had been interviewed by the 9/11 Commission, I was a marked man. It didn’t help that I had objected to what later became known as enhanced interrogation techniques.
In a number of instances, the FBI wanted to send me abroad for an investigation, and the CIA tried to bar me from traveling. Pat responded to FBI headquarters, which had delivered the CIA request: “Since when does the FBI let others decide who we send on missions?” The director of the FBI agreed, and I went on the missions.
In June 2003 I assisted in the investigation of a case in the United States where a suspect was in contact with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. I questioned the suspect with another FBI agent, Bob Herrmann. The suspect had a lawyer with him, and when we asked a question, he’d reply: “Don’t speak to me. Speak to my lawyer.”
I ignored him and told him why he was important to our investigation, why he should talk, and that his answers could save lives. He responded to that speech by repeating, “Talk to my lawyer.” To my surprise, the lawyer turned to his client and said: “Now, listen to me. Agent Soufan is saying very important things, and you had better listen to him, because cooperating is in your interest.” We got the information we needed.
Bob and I were nominated for the internal “intelligence award” after that operation ended successfully. When you’re nominated for the award by the FBI director, it’s usually a formality for the director of Central Intelligence to sign it, but apparently it never left the DCI’s desk.
“Before I leave,” I told Pat, as I accepted his offer, “I first have to finish the undercover operation that I’m running.” Some Americans were trying to join al-Qaeda, and, posing as Osama bin Laden’s personal representative in North America, I had infiltrated their group.
On the day I announced my resignation, David Johnston, a reporter from the New York Times, told me that a few days earlier he had talked to the director of the FBI during a gala in New York and asked him: “Where do you see the future of the FBI?” The director had pointed at me and said, “That is the future of the FBI.”
I was touched by his kind words, more valuable to me than any award. I told Johnston with a smile: “Then you only have yourself to blame. If you had told me that two days ago, maybe I would have stayed.”