First Person: Ali Soufan

I’m the person whose team came closest to preventing 9/11, but when I tried to put my story out there, I ran up against the censors in the CIA. I wrote a book that describes the history of the war against al-Qaeda, including how the CIA missed its chance to derail the 9/11 plot by refusing to share information with the FBI. As far as 9/11 is concerned, I know what I’m talking about because I’m a former FBI supervisory special agent and interrogator.

In October 2000, days after the bombings of the USS Cole, I was sent to Yemen as the FBI’s lead investigator. I’m Lebanese American, and, back then, I was one of a handful of agents who spoke fluent Arabic. The Yemenis had brought two known associates of Osama bin Laden in for questioning: Jamal Badawi and Fahd al-Quso. They admitted a link to the Cole plot and to having been to Afghanistan, where they had met a one-legged jihadi known only as Khallad. I was startled. A source of mine in Afghanistan had told me that he had met a Khallad, with a metal leg, who was one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants.

Over time, al-Quso admitted he had fought alongside bin Laden and found him inspirational. He also said he had delivered $36,000 to Khallad in Bangkok. I found it strange that money should have been leaving Yemen just before the Cole attacks. Money always flows towards an operation, never away from it. I wondered if al-Qaeda had another plot under way elsewhere.

I persuaded the Yemenis to give us some photographs of suspected Cole plotters, especially of Khallad. I sent the pictures to the CIA, asking if they knew anything about a new operation. They said they did not. The director of the FBI also wrote to his CIA counterpart seeking information about Khallad, and asking if there had been an al-Qaeda meeting somewhere in south-east Asia. But the CIA said it could not help.

We investigated phone records and noted calls between al-Quso’s house in Yemen and a pay phone in Kuala Lumpur. In April 2001, I sent another request to the CIA to ask if the telephone numbers had any significance. Again the CIA said that it didn’t have any information.

I later learnt that at the time of my requests the CIA was aware of a meeting between al-Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur on January 5, 2000. CIA agents had asked the Malaysian authorities to monitor men at the meeting. It was through intelligence gathered after this that operatives broke into the Dubai hotel room of one attendee, Khaled al-Mihdhar, to photocopy his passport. Through this, the CIA discovered he had a US visa. But the agency didn’t alert anyone so that he could be prevented from entering the country.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I was in Yemen. I was ordered to identify the hijackers by any means necessary. On September 12, I went to the US embassy in Sanaa to meet a CIA officer, who handed me a set of photographs. I took one look and vomited. They were of the Malaysia meeting, the exact information I had requested. The next day they showed me another picture, of Khallad. It made me realise the link between al-Qaeda and 9/11. I realised then how much the CIA had known. Had they not withheld information, we probably would have drawn the connection months before September 11.

When I wrote my book I was legally bound, as a former FBI officer, to submit the manuscript to the FBI and CIA for approval. The FBI agreed to publication, but the CIA redacted long passages. In the end, it was published with sections blacked out. The book describes how I saw first-hand so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, which are often counterproductive. You can get more information out of a terror suspect by outwitting them than by torturing them.

The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda by Ali Soufan is published by Allen Lane (£25)

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