Inside the Interrogation Room: Ali Soufan’s Tactics

September 13, 2011

The CIA had what they perceived to be a scientific approach to interrogations. Through the application of “enhanced interrogation tactics” like nudity, confinement and sometimes even waterboarding, they believed they could break down a subject’s ability to resist.

Ali Soufan argues interrogations are more art than science. Rather than the use of tactics based on psychological techniques meant to manipulate subjects into submission through humiliation and fear, he believed he could get more reliable information, quicker, by using knowledge about the subject to win him over or trick him into cooperating.

In the course of a 7-hour-long conversation with myself and FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith for our film “The Interrogator,” Soufan made the case for his approach using examples from his own career.

“There’s No Cookie-Cutter Approach”

Key to Soufan’s approach was flexibility. The objective was always the same — getting actionable intelligence to use in the fight against Al Qaeda — but different subjects required different types of tactics.

And beyond that, Soufan explained that different interrogators have methods that fit their own personalities.

Be Empathetic

Al Qaeda’s first big successful attack against America was the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Soon after the attacks, the FBI arrested and interrogated L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan operative bin Laden was grooming to be his personal pilot.

Kherchtou became known to interrogators as “Joe the Moroccan” because of his alias, Yusuf, which translates to Joseph. Soufan was able to get Joe to talk by understanding his resentments towards Al Qaeda.

In 2001, Joe’s testimony played a key role in the U.S. government’s case against the embassy bombers and led to the conviction of four Al Qaeda members.

Improvise: The Story of The Human Polygraph Machine

Jamal Badawai was Al Qaeda’s chief on-the-ground liaison for the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole. After his capture by Yemeni security forces, he became the first suspect Soufan had a chance to interrogate.

Soufan was interrogating Badawi with the help of partner Ken Reuwer, who didn’t speak Arabic, when Soufan noticed that Badawi was nervous. Based on that — and without his partner even understanding what was happening — Soufan improvised a way to find out when Badawi was telling the truth.

They Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Just 72 hours after 9/11, Soufan would extract a key piece of intelligence in the history of the fight against Al Qaeda.

Soufan knew from a previous interrogation that former Osama bin Laden bodyguard Abu Jandal knew one of the 9/11 highjackers: Marwan al-Shehhi. Interrogating him in Yemen just after 9/11, Soufan showed Jandal a series of photos and asked him whether he recognized any of the men. Jandal insisted he didn’t.

So Soufan played his card, and detailed the relationship he knew Jandal had with Marwan al-Shehhi. Soufan bluffed, warning Jandal that he would know Jandal he lied again. Jandal fell for it. Not knowing that the men in the pictures in front of him had already been identified as the 9/11 hijackers, Jandal identified eight of them as members of Al Qaeda.

For the first time, the U.S. government could confirm that Al Qaeda had been behind the 9/11 plot.

But Soufan didn’t leave it there. He turned Jandal’s inadvertent admission against him and was able to get even more information:

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