The Terrorism That Torture Didn’t Stop
Over four years after President Obama promised to “look forward, not backward” regarding the CIA’s brutal treatment of captives under the Bush administration, the issue has not gone away. The torture debate may fade from the headlines for weeks or months at a time, but it always come back. Last year the trigger was the release of Zero Dark Thirty. A few weeks ago, it was Abu Anas al-Libi’s capture, shipboard interrogation and transfer to the United States for trial. Later this year, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) will vote on whether to begin declassification of its 6,000-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects.
Often, debates about torture focuses on whether it leads to high-profile counterterrorism successes: the killing of Osama bin Laden, the capture of high-level suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the disruption of terrorist plots against Los Angeles or London. The public evidence suggests—and according to Democratic senators, the SSCI report will definitively prove—that defenders of “enhanced interrogation” have greatly exaggerated the role that torture played in these events.
In all the debates about whether torture “worked,” though, there is another part of the record that is almost always forgotten: the attacks that torture did not prevent. There are no documented cases of “ticking time bombs” being defused by torture. But there are Al Qaeda plots that were not stopped, even when suspects with knowledge of the conspiracy were being brutally interrogated in CIA custody—a fact that has never been fully reported.
Twelve people were killed, and dozens more injured, in two of these attacks: a 2002 attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, and an August 2003 suicide bombing of a hotel in Jakarta. According to FBI agent Ali Soufan, the oil tanker attack might have been prevented if the CIA had not been so determined to “render” a juvenile detainee to torture overseas despite his having provided actionable intelligence about the plot to the FBI.
The MV Limburg
On October 6, 2002, off the coast of Yemen near Al Mukallah, suicide bombers attacked the French oil tanker MV Limburg. According to the military commission charges against Abd al Rahim Al Nashiri, a Saudi citizen who is accused of orchestrating the terrorist attacks on the Limburg and the USS Cole, “[t]he explosion blasted a hole through the hull of the ship, resulting in the death of a crewmember, injury to approximately 12 crewmembers, and spillage of approximately 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.” The dead crew member was a Bulgarian citizen named Atanas Atanasov, who jumped overboard soon after the attack. His body was found two days later.
Three and a half weeks before, on September 10 and 11, 2002, Pakistani security forces raided three safe houses in Karachi. Two suspects were killed in a firefight, and ten others were taken into CIA custody. They included Ramzi Binalshibh, Mohammed Atta’s former roommate and a self-identified conspirator in the September 11 attacks, and Hassan bin Attash, the younger brother of accused 9/11 plotter Walid bin Attash.
An FBI team flew to the facility where the CIA was holding the detainees to help with their questioning. One of its members was Ali Soufan, who spoke fluent Arabic and who several months earlier had left the interrogation of the CIA’s first high-value detainee, Abu Zubaydah, after trying and failing to stop CIA interrogators and contractors from using increasingly brutal interrogation techniques. The FBI agents initially worked with the CIA in developing questions for Binalshibh, but they were denied direct access to him for four or five days.
Based on government documents and detainees’ accounts, the suspects were likely held at a jail outside Kabul that prisoners called “the dark prison” or “the prison of darkness.” According to a declaration by Hassan bin Attash’s counsel David Remes, “three or four days after his capture in Karachi, the Americans flew Hassan to the ‘Dark Prison,’ a CIA-operated interrogation facility located near Kabul” where prisoners were “held in total darkness, chained to their cell walls, deprived of food, water, and sleep, and continuously blasted with heavy-metal music, rap music, and the like.” Remes alleged that his client, a juvenile at the time, was also kept naked and sprayed with cold water during interrogation. One of Soufan’s FBI colleagues also told the Justice Department’s inspector general that after the September 2002 raids in Karachi, suspects were held in a prison where they were “manacled to the ceiling and subjected to blaring music around the clock.”
The other detainees captured in the Karachi raids have made similar allegations. Ramzi Binalshibh told the Red Cross that his second place of detention was a prison in Afghanistan, where he was shackled by his wrists to a bar in the ceiling for two to three days. According to court records, Abdul Raheem Ghulam Rabbani, captured the day before Binalshibh in Karachi, said “after his capture…he was taken to the ‘Dark Prison,’ where he was held for approximately seven months kept in the pitch dark, deprived of food and sleep, chained to a wall and threatened with hanging.” Another detainee captured in the Karachi raids, Musab Omar Al Madhwani, told a federal court that he was flown to a pitch-black prison that he believes was located in Afghanistan where he was subject to a variety of harsh interrogation techniques, such as being suspended in his cell by his left hand.
Later on, the FBI would bar its agents from participating in interrogations at CIA facilities where these methods were used, for fear they would be seen as complicit in the CIA’s mistreatment. But in September 2002, the rules were less clear. Several days after his arrival at the CIA’s facility, Soufan—referred to by the pseudonym “Thomas” in the Department of Justice Inspector General’s Report—was given forty-five minutes with Binalshibh. Soufan has described the encounter in his book The Black Banners, although his description was heavily censored by the CIA.
According to Soufan, a CIA officer told him she had instructions not to allow the FBI access to Binalshibh or the other higher-level suspect captured in the raids—whose name is redacted from Soufan’s account, but is very likely Hassan bin Attash. Instead, they were to be “rendered” to two different foreign countries for interrogation. But the CIA officer later told Soufan, “I’m going to give you access to them for forty-five minutes each, and we’ll see what happens. If they cooperate, then maybe the whole idea of rendition will be scrapped and we can continue interrogating them here.”
In an interview last year, Soufan said he got useful information from both Binalshibh and the other high value suspect in forty-five minutes: “the fact was that both of them were cooperating.” The second detainee, in particular—Soufan would not confirm or deny whether it was Hassan bin Attash—provided intelligence about an impending attack on an oil tanker off the coast of Al Mukalla, Yemen.
The detainee, Soufan wrote, “was naked when he was brought into the interrogation room,” and spat on the floor while being chained to the wall. Soufan unchained him, handed him a towel and began to speak to him. Soufan said he thought the detainee cooperated not because of the prior coercion by CIA interrogators but because “[h]e already knew of me, because I interrogated his… someone he knows (Soufan had previously interrogated Attash’s brother Abu Al-Bara bin Attash in Yemen), let’s put it to you this way….I told him a story that nobody knows…from his mother. And he gave me a hug, he started crying, and he said my mother pray[s] for you every day.”
Soufan’s account of the rest of the interrogation is over a thousand words long, but it is almost entirely redacted. Soufan and his supervisors assumed that the intelligence they obtained from the two detainees would show “that there was no need to fly them to foreign countries to be tortured.” But instead, CIA officials seemed angry, and told FBI officials that Soufan had been “told lies” by both suspects. A deputy CIA station chief told Soufan, “[t]his is bigger than you…. This is an order coming from the White House. There is nothing you or the FBI can do to stop this rendition.”
On September 17, 2002, Hassan bin Attash and Ramzi Binalshibh were likely flown out of Kabul on a Gulfstream V Jet with the tail number N379P, which the CIA frequently used in renditions. The plane flew first to Amman, Jordan, where Attash was transferred to the custody of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, and then to Rabat, Morocco, where Binalshibh was likely taken off the plane. What happened to Binalshibh in Morocco is not publicly known. US officials have told AP reporters that CIA interrogation tapes record “a guy sitting in a room just answering questions…. They don’t show any harsh treatment.” But only a small portion of Binalshibh’s time in Morocco was recorded.
In Jordan, bin Attash was taken to the headquarters of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), where he was held for sixteen months. Bin Attash’s counsel has alleged that while there, his client was interrogated about his brothers’ whereabouts and about weapons of mass destruction. When he did not give interrogators the answers they wanted, he was repeatedly beaten on the soles of his feet with sticks, slapped, punched and deprived of sleep. Other detainees held with bin Attash in Jordan corroborate these allegations. A federal judge in bin Attash’s habeas case noted that “the government does not deny” bin Attash’s allegations of “abject physical and psychological coercion in Jordan” or the dark prison.
Meanwhile, in the weeks after the renditions, FBI agents in Yemen were working with a military-civilian “fusion cell” to try to avert the oil tanker plot. According to Soufan, he and his colleagues wrote and distributed a memo warning of a possible plot to destroy a tanker off the coast of al-Mukalla, based on his interrogations of Binalshibh and bin Attash in Afghanistan. The CIA, however, maintained that the suspects had lied, and would not grant permission to take action that Soufan believed might have prevented the October 6 attack. Soufan wrote, “There is no way to describe the feeling of knowing you could have stopped a terrorist attack if only your government could have supported you.
Precisely what steps the fusion cell might have taken to prevent the Limburg attack remain unclear. Soufan said he could not elaborate because of the CIA’s claims that the information is classified. The former US Ambassador to Yemen, Edmund Hull, said in an e-mail that “[i]f we had actionable intelligence that might have prevented the attack on the M/V Limburg, I was not focused on it…. Nor do I remember Ali coming to me subsequently spelling out pre-existing intelligence.”
However, Andy Arena, the former chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at FBI Headquarters, recalled that Soufan had sent out a memo through Department of Defense channels warning of the possibility of a tanker attack shortly before the Limburg bombing. According to Arena, the CIA “didn’t believe it” and “basically blew it off.” Days later, “sure enough it happened,” Arena said. (Several former CIA officials declined to speak about or did not recall the Limburg incident, and the CIA public affairs office had no comment on the specifics of Soufan’s account).
The Jakarta Marriott
On August 5, 2003, a suicide bomber drove a truck into the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia. Twelve people were killed in the attack, and at least eighty-one others were wounded. At least one American was among the injured: Californian Patricia Pond, who suffered burns and severed tendons, and contracted HIV when the Jakarta hospital treating her used a dirty needle. But most of the dead and injured were Indonesian—a fact that one of the planners of the bombing, Mohamad Rais, said he regretted. “I’m remorseful because Muslims became victims. The ones who I targeted were Americans,” Rais told an Indonesian court.
A former Baltimore resident and CIA detainee, Majid Khan, has pleaded guilty before a Guantánamo military commission to participation in the Marriott attack. Khan was not present in Jakarta when the bomb went off. He had been captured in Karachi five months before, in March 2003, and taken to a CIA black site for interrogation. But before his capture, Khan helped transfer $50,000 from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) to Hambali, the leader of the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiya. Khan delivered the money in Bangkok to Hambali’s lieutenant Mohamed Farik bin Amin, also known by the alias “Zubair.” Hambali and Zubair used part of the money to pay for the bomb used in the Marriott attack.
The $50,000 transfer from Khan to Zubair has come up repeatedly in defenses of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program as an instance in which torture was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks and save innocent lives. But instead of mentioning the attack on the Jakarta Marriott, which the interrogation of KSM obviously did not prevent, officials dubiously link it to another plot to fly a hijacked airplane into the highest skyscraper in Los Angeles.
President George W. Bush, for example, invoked the transfer in the 2006 speech in which he first acknowledged the CIA’s secret prisons. After Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s “tough” interrogation, Bush said, KSM revealed that he had asked Majid Khan to courier $50,000 to Hambali’s associates. Khan also gave Zubair’s contact number and physical description to the CIA. Based on this information, Bush said, “Zubair was captured in June of 2003. And he soon provided information that help lead to the capture of Hambali.” Further CIA interrogations led to the capture of a cell of seventeen Southeast Asian terrorist operatives who “were being groomed at KSM’s request for attacks inside the United States, probably using airplanes.”
Former CIA director George Tenet, CIA official Jose Rodriguez and Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen have cited the same chain of events as evidence of the CIA program’s success. Tenet wrote in his memoirs, “[t[hrough hard work, each success cascaded into others. It was amazing to watch.” Thiessen and Rodriguez have claimed that the seventeen operatives detained in Karachi—whom they call the “Ghuraba cell”—were plotting to fly hijacked planes into the highest skyscraper in Los Angeles. “Without enhanced interrogations,” Thiessen has written, “There could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.”
The publicly available evidence, however, suggests this was a remote possibility.
There was a real plot to fly a hijacked plane into the highest skyscraper in Los Angeles. The leader of the Al Qaeda cell tasked with carrying out the attack, Masran bin Arshad, disclosed the plot to Malaysian intelligence after being arrested in February 2002. According to bin Arshad, the pilot who was originally supposed to fly the plane, Zaini Zakaria, pulled out soon after the September 11 attacks and was arrested in December 2002. Other cell members—including Zubair—remained at large at the time, but when they were later arrested, they told interrogators the plot was no longer active after Arshad’s detention. None of the seventeen members of the “Ghuraba cell” was ever transferred to US custody or charged with a plot against the United States. After their detention, all seventeen suspects were deported from Pakistan to their home countries, and many were immediately released.
Despite these awkward facts, the Los Angeles plot is the closest thing that defenders of the CIA program have found to a real-life “ticking time bomb” defused by torture, and so it gets invoked again and again. In contrast, the Marriott hotel bombing—the attack that was actually imminent, that Khan’s $50,000 transfer to Zubair actually helped fund—has been written out of the story. It is not mentioned at all in Bush’s speech, or in most of the books defending the CIA program.
It is not hard to see why. If “enhanced interrogation” is the only thing that can defuse ticking time bombs, why didn’t it stop the bomb that actually was ticking in August 2003? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan and Zubair were all in CIA custody by the time the Marriott attack occurred. (Hambali was detained afterwards). Khan has said he did not know any of the details of the operation or the Jemaah Islamiya personnel involved, but US government documents suggest that Zubair did. According to government documents, Zubair helped transfer funds and relay messages from Hambali to Dr. bin Hussein Azahari, a Jemaah Islamiya bombmaker who was deeply involved in the Marriott bombing. KSM, given his position in Al Qaeda, also may well have known about the operatives in Jakarta who carried out the attacks.
It is, of course, impossible to know what KSM or Zubair would have disclosed if they had been interrogated without torture. According to a recently released document from Senator Mark Udall, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence did not attempt to speculate in its report analyzing the CIA’s representations that “enhanced interrogation” saved lives. Instead, Udall wrote, Senate investigators combed through US government intelligence databases, to test the CIA’s past claims that intelligence gained through “enhanced interrogation” was “otherwise unavailable” to the United States. They found that many of those claims were false. But as Senator Udall stated during CIA Director John Brennan’s confirmation hearing, “The accurate information remains classified, while inaccurate information has been declassified and regularly repeated” by former CIA officials.
This secrecy and misinformation has contributed to a rise in public support for torture since President Obama took office. Unless the executive branch drops its opposition to declassification of the Senate report, or Udall and his colleagues declassify it over the CIA’s objections, this will continue.