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.