Fighting Terrorism in the Age of Trump
The president-elect has vowed to kill the families of ISIS members and bring back Bush-era torture tactics.
In February, Donald Trump vowed to make “enhanced interrogation techniques”—like sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”—part of his then-hypothetical administration’s approach to fighting terrorism. He also promised to target the families of suspected terrorists. His pledges, sometimes reversed, then reinforced, all seemed like instances of his fiery, base-riling campaign rhetoric.
Trump faces significant hurdles to reviving George W. Bush-era interrogation practices amounting to torture; those hurdles include the Geneva Conventions and 2005’s Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibited some of the worst abuses. But other restrictions, including a 2009 executive order signed by President Barack Obama barring the CIA from operating its own detention facilities and banning some interrogation techniques, could be quickly overturned by Trump.
Now that Trump has won the presidency, the prospect of that rhetoric becoming policy—or, at the very least, a viable possibility—has revived a debate that seemed settled when Obama repudiated the policies of his predecessor with the declaration that “we don’t torture.”
“We’re no longer saying that the United States does not torture, we’re saying the United States should torture,” Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions, told BuzzFeed. In Washington, rising Republican stars like Oklahoma Senator Tom Cotton believe Trump is prepared decide whether to bring torture back. “If experienced intelligence professionals come to the president of the United States and say, ‘We think this terrorist has critical information and we need to obtain it, and this is the only way we can obtain it,’ that’s a tough call,” Cotton, who does not believe that waterboarding is torture, told Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday. “Donald Trump’s a pretty tough guy, and I think he’s ready to make those tough calls.”
The former FBI agent Ali Soufan is an experienced intelligence professional, with his own well-developed views on torture. He doesn’t think it’s a tough call: He thinks it doesn’t work. During his eight-year career with the bureau, Soufan investigated terrorism cases in the United States and around the world, including the 1999 millennium bombing plot in Jordan and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, a major al-Qaeda attack that foreshadowed the attacks of September 11, 2001. As Lawrence Wright wrote in a 2006 profile for The New Yorker, Soufan, who is Lebanese American, was one of only eight Arabic speakers in the bureau in 2000. He became one of its most sophisticated interrogators and experts on Islamic fundamentalism and al-Qaeda, extracting multiple confessions from terror suspects, including those of Osama bin Laden’s driver Salim Hamdan and the al-Qaeda propagandist Ali al-Bahlul. “Soufan’s language skills, his relentlessness, and his roots in the Middle East made him invaluable in helping the F.B.I. understand Al Qaeda,” Wright wrote.
In 2009, four years after resigning from the bureau, Soufan testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during hearings on torture as the Obama administration and the Democrats sought to confront the abuses of the Bush years. Soufan testified that he’d managed to successfully interrogate the senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah without resorting to practices like waterboarding. “[It] is a mistake to use what has become known as the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ a position shared by many professional operatives, including the CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation. ... These techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda,” Soufan testified. In 2014, the Senate released the executive summary of its 6,700 page report on the torture program, detailing specific practices and previously unknown information about detainees.
I spoke to Soufan recently about torture and counterterrorism in the age of Trump. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Siddhartha Mahanta: You’ve referred to [Trump’s proposals] as something of a war crimes platform. Trump’s also keen on keeping [the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay] open. What was the rationale offered, during the Bush years, for using so-called enhanced interrogation methods? How did you reach the conclusion that they don't work? And how did you and other agents grapple with the moral questions here—if torture is morally wrong, as well as illegal under international law, does it matter whether it works?
Ali Soufan: There were lots of investigations into the efficacy of EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques]. There were investigations done by the FBI, by the [Department of Justice], by the CIA’s own inspector general, and there was a congressional investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that started as a bipartisan investigation and later became only a Democratic investigation. ... And there was one [common] thing among all these investigations: that these techniques did not work, and these techniques hurt the national security of the United States. That’s not me saying [it], this is the CIA’s own IG that’s saying that. This is the DOJ’s conclusion, this is the Senate’s conclusion.
There is rhetoric and there is reality. This is one of these things that, in reality, what we did hurt national security. ... Our military leaders in Iraq told us, again and again, that many of the foreign fighters that were coming to join the insurgency and attack our troops in Iraq were motivated by the images they saw [depicting detainee abuse in the Iraqi prison] Abu Ghraib, so this is an issue that has been investigated a lot. And unfortunately, it became about [the] rhetoric ... about bravado. But in reality, when we deal with national security, we deal [with] outcomes and conclusions. And as a person who was there, as a person who witnessed firsthand some of these techniques ... I can tell you that these techniques were harmful to our national security and harmful to our strategy. I hope that the new administration will move away from the rhetoric—the rhetoric of campaigning—and start dealing with the reality of governing.
Mahanta: Given the conclusions you and other agents reached during that era, how are agents that you're in touch with currently reacting to the possibility those policies might come back?
Soufan: Well, [this applies] not only to FBI agents, but also CIA. You have a former CIA director [Michael Hayden] who ... said that if President Trump wants to do this, he should bring his own buckets with him, the agency is not going to do that. So it’s not only the FBI, it’s not an FBI vs. CIA thing. It’s basically a conclusion that everybody agreed upon. Now we want to turn the page and move ahead. We don’t want to look at the past.
Mahanta: If torture becomes policy again, based on what you’ve seen, what does that mean for ISIS and al-Qaeda recruitment?
Soufan: Military leaders in Iraq, and the intelligence community in Iraq, told us that many of the people who joined the insurgency were motivated by images of Abu Ghraib. If you look at terrorists that attacked, for example, in France, the one on Charlie Hebdo, [one of the two brothers involved, Cherif Kouachi], was arrested before. And if you look at the court documents, it clearly indicates that he became an extremist because of the images of Abu Ghraib, because of torture. So torture played a significant role in recruitment for groups like al-Qaeda and groups that later became known as ISIS. We have to keep that in mind. We have to do something not because it feels good; we have to do something because it has a good outcome. Torture definitely does not have a good outcome.
Mahanta: On the subject of the Paris attacks and the other attacks throughout Europe: Perhaps the bigger problem than recruits actually making their way to Iraq and Syria, is lone-wolf terror attacks. [Separately,] cells that form in different European cities ... are still clearly making an impact. You’ve discussed this problem both in the United States and in Europe. Do you think we’ve gotten a handle on how to stop these guys from consolidating terror cells?
Soufan: You have to differentiate between Europe and the United States. The dynamics are very different. In Europe, you have communities that feel they are totally not integrated and neglected. In the United States we don’t have that. In Europe ... you have community-based recruitment, you have people deciding to join these groups together, or join the war efforts in Iraq and Syria, and brothers, family members, sometimes friends from the neighborhood, they all go together. We don’t have that in the United States. If you look at the foreign fighters, we have about 250 who traveled or attempted to travel from the United States to the conflict zone of Iraq and Syria. From western Europe, we have about 5,000 who did that.
We have to keep in mind that the Muslim American communities—because it’s very diverse as you know—are the wealthiest Muslims in the world. They are the most diverse Muslim community in the world, they are the second-most educated [group] in the United States, after the Jewish American community. So Muslims in America are well-integrated, and we see every now and then an attack here, an attack there. Those individuals have some identity issues; we don’t have the level [of problems] they have in Molenbeek, Belgium for example, or St. Genies in France, or in other places in Western Europe.
However, any successful strategy in combating international terrorism domestically, especially here in the United States, will heavily depend on bridging the differences and the sense of separation between the U.S. government and these specific [Muslim American] communities. I’m not a fan of the term CVE[countering violent extremism], per se, but the idea is to build bridges of trust with different communities, such as the Muslim communities—we need their support, especially in developing a warning system for people who are falling into the dangerous path of radicalization. Community partnerships have been instrumental and have been quite effective.
The Trump campaign heavily promoted the false claim that Muslim Americans know about terrorists in their own communities, and they don’t say anything. That’s not only not true, but it destroys any future cooperation, and it feeds directly to rhetoric of radical terrorist groups—that the United States and the West are at war with Islam, at war with Muslims everywhere. There is a need to have a concerted and sustained effort to regain lost trust and ease the anxiety being felt by different communities in the United States, especially the American Muslim community. This is extremely important.
Mahanta: On a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio, on August 15, Donald Trump talked about one part of his plan for ISIS: so-called “extreme vetting” of those seeking to come to the United States, or temporarily banning Muslims from perceived problem spots like Syria, from which he falsely claimed that Barack Obama had let in tens of thousands [of people]. It entailed an ideological screening process to assess those who don’t “share our values and respect our people.” In his speech, there was also a specific line about only allowing “those who we expect to flourish in our country—and to embrace a tolerant American society” to receive visas. Along with that, there’s his [call for a] temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States [which briefly disappeared from his website on Thursday, only to reappear later], and a bar on those with “hostile attitudes.” Is there a precedent for something like “extreme vetting”? How exactly might something like this work on a practical level? And how, more generally, do you assess the idea as policy?
Soufan: Let me talk about visa applicants. You have visa applicants from non-waiver countries. Non-waiver countries mean countries where their citizens are required to obtain a visas to come to the United States. We have waiver countries like [the] U.K., [countries in] Europe—[their] people don’t need visas. But, you know, the great majority of countries around the world, they need visas [to come to the United States]. Visa applicants from those countries, non-waiver countries, they already face intense scrutiny. And refugees, believe it or not, they even face more scrutiny. It takes almost two years for someone to be granted refugee status. That’s if we know everything about them. So intelligence and security agencies, they work with liaison partners to vet the backgrounds, to vet the histories of both refugees and visa applicants.
The campaign rhetoric that tens of thousands of people, that you just mentioned, are flooding [into] the country without vetting, is false and is insulting to the countless professions across the government that work on these issues. As with many of the campaign issues, the “extreme vetting” idea is vague and without much meaning until it’s more narrowly defined. What does it mean to say someone, for example, [is] from a “conflict area”? … Or a place that has terrorism—what does that mean? Shall all of Europe be placed on extreme vetting lists since all [those countries] struggle with terrorism? As reality replaces rhetoric, the issues will be clearer in terms of goals and in terms of implementation. … [The Trump administration’s] success is our success, and their failure is our failure now. This is our government.
Mahanta: Trump also suggested that America’s allies abroad and in the Middle East need to share this approach, to the extent that he’s discussed what he wants to do. But it makes me think about all the counterterrorism relationships we’ve had with countries over the years, from Germany, to Asia, to Israel, to the Jordanians, to Egypt, where [President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi seems excited about Trump. You’re seeing a warm hand being extended by [Turkish President Tayyip]Erdogan right now, for example, another key partner both in counterterrorism and in the war on ISIS. First, how did these relationships evolve during the Bush years and through the Obama years? How, in your years with the FBI, did those relationships actually make your job easier, and make you more effective? And what’s their future now?
Soufan: The U.S. strategy against terrorist groups, especially groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, over the years, [has] specifically focused on enhancing the long-standing intelligence and military liaison and law-enforcement relationships with countries such as Jordan, or the countries that you’ve mentioned. Liaison relationships need to be tended to as one would manage any friendship or partnership, and trust is a huge issue in these relationships. And any divisive or demeaning statements from a U.S. administration makes that liaison effort much more difficult. ... We’ve seen that under the Obama administration and under the Bush administration.
In the best of times, [counterterrorism, or CT] liaison work is incredibly difficult and depends on personalities and honesty and trust. If the rhetoric from the campaign finds its way into the administration and finds its way into the intelligence community and the law-enforcement community, effective CT liaison efforts will be, at the least, challenging with some countries around the world, especially countries that we need the most, such as Muslim nations. So if the United States moves towards a closer relationship with Russia—just giving you an example here—it would quite negatively impact the relationship with other countries and other groups that we consider allies. The fight in Syria is just one issue, in which the United States is focused on CT while Russia is focused on keeping the Assad regime in power and expanding Russian influence in the region. There might be some benefits to the overall U.S. CT strategy, where we have a closer relationship with Russia, right? Something positive might come out of that. The new administration has to assure that such benefits do not outweigh the costs in other areas.
I think most of the concerns about the impact of a Trump administration on counterterrorism and on foreign policy stem from the vague proposals and unprecedented rhetoric of this long and very divisive campaign. A fair amount of worry stems from the sheer volume of what isn’t known. President-elect Trump, remember, he has never legislated or held any office at any level. And therefore he has no past performance with which to balance his sharp and often changing view. In business, he appears to be a pragmatic person. We need a wait and see approach before making any assessments.
But you know, a silver lining here—there could be very well positive developments with a Trump-led CT strategy. A turning the page, and starting with a fresh approach, as long as it is a better approach on Syria, on Yemen, on Libya, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on the Middle East in general, [which] might lead to a better security environment. So what is unknown isn’t necessarily negative, even if the potential for change is disconcerting.
Mahanta: What, more broadly, do we know about how Trump's counter-ISIS plans differ from Obama's? We're already “[bombing] the shit out of ISIS” as he has asked for. We're not, however, taking the oil, banning Muslims, or intentionally taking out their families. How do you expect the counter-ISIS campaign to change under Trump?
Soufan: Well it’s yet to be seen. There are no specifics for his policy and some of the things that were said, I hope it was just campaign rhetoric, because in reality I don’t think the military will obey a President Trump by killing the families of terrorists. This is a war crime. And I don’t think he will give that order, frankly, so I think it’s yet to be seen what his policy will be.
But it seems when it comes to ISIS, he has this idea about closer cooperation with Russia. And that’s fine and dandy, and I think that might probably be positive [for] targeting ISIS and targeting al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq. But at the same time, Russia has different plans that go beyond ISIS, beyond al-Qaeda. So maybe we agree with them on one element but we disagree on many other elements.
Mahanta: You had also talked about this idea of the way that collaboration between intelligence agencies from different countries works on a practical level. How easy is it to shut out the political rhetoric that seems to suggest that [agents’] professional lives could be upended or changed dramatically over the next four years?
Soufan: We shouldn't take anything for granted. Things will change. I’ll give you an example. If we started working with the Russians in targeting the Syrian opposition … as you know the Russians are focusing not only on ISIS, or on al-Qaeda, but a lot of other groups. Some of them are supported by the U.S. government. Others are directly supported by our allies who see the conflict in Syria as a regional conflict; one that has to do with Iran’s [influence] expanding in the region, or along the sectarian Shia-Sunni lines, or along ethnic fault lines: Kurds, Turkic, Arabs, etc. So our coordination with the Russians in Syria might anger some of our traditional allies in the Gulf. So in this case, will they continue to provide the necessary intelligence or will that hinder the relationships? There are lots of unknowns here.
Generally, I think the intelligence relationships are strong. And I think a lot of these professional people will continue to work with each other. But at least, it’s going to be challenging if some countries in the region feel they are being betrayed by the United States. Frankly there is a sense of anxiety not only in the Middle East, but also in Asia with Japan and South Korea, in Europe, with our NATO allies, in Ukraine and few other places. Again, we have to wait and see.
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