The Terrorism That Torture Didn’t Stop


Originally published at the Nation by Katherine Hawkins on 11/7/13

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.

Image of Torture and the War on Terror
Torture and the War on Terror by Mike Licht @

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.

Ali Soufan, former FBI Agent
Ali Soufan

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.”

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