On March 19, 2005, the Doha Players theater in Qatar was blown up by a suicide bomber. A British citizen was killed, and fifteen people were injured. The operation was possibly conducted by the same cell we were warned about by one of the Yemenis arrested with Binalshibh and [1 word redacted]. A few hours after the attack, al-Jazeera’s website posted a picture of the bomber: someone we had been searching for since the East African embassy bombings. Two days before the bombing, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia had released a recording hinting at an attack. One of the leaders of the Saudi al-Qaeda cell at the time was [12 words redacted].
I walked into Pat D’Amuro’s office and showed him the picture of the bomber and asked, “What the hell are we doing here?” It was a rhetorical question. Pat was aware of all these issues, and he was as angry as I was. He had already announced that he was leaving the FBI and heading to a private consulting firm, headed by the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. I added, “Aren’t you glad you’re leaving? I wish I could leave, too, but I’ve got too many years left.” To retire from the FBI, you need at least twenty years of service and to be age fifty or over. I had been in the FBI less than ten years.
“Why don’t you come with me?” Pat asked. I thought he was joking, but then he kept asking, and after a series of discussions over several weeks, I accepted. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life, but I realized that either I’d have a heart attack by the time I was forty or I’d have to leave.
It wasn’t only that we weren’t involved in investigations abroad; it was also clear that some high-level people at the CIA at the time were specifically targeting me—I was told that by more than a few FBI executives and CIA colleagues. Ever since I had been interviewed by the 9/11 Commission, I was a marked man. It didn’t help that I had objected to what later became known as enhanced interrogation techniques.
In a number of instances, the FBI wanted to send me abroad for an investigation, and the CIA tried to bar me from traveling. Pat responded to FBI headquarters, which had delivered the CIA request: “Since when does the FBI let others decide who we send on missions?” The director of the FBI agreed, and I went on the missions.
In June 2003 I assisted in the investigation of a case in the United States where a suspect was in contact with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. I questioned the suspect with another FBI agent, Bob Herrmann. The suspect had a lawyer with him, and when we asked a question, he’d reply: “Don’t speak to me. Speak to my lawyer.”
I ignored him and told him why he was important to our investigation, why he should talk, and that his answers could save lives. He responded to that speech by repeating, “Talk to my lawyer.” To my surprise, the lawyer turned to his client and said: “Now, listen to me. Agent Soufan is saying very important things, and you had better listen to him, because cooperating is in your interest.” We got the information we needed.
Bob and I were nominated for the internal “intelligence award” after that operation ended successfully. When you’re nominated for the award by the FBI director, it’s usually a formality for the director of Central Intelligence to sign it, but apparently it never left the DCI’s desk.
“Before I leave,” I told Pat, as I accepted his offer, “I first have to finish the undercover operation that I’m running.” Some Americans were trying to join al-Qaeda, and, posing as Osama bin Laden’s personal representative in North America, I had infiltrated their group.
On the day I announced my resignation, David Johnston, a reporter from the New York Times, told me that a few days earlier he had talked to the director of the FBI during a gala in New York and asked him: “Where do you see the future of the FBI?” The director had pointed at me and said, “That is the future of the FBI.”
I was touched by his kind words, more valuable to me than any award. I told Johnston with a smile: “Then you only have yourself to blame. If you had told me that two days ago, maybe I would have stayed.”
March 4, 2004. “Do you have any questions?” I asked Tarik Shah, a martial arts expert and musician from the Bronx. Shah was under the impression that I was a personal representative of Osama bin Laden. He had been telling me of his desire to join al-Qaeda and kill infidels, and while outlining his credentials he had boasted that he was a master of hand-to-hand combat and knew how to rip someone’s throat out.
“I’m talking about damage to the inside, so they would drown on their own blood.”
“I can’t make a decision on whether to accept you and your friend into al-Qaeda now,” I told him. “I need to confer with my al-Qaeda superiors first. In the meantime, you should continue your training, and I will be in touch.”
“Shukran,” he said: thank you. I guessed he felt that speaking Arabic would demonstrate his commitment to the cause.
The fact that I was doing the undercover mission was strange: Shah’s case belonged to a different squad, and I was a supervisory special agent—which meant that I was running my own squad and had my own agents to oversee. But the squad handling Shah had asked me to help. They didn’t have anyone else available who knew enough about al-Qaeda or had sufficient training to fool Shah.
I spent weeks preparing for the mission, reviewing the case information, refreshing my knowledge of al-Qaeda and its recruitment process, and practicing what I would say in different scenarios. I started by researching everything known about Shah: his thoughts, ideas, and motivations. Next I determined where he fit into the operation, and then I worked on developing my cover story, down to the smallest details: I would need to answer with confidence and show no hesitation.
Undercover operations don’t allow room for mistakes. If the wannabe terrorists find out who you really are, odds are they’ll kill you. Not only are you a representative of the Western oppressor that they’ve been professing a desire to kill, but you’re now the obstacle between them and their jihad. If you’re lucky, you’ll escape alive, but the operation will have failed, and the chance to catch them incriminating themselves will be lost.
In December 2003 Shah had been arrested by the City of Yonkers police for petty larceny, and during a search of his vehicle the police found phone numbers belonging to Seifullah Chapman—a member of an extremist group in northern Virginia, the Virginia Jihad Network, who was convicted in March 2004 of providing material support to a Pakistani terrorist group—and a second individual, who was known to have trained in foreign terrorist camps. Shah had also made inquiries in mosques and religious stores in New York about joining al-Qaeda—and those questions eventually reached us as well.
On December 16, 2003, we sent an informant whom I will call Saeed (a former convict and Black Panther) to befriend Shah under the guise of seeking bass lessons. Saeed succeeded, and as their friendship grew, Shah enlisted Saeed’s help in finding a location for a martial arts studio where he could “teach the brothers… knives and stars and stuff like that” so that they could carry out terrorist activities. Shah also told Saeed of a network he had of others who also wanted to help al-Qaeda.
In January 2004 Saeed told Shah that he had “important news”: he was in contact with an al-Qaeda recruiter from the Middle East who was interested in someone who could train a small group of fighters in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. The brother’s name was Ali, he was originally from Canada, and he was in fact bin Laden’s personal representative in North America.
Shah said that he was interested and added that he had a close associate, Rafiq Sabir (also known as “the Doctor”), a Columbia University–trained emergency room doctor, living in Boca Raton, Florida, who would be interested in participating as well. He told Saeed to present himself and Sabir to Ali as a “package”—between the two of them, they could provide al-Qaeda with both martial arts services and medical services.