Former FBI Agent Addresses Post-Sept. 11 Torture In Newly Declassified Book
Ali Soufan investigated terrorism cases and opposed the CIA's use of torture following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. After a legal battle, the redacted material in his 2011 memoir, Black Banners, has been restored.
Other segments from the episode on September 8, 2020
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. In the 2012 film "Zero Dark Thirty" about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there's a scene where a suspected terrorist is being waterboarded by an American interrogator who's demanding information.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")
JASON CLARKE: (As Dan) Where was the last time you saw bin Laden? Where was the last time you saw bin Laden? You know, when you lie to me, I hurt you. It's cool that you're strong. I respect it. I do. But in the end, everybody breaks, bro. It's biology.
DAVIES: There's a widespread belief that harsh so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like sleep deprivation and waterboarding - however distasteful - yielded valuable information in the battle against terrorism. Our guest, former FBI agent Ali Soufan, says the record of investigations into terrorist networks shows exactly the opposite is true. Soufan, born in Lebanon and fluent in Arabic, has interrogated dozens of al-Qaida members and other extremists. He says interrogations based on careful preparation and building rapport generated useful information and actionable intelligence from detainees while torture usually induced subjects to clam up or give bad information to make the torment stop. Soufan published a book about his experiences in 2011 after vetting it with the FBI, but the CIA succeeded in redacting large portions of it. Now after a legal battle, the redactions have been restored and the book, "Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11," is available. Ali Soufan served in the FBI from 1997 to 2005. He's also the author of the 2017 book "The Anatomy Of Terror." He now heads The Soufan Group, a private intelligence and security consulting firm. He spoke to me from his home in northern New Jersey.
Ali Soufan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, we heard at the end of that clip from "Zero Dark Thirty" the interrogator saying, you know, in the end, everybody breaks. You know, it's biology. And, you know, we've seen this in TV and movies for years. You know, cops slap around suspects, you know, criminals, beat information out of informants. There's a general feeling that, yeah, pain makes people tell the truth. Before you got into the FBI, did you think that was true, too?
ALI SOUFAN: Well, this is a Hollywood version of reality. I can tell you and what I talk about in this book is the reality itself. So, look, torture gives you compliance. I don't want compliance. I want cooperation. I don't want people to tell me what I want to hear. I don't want people to lie to me. I want them to tell me the truth. You don't get that in torture. You get it in building rapport and traditional interrogation techniques that outsmart the detainee into cooperation. There's a big difference between cooperation and compliance.
DAVIES: When you wrote your memoir in 2011, you took it to the FBI. They made some changes, but, you know, you met your requirements, and they were comfortable with it. As a courtesy, it was shown to the CIA, and they redacted a lot of stuff. But in general, what kinds of things were removed?
SOUFAN: They redacted anything that contradicts with the narrative that torture work. They redacted anything that shows that information that people claim it was a result of torture and waterboarding. We got it based on traditional interrogation techniques. All these things were redacted.
DAVIES: And some of those things were facts that were in the 9/11 Commission, right? I mean, it wasn't like this was high-level security material.
SOUFAN: Yeah. Some of them were fact in the 9/11 Commission. But it's extremely revealing also to see what kind of things they focused on. Like, for example, let's say they applied sleep deprivation and then you see that person did not give up a shred of information. That is redacted. The fact that I said he didn't get a shred of information or no intelligence was gained after they applied this method on him, that has been redacted. So everything that showed that torture did not work was redacted and everything that shows that traditional interrogation techniques by FBI and CIA officers on the ground produced actionable intelligence and good results, that was also redacted.
DAVIES: You tell a story early in the book of interviewing an al-Qaida member named Abu Jandal, who was, I guess, a personal bodyguard of bin Laden. He's defiant. He didn't want to talk to you. He says you'll never defeat the mujahedeen. And he quotes from the hadith, which is a Muslim religious text, and you interrupt him. This is an interesting moment. You want to describe what happens there?
SOUFAN: Well, you know, Abu Jandal basically believe in this myth that the black banners - it's a hadith - hadith is a saying of Prophet Muhammad - that the black banners or in the end of times, they'll come out of Khorasan, which they believe it's in Afghanistan, the area of Afghanistan. And they will be victorious and they'll liberate Jerusalem. And when he was mentioning that hadith, I interrupted him, and I finished the hadith for him, that they will liberate Jerusalem.
DAVIES: You knew the line by heart, which startled him (laughter).
SOUFAN: I knew the line by heart, yeah. They erect their flags at Bayt al-Maqdis (ph) which is Jerusalem. And you know - and I gave him the history of the hadith, that not every saying of the prophet is accurate. There are people who study the hadith, and there are people who basically, you know, tell you if this is an accurate real hadith or not. There are more hadith, you know, by the prophet than if he talked day and night for 40 years. There is literally thousands upon thousands of hadith. So he was really shocked that an American FBI agent can go down to the nitty-gritty about a hadith that he believe ushers Armageddon and ushers the victory of, you know, the Muslim armies as bin Laden sees it.
DAVIES: Right. And so that was the basis of a long conversation that ended up in him eventually yielding a lot of information. You write that you often knew a lot more about the Quran than the al-Qaida members that you interrogated. And, of course, you were fluent in Arabic, which made a big difference. You didn't have to wait for translation. And, you know, it's also clear as you described these interrogations that understanding social traditions, you know, the need to acknowledge kindness, to welcome a guest, things like that, made a difference. And one thing that caught my eye was there are many cases where you said that al-Qaida subjects hated to be caught lying, even about something trivial. They would tell a story. And then because you were well-prepared, you would said, no, that's not what happened. What struck me about your description of those interrogations was that you would say that the subject would be embarrassed when you would catch them lying.
SOUFAN: Yeah. I mean...
DAVIES: You know, you'd yeah, well, no, that's not right. Do it again. No, that's not right. And then you ask something that you actually don't know the answer to. But now they don't want to embarrass themselves again. It's really remarkable to me that embarrassment would be - or avoiding embarrassment would be a motivator when this is really high-stakes information they're talking about.
SOUFAN: Yeah. I mean, look, it's - first of all, it's a cultural issue. Second, they claim that they are religious, pious, and lying is forbidden. And when you catch them with that, you're just showing them that they are hypocrites. So that helps. But you cannot just bluff yourself out of interrogation if you don't have knowledge, if you don't have the facts on your side. And I tell them - as you've probably seen with the Abu Jandal story in the book, I tell them, look, there's a lot of things I know. There is a lot of things I don't know. There are some stuff I am not sure about. But I'm not going to tell you what I know, what I'm not sure about and what I don't know because that's how I know if you're saying the truth or not. And I think I said that too many of the, you know, suspected terrorists that I interrogated over the years.
DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Ali Soufan spent 18 years as an FBI agent. His book is "The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and my guest is Ali Soufan. He was an FBI agent from 1997 to 2005, where he investigated al-Qaida and many jihadist terrorist networks. His 2011 memoir has now been updated with the heavy redactions that were imposed by the CIA restored. It's called "The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11."
One of the more high-value subjects that you interviewed was Abu Zubaydah. And he was captured, I guess, about a year after the 9/11 attacks - right? - in a shootout in which he was quite seriously injured. And you and another interrogator had to talk to him, and he was near death. What was it like trying to talk to him when he (laughter) was so ser (ph) - he'd been shot. You took him to the hospital at one point. It wasn't clear he was going to survive.
SOUFAN: I looked at Abu Zubaydah. He was, you know, at a gurney. And I said to him, what's your name? And he responded Dawud, meaning David in Arabic. I said, what if I call you honey? And he has this big shock on his face. You know? And he shook his head. OK. Later, the CIA and FBI colleagues who were with me said, what did you tell him? Because the conversation was in Arabic. So I told them what happened. And they said so why did the name scare him? I said because that is the name his mother used to call him as a child. So he kind of knew that we know everything about him.
So immediately, at this moment that he just finished a surgery and brought to the location where we were, I basically, you know, ask him - so why do you think we finally caught you? I know he's very smart. I know that he was trying to analyze the situation, what kind of mistakes happened in his own security that led him to be captured. And I said, any phone calls you did later on, any plot you're working on? And he basically thought that we already knew about a plot that he was working on in a third country, allied country. And he gave us information regarding that plot thinking that probably, you know, we disrupted it through communication, surveillance or something like this.
So we rode that. It went to the White House and Langley. I think the DCI at the time, George Tenet, from what we were told, was very happy with the information, how fast the information was coming. And later on that evening, a few hours later, Abu Zubaydah became septic, so we had to basically get permission to take him to a hospital and give him good medical treatment. And I recall the answer came from Langley at the time that death is not an option. He is cooperating; he's giving you information; we need to keep him, you know, healthy. So that's what we did. We took him to a hospital.
The interviews basically stopped a little bit while he, you know, was in medical treatment. And then later on, he continued to cooperate with us. He continued to give us very good actionable intelligence of disrupted plots. And actually, during that time period, he identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11.
DAVIES: It was remarkable information to get from a guy who was seriously injured. There was a point where, if I read this right, you actually had to clean him up when he had soiled himself. I mean, it was a pretty crude set of circumstances you were in, right?
SOUFAN: Yeah. This is before we took him to the hospital. So we really took care of him. And that actually, you know, helped us create a bond in a way - you know, if you want to call it a bond. So, for example, you know, the way we identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has nothing to do with torture, has nothing to do with waterboarding. What happened is he was telling me about a plot against one of our bases. And the person who was in charge of this plot is now the No. 2 guy in al-Qaida. And I wanted to show him his photo to just be sure that this is individual, and the plot was disrupted. So I - my colleague had - do you recall those PalmPilots, the old, you know, devices?
SOUFAN: So we didn't have a photo book with us, but we downloaded a poster of the (unintelligible) - put by the FBI of all the, you know, jihadi terrorists. And that guy was wanted for the East Africa Embassy bombings. So I showed him the photo and I said, is this the guy? And basically, Abu Zubaydah said no. And I was really angry. I said, look; you know, after everything we did for you, after cleaning you up, after - and you still lie to us. You think I don't know this guy? Abu Zubaydah was very frustrated. And he said to me - he said, hey, brother, don't play these games with me. You know this is Mokhtar. This is the guy who did 9/11. And I looked at the photo, and it was the photo of KSM. At the time, we had no idea that KSM was a member of al-Qaida (Laughter). And definitely, we didn't know he was the mastermind of 9/11.
DAVIES: So you managed to get this really valuable information from him through building rapport. And you tell a story here about what happened when the CIA got the memoranda that you submitted about all this information and they said, great, congratulate our CIA agents on what a great job they've done. Then they realized that it wasn't their people. It was you two FBI agents. What happened then with the interrogation?
SOUFAN: Well, when that happened, they basically - what I was told that Director Tenet was basically hitting the table and saying, why CTC is not there? I want them to be there.
DAVIES: CTC is his people, the Counterterrorism Center, right?
SOUFAN: The Counterterrorism Center. And they came maybe I think almost 10 days after we get Abu Zubaydah, and they had a different plan. They had a contractor with them. The contractor's, you know, idea of interrogation is very different than what we were doing. His idea is to have one person deal with Abu Zubaydah. That person has - Abu Zubaydah has to see that person as his own god. So he basically determined if he live or die, if he's comfortable or not. And we were, you know, shocked with all the things. It was like that never happened before. We know what's going on. Are you familiar with Islamic extremists? Are you familiar with al-Qaida? He said, I don't have to be familiar with any of these things. I'm familiar with the human nature. So we had to give Abu Zubaydah to the person who was going to - supposed to be his god. And we basically - we were told that we would never see Abu Zubaydah again. A couple of days later, they had to bring us back in because all the information have been stopped and people in the U.S. government were asking what happened? What - why all of a sudden no information is being transmitted? So they brought us back in.
DAVIES: Well, that's because they had, in fact, begun sleep deprivation and forced nudity things, right? And he refused to cooperate anymore.
SOUFAN: And he refused to cooperate. He was confused about what's going on because what happened is they come in and they say tell me what I want to know. And he said, what do you want to know? And then the person walk out of the room. So it's kind of like this is not how interrogations work. That was some sort of experimentation that actually stopped the flow of information. And these facts that he didn't cooperate and they had to bring us back was redacted and actually by redacting it they unintentionally helped the truth because you don't redact lies on national security grounds. What you redact is facts. And now the people can read the facts about the alleged efficacy of torture, of enhanced interrogation techniques and how we actually get information that President Bush, Cheney and a lot of other people claimed we get because of EITs.
DAVIES: Right. And we should say that Abu Zubaydah eventually was taken to a different location and was waterboarded. How many times?
SOUFAN: Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, and with the 83 times, they did not get any information from him that we didn't get earlier. Actually, they get some lies. For example, he admitted that he is No. 3 in al-Qaida even though we knew from day one that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of al-Qaida. He worked closely with al-Qaida. He worked with Osama bin Laden, but he's not a No. 3 of the organization. He's not even a member of the organization. So they get stuff from him that they wanted to hear, but these things were not facts. And that is a dangerous element of torture.
DAVIES: Right. Now, so you got this valuable information by building rapport with him. The torture got bad information and no information. But when this was described in internal memoranda and eventually by government officials - right? - when they talked about enhanced interrogation, what was the story they told?
SOUFAN: The story was we had to do enhanced interrogation techniques and waterboarding because Abu Zubaydah stopped cooperating. And that is not true. Abu Zubaydah was cooperating when they implemented all these things. And today with "The Black Banners (Declassified)," you can see all the stories. You can see, for example, how the plot of Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber, was disrupted or the apartment buildings across the U.S., that plot was disrupted, or the Brooklyn Bridge so-called plot or the WMD program for al-Qaida. You can see all these kind of things and how we were able to get them and how we were able to disrupt them. And let me tell you, all these things happened month and month before enhanced interrogation techniques started, before waterboarding started. Waterboarding did not start until the end of July, officially early August of 2002. Padilla was already in custody by May. So how can you claim that Padilla was arrested and was stopped because of waterboarding if we did not even have waterboarding?
DAVIES: I'm going to reintroduce you again. Ali Soufan served in the FBI from 1997 to 2005. His book is "The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11." He'll be back after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who worked on numerous investigations of terrorist networks before and after the 9/11 attacks. His book argues that harsh so-called enhanced interrogation techniques implemented by the CIA failed to get valuable information from suspected terrorists, while he and others got valuable information with an approach based on careful preparation and building rapport with detainees. His 2011 book, which was originally published with heavy redactions by the CIA, has been reissued with the redactions restored. It's called "The Black Banners: How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11."
I'm interested in your feelings about some of these detainees that you have spoken to because you clearly got to know many of them well. You knew their stories. You built rapport. You made connections. I'm just wondering what - the feelings that you felt. It must have been conflicted because you're seeing these people who, in many cases, were young people who may be not that sophisticated, had gotten lured into committing themselves to an extremist ideology. And, you know, I could imagine feeling some sympathy. On the other hand, I mean, these are people who supported and, in some cases, participated in acts of just incredible savagery - you know, killing hundreds of innocent people. How did you reconcile those feelings?
SOUFAN: You know what? I think you have to check your emotions at the door when you're dealing with these kind of things. I never doubted in a second that most of these people that I interrogated, if the situation was different, they would behead me. They would kill me. Actually, Abu Zubaydah told me that. I said, now we build a rapport. We're friends. We're talking to each other. What happens if you catch us? He said, I'll behead you - immediately. He didn't even question it. You know, I don't have sympathy for these terrorists. They - as you mentioned, they killed. Some of them were responsible for the death of hundreds, if not thousands of people when it comes to 9/11.
But I oppose torture because it does not work. I oppose torture because it shows that it did not help to make us safe. It actually helped our enemies, and it helps al-Qaida to recruit. You know, images of Abu Ghraib was very important in creating what we've seen in Iraq later on. And I think transparency is extremely important because I believe democracy depends on lively exchange of opinion. But we need to have a mutual understanding of truth.
And what we're witnessing today, this fact-free culture has, you know, merely taking its own logical conclusion today. The truth has been swapped for many years by conspiracy theories, by emotions, by partisan talking points, by alternative facts. And because of that, today opinions enjoys the same status as reality, as the truth. And no wonder why our enemies find it easy to divide us with this information campaigns because, you know, our government, people in our government, started dividing us with this way before the Russians or the Chinese or the Iranians or whoever, you know, is doing it today.
DAVIES: You talk in the book about how, in one case, you'd interviewed this al-Qaida member Karim, and he had revealed an ongoing plot to attack an oil tanker. That information was not acted upon, and in fact, the plot was carried out. There's another case in the book that you describe that was troubling, and this was while - this was before 9/11, while you were investigating the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. And you were looking into some information about a key al-Qaida operative named Khallad, right?
DAVIES: Khallad. OK. And there was information that he had had meetings or contacts in Malaysia. And you and your other agents had asked the CIA for information about a phone number that he had used there frequently. There was also a question of some photographs of some people. And, well, you want to just explain what happened and the significance of what didn't happen?
SOUFAN: One of the terrorists that was involved in the USS Cole told me that he delivered $36,000 to Khallad in Southeast Asia. And we kind of were concerned that - why money coming out of Yemen, which is a poor country, to an affluent country in Southeast Asia? And so we start looking into this. And we asked the intelligence community, we ask other entities in our government, do you know about a meeting that took place over there? We were able to track four numbers. We were able to track the locations where they met. We were able to put them all in a hotel in Bangkok called the Washington Hotel out of all names.
And, basically, they said, now there is nothing going on, and we don't know anything about this. And later on, on 9/11, I was handed a folder, and in that folder, it had all the questions that I was asking for since November of 2000, at the time when that person, the terrorist, gave me the information about the meeting. And later on, we know that that meeting was an operational meeting to plan 9/11, and the people who attended or were in the country with that guy, Khallad, were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. And the money, the $36,000, were most probably used, we believe, to purchase their first-class tickets from Bangkok to LAX. That information came out...
DAVIES: The two people you mentioned were both 9/11 hijackers, right?
SOUFAN: Yes, correct.
SOUFAN: Yeah. And this information now has been, you know, reported earlier with the 9/11 Commission, and one of the findings of the 9/11 Commission is that if this information, you know, were given to the team investigating the USS Cole, which is my team, there was a possibility maybe that 9/11 could have been, you know, interrupted at its early stages. But, yeah, this is about the information-sharing debacle that 9/11 - the 9/11 Commission detailed in the report, and also it is described in details in the CIA inspector general report - that's still mostly classified, but the summary is out - that the information was not shared on daily - on a timely basis with the FBI or other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
DAVIES: You know, you cite a lot of cases in which you got actionable information or got a good start on getting actionable information from a lot of detainees who were then taken off to, you know, foreign black sites and subjected to coercive techniques, and the flow of information stopped. I mean, I don't know how you would know this for sure, but do you believe the U.S. would have tracked down Osama bin Laden sooner if the CIA hadn't engaged in this activity and had instead paid more attention to the kind of techniques you were using?
SOUFAN: I don't want to assume things. This is - this will be assumptions, but I know that the reason I wrote "The Black Banner" is because I want us to learn from our mistakes, and I want us to have a strategy and a policy that differentiate between acting out of fear and acting out of knowledge. And, definitely, we did not act out of knowledge. Many times we didn't act out of knowledge. We only acted out of fear in the aftermath of 9/11.
And that's why 40 members of al-Qaida on the eve of 9/11 were able to survive the wrath of the greatest country and the most powerful country on Earth, and now they have about 40,000 members who pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden spread all the way from the western shores of Africa to Southeast Asia, not to mention their operations in Syria and Libya and Yemen and Somalia and so forth. So they are not in Kandahar anymore. They are not in Pakistan anymore. They're not in - you know, in the places where they operated at. They are everywhere, and they control lands, large swath of lands.
DAVIES: This includes ISIS that you're talking about - right? - not just al-Qaida, the organization?
SOUFAN: Well, no, I'm just talking - the 40,000 is only al-Qaida members. So I'm not even mentioning ISIS, that came out of al-Qaida. So that gives you an idea about, you know, the difference between acting out of fear and acting out of strategy.
DAVIES: You have been out of this for, I guess, about 15 years now, and yet recently you discovered that there were threats on your life. What can you tell us about this?
SOUFAN: Well, this is still ongoing, but the U.S. government informed me that al-Qaida is, you know, planning to basically take me out. After all these years, I think they are still upset about my work and what I continue to do. I think I trust our intelligence community. I trust the FBI and the CIA and all the other folks who are working on this. And I hope that this plot will foil as well.
DAVIES: Any idea why, after all this time, they would target you?
SOUFAN: I am very limited, what I can say at this point, but they definitely don't like what I did before or what I continue to do today in countering their narratives and exposing their falsehood and hypocrisy.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. Ali Soufan spent 18 years as an FBI agent. His book is "The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and my guest is Ali Soufan. He was an FBI agent from 1997 to 2005, where he investigated al-Qaida and other terrorist networks. His 2011 memoir has now been updated with the heavy redactions that were imposed by the CIA restored. It's called "The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11."
You spent a lot of time in Guantanamo and, in fact, at one point, were involved in some FBI agents refusing to participate or even be in rooms where these enhanced interrogation techniques were imposed on detainees. I'm curious about your sense of how - whether the people who are still at Guantanamo and are being held and, in some cases, prosecuted are the right people. I mean, you know that there were people who were picked up in the sweeps after 9/11 who were picked up because bounties were offered. Do we have the right people down there? Do you feel that this is all being done in the pursuit of justice?
SOUFAN: I think we have the right people down there now. Many of the people who went to Guantanamo are out. You know, they have been released. Most of them, actually, have been released under the Bush administration, and many of them were released under the Obama administration. We have people there with blood on their hands. We have the people, for example, who were involved in the 9/11 attack and other attacks.
Now, I think the issue of justice is a complicated question because I think the torture program and what these guys went through is going to be used as part of a defense against the horrific crimes that they were involved in. And I think that's why after, you know, almost 20 years we didn't prosecute any of these guys for their crimes that they committed on 9/11. So that gives you an idea about another failure of torture.
DAVIES: I want to ask you about something else. You have written lately in pieces published in The New York Times that Americans are not yet really attuned to the threat of organized white supremacist violence, which is growing. What similarities do you see between white supremacist movements and the jihadists that you investigated for the FBI?
SOUFAN: Oh, my God, it's - the similarities. And I testified about that in Congress. There is striking similarities between both. The white supremacist movement today, the global white supremacist movement today, is very similar to where the global jihadist movements were in the '90s. They even have their own Afghanistan. They go to Ukraine, and they fight either with the Russians or against the Russians. Many training camps in Ukraine, in Eastern Ukraine or in Ukraine itself, cater to white supremacists from around the Western world. Even from the United States, we have people who go there to fight, to build connections and relationship with others.
So they have their own Afghanistan. They have their own martyrdom videos, which they call manifestos. They recruit in a very similar manner online. They have their own ideologues. Unfortunately, most of them are Americans. They have their own martyrs. They called them saints.
And it is strikingly similar. And they copy from each other so much. Like, for example, we have an organization here in the United States. They call themselves The Base. They call themselves al-Qaida. They actually use al-Qaida manuals. They use Inspire magazines. They use images even of the World Trade Center and Osama bin Laden. And those are white supremacist groups. They do recruitment videos very similar to al-Qaida's recruitment videos.
There's another organization called Atomwaffen. They try to copy ISIS. The similarities are striking, and that's why we started to focus on it - because we want to warn the American public. We want to warn our own government that if we don't pay attention to this threat, down the road, we're going to be dealing with it exactly like we dealt with al-Qaida and ISIS and the jihadi threat. So it's a very dangerous situation we're in today.
DAVIES: I was really surprised to read this - that these white supremacists are going to Ukraine to fight on both sides. I mean, is there an ideological commitment to the ones they choose, or is this just to get experience in combat?
SOUFAN: Just to get experience in combat, you know? We have reports of individuals - that they come from the same white supremacist group, let's say, in France. One of them is fighting with the Ukrainians, and one of them is fighting with the Russians. But when they go back to France, they work together. We have groups here in the United States. For example, you know, Atomwaffen was working closely with the Ukrainian side. And we have other, you know - other groups, you know, working with the Russian side. But when it came to Unite the Right rally, they were working together, and they were coordinating together to create basically a race war - to create violence that will incite a race war.
And I think we worked closely with the U.S. government and with the State Department to finally declare one white supremacist group as a terrorist organization, designate them as a terrorist organization. And it's the Russian Imperial Movement that have been busy recruiting white supremacists from across the Muslim world to take them to eastern Ukraine for training and for combat experience.
DAVIES: You know, I think you said in one of these pieces that actually more Americans have been killed by white supremacist groups since 9/11 than by jihadist groups in the United States. Do you think the bureau is taking this seriously enough? Are they doing what they should be doing?
SOUFAN: Absolutely, absolutely. I think the FBI is taking it very seriously. DHS is taking it very seriously. Even State Department with the terrorism bureau, they are taking it seriously. And we see the recent designation of the Russian Imperial Movement, which is, you know, a significant milestone because this is the very first time in the United States that we designated a white supremacist organization as a terrorist organization. This is significant. So a lot of people are taking it seriously. And frankly, even in their national security strategy that was drafted, I believe, by General McMaster, the Trump administration designated white supremacist groups as a threat to the national security of the United States.
DAVIES: Well, Ali Soufan, stay safe, and thank you so much for speaking with us.
SOUFAN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Ali Soufan served in the FBI from 1997 to 2005. His book is "The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed The War On Terror After 9/11."
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews a new documentary about the week in 1968 when Harry Belafonte hosted the "Tonight Show." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "HEWBIE STEPS OUT")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Thursday, the Peacock streaming service presents a new documentary about a very old program. The documentary is called "The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts 'The Tonight Show,'" and it revisits a week in 1968 when "The Tonight Show" had a very special guest host. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It's somewhat amazing, looking back, that Johnny Carson had the desire, the commitment and the clout to hand over a week of his late-night NBC series to Harry Belafonte in early 1968. By then, Belafonte was a prominent civil rights advocate as well as an entertainer. And when Carson handed him the reins for a week, starting February 5, it was just after the demoralizing Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, and it was the same week segregationist governor George Wallace and pro-war politician Richard Nixon both announced their intentions to run for president.
Carson must have known that Belafonte would do something relevant and outspoken. But when announcer Ed McMahon introduced that week's guest host to the sounds of the sizzling "Tonight Show" house band, viewers at home had no TV precedent for what they were about to witness.
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ED MCMAHON: From New York, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" - and now, here's the fabulous Harry Belafonte. Here he comes.
BIANCULLI: The recent documentary "The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show" premieres this week on Peacock and by far is the best new program Peacock has shown since its unimpressive July launch. It's part TV history, part civil rights activism and part detective story. For all those aspects to be examined properly, that period in February 1968 needs context and "Sit-In" director Yoruba Richen provides it - lots of it. For the history of "The Tonight Show," which Carson had hosted at that point for only six years, she turns to Bill Carter who literally wrote the book on late-night TV. For the significance of Belafonte's appearance at that time in television history, Richen turns to Ron Simon, the curator and expert TV historian at New York's Paley Center for Media. And for personal perspective, she turns to Harry Belafonte himself, who, in his early 90s, shares with pride his still-vivid memories of that week when he selected and invited all his own guests. Fifteen of the 25 guests that week were people of color and almost all the guests were big names at the top of their respective fields. The roster included Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Cosby, Paul Newman, Lena Horne, the Smothers Brothers and two prominent national figures who, within four months, would be assassinated - Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Both of them were close friends of the very socially and politically active Belafonte.
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ROBERT F KENNEDY: I think that there are many areas in which we have problems in the United States. There's great wealth that I talked about and yet there's great poverty. There are speeches made about the fact that we're going to treat everybody equally. And yet we don't treat everybody equally.
HARRY BELAFONTE: He came on and spoke to issues of race through the eyes of Black children.
KENNEDY: I was out in Watts (ph) and I went by to see some young men and one of them was talking about the fact that he lived at home with his mother and nobody ever cleaned the garbage up. He said they could draft me and send me off to fight for this country at the age of 18, but they won't let me complain about the garbage out front my mother's house at 19 (ph).
BELAFONTE: He spent a good number of minutes talking about what he saw America's future to be.
KENNEDY: If we didn't tell untruths about ourselves, then I think - and faced up to reality, then I think our country would be much better off and our people would have much more confidence in those of us who are public officials and in our government as a whole.
BIANCULLI: Belafonte was eager to talk politics and policy and what we now discuss as systemic racism. But he also used the NBC "Tonight Show" platform to showcase other sides of famous people, to shine the spotlight on some less famous ones and to stir up a little trouble. He asked the Smothers Brothers to perform some material that had been censored over on CBS.
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BELAFONTE: What are some of the jokes that CBS will not permit you to tell on the air?
TOMMY SMOTHERS: They've been kind enough to let us come on this show and do some of our distasteful material.
BIANCULLI: Belafonte also invited Leon Bibb, a Black entertainer who had been blacklisted for years, in hopes of helping to restart his career.
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BELAFONTE: Ladies and gentlemen, my dear friend, Mr. Leon Bibb.
BELAFONTE: It was a song called "Suzanne." And I just adored that song. (Singing) Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river. You could hear the boats go by. You can spend the night forever.
When Leon Bibb came on, I suggested to him that he sing this song. And it blew everybody away.
LEON BIBB: (Singing) Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river. You can hear the boats go by.
BIANCULLI: And with Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte encouraged the usually somber civil rights leader to show off his lighter side, which he did with perfect delivery right from the start.
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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Well, I'm delighted to be here, Harry. And I'll tell you one of the reasons I'm so happy to be here - I flew out of Washington this afternoon, and as soon as we started out, they notified us that the plane had mechanical difficulties and I don't want to give the impression that as a Baptist preacher I don't have faith in God in the air. It's simply that I've had more experience with him on the ground.
BIANCULLI: The clips tell some of the story and so does Belafonte. But there's a mystery to address, too, about some missing parts of the puzzle, episodes from that week of shows that have been lost for more than 50 years. "The Sit-In" will leave you wanting more but also will leave you impressed and maybe even astounded by what Harry Belafonte did so long ago and by how fresh and how bold it still seems.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV studies at Rowan University. On tomorrow's show, we talk with Yaa Gyasi, whose first novel, "Homegoing," about the legacy of slavery, won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new novel, "Transcendent Kingdom," is about science, religion, depression, addiction and race in America. Gyasi was born in Ghana and was raised in the U.S. mostly in Huntsville, Ala. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")
BELAFONTE: (Singing) Can't bear this strain any longer. I'll tell you no, Gloria. Can't bear this strain any longer. I'll tell you no, Gloria. You promised to marry me in the month of May. Now you try to run away. If it's the last thing I have to do, Gloria, my darling, I'm begging you. Please marry me, Gloria, darling, can't you see, Gloria. With all your faults, I want you like a long dose of Epsom salts.
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