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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Behind Terror Plots

Aired May 8, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. By now, most of you will have already heard about the bomb plot to blow up a civilian aircraft. It was hatched in Yemen, but it was foiled when the explosive device was seized by CIA agents.

Tonight my brief, what you have not heard, the story behind the story. It is a horrifying tale of American intelligence lapses more than a decade ago that have cost many lives, from the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole to the 9/11 attacks and all the way up now with this latest bomb plot that, as we said, was foiled.

The man who tells that story is my guest tonight. He knows more about Al Qaeda in Yemen that just about anyone alive, my exclusive interview with Ali Soufan, the former FBI counterterrorism agent, in just a moment.

But first, some background, details that you'll really need to know to grasp the importance of what Soufan has to say. U.S. officials investigating this plot uncovered crucial information which led to a drone strike just this weekend that killed this man.

His name is Fahd al-Quso. He's a Yemeni, and we now know that he is a top leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most dangerous terrorist threat to the United States and the rest of the world right now. He had a $5 million price tag on his head, put there by the U.S. government because his crimes go all the way back to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.

And most importantly, he was the key link between Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks. And here's the most disturbing part of the story. My guest tonight wanted al-Quso brought back to face justice here in the United States, but a decision was made to leave him in Yemen. Ali Soufan, welcome.

ALI SOUFAN, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Who is al-Quso and tell us about how you interrogated him all that time ago?

SOUFAN: Well, we first identified Fahd al-Quso as being a member of the cell that conducted the U.S.S. Cole attack team. We were able to arrest him and interrogate him. And he provided significant amount of intelligence about this connections to Al Qaeda, about Al Qaeda's role in the U.S.S. Cole bombing and the murder of 17 sailors at Aden, and also about his relationship to Osama bin Laden.

He also provided us some information about a meeting that took place in southeast Asia, where he delivered $36,000. We know -- we now know that that meeting was actually a planning summit for the 9/11 attack. So he is as dangerous as you can get.

AMANPOUR: Now he's dead. Do you believe that his -- the attack that killed him, the drone attack, was actually linked to this bomb plot?

SOUFAN: I will be surprised if it is not, because Fahd, since he left the Yemeni jail, he has been planning very hard to conduct attacks, not only inside Yemen, but also outside Yemen. And his name has been linked to many attacks.

You know, he was 25 years old when I interviewed him as part of the U.S.S. Cole. And later, it's that individual, this, you know, silly smirk on his face every time he's talking to you, he is being called the Al Qaeda sheikh. So he became --

AMANPOUR: So a top leader?

And how did that happen? Because you had him in your grasp, as we say, there were mistakes made.

SOUFAN: Well, we had all of these guys. I mean, the picture that now you're showing, basically are pictures of him at the court in Sana'a when we prosecuted him --

AMANPOUR: In Yemen?

SOUFAN: -- in Yemen, in Sana'a, Yemen, him and Jamal Badawi, his friend and colleague in the Cole attack. There was a deal between the U.S. government and the Yemeni government because they were Yemeni citizens, we will prosecute them in Yemen.

And we had to go to Yemen and prosecute them over there with the help of the Yemeni government. They were convicted and then they were able to escape from jail, few times they escaped, actually, from jail. And until now, you know --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible).

SOUFAN: Exactly, exactly.

AMANPOUR: So tell us how dangerous is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen?

SOUFAN: As you know, there's many Qaedas. There's Al Qaeda in the Islamic (inaudible), Al Qaeda in Iraq. I think the most dangerous one is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And the reason Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the closest to bin Laden's version of Al Qaeda. Many Qaedas around the world joined the franchise of Al Qaeda.

They never went to Afghanistan, met bin Laden. Those individuals basically are the real deal, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he used to be the chief of staff of Osama bin Laden. We know him as Abu Basir Yemeni.

We also prosecuted him in Yemen, and he was able to escape. Qassim al-Raimi was also the military commander now for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He was also in Afghanistan. The number two guy, al-Shihri, he escaped from Saudi Arabia, went to Yemen and became the number two in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. So this is the closest to Al Qaeda you have.

AMANPOUR: And just to get it straight, you wanted to bring him back to the United States?

SOUFAN: Well --

AMANPOUR: Quso?

SOUFAN: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: When you had him in your grasp, what was the decision process? Why did they decide to leave him there?

SOUFAN: It was way higher than our pay grade at the time. It's something that happened between the U.S. government and the Yemeni government. And the Yemenis insisted that because of Quso and Badawi and both Yemeni citizens, their constitution prohibit them being rendered to the United States for prosecution.

So the United States government at the time agreed that we will go to Yemen and help the Yemenis prosecute them in Yemen.

AMANPOUR: When you were interrogating him, did you have a sense that he would be come this now top leader in the Yemeni franchise of Al Qaeda? What was he telling you back then?

SOUFAN: Honestly, when I was interrogating them, the only thing I can say to myself that this guy would never see the day of light again. I mean, you know, he was admitting his involvement in the murder of 17 sailors.

AMANPOUR: And you fully expected him to be locked up and --

SOUFAN: Absolutely, absolutely. And we did that before with the East Africa embassy bombing, for example, with al-Owhali, with Mohammed Atef, all these individuals who were involved and who were able to catch them, they were prosecuted and they will never see the light of day again.

So that's what I was thinking. And he was very cooperative. I mean, he provided significant amount of intelligence and information.

AMANPOUR: Quso was cooperative?

SOUFAN: Absolutely. That could have --

AMANPOUR: Why?

SOUFAN: -- in a way stopped -- it's the way, you know, we interrogate people. We interview people. You know, you have to have deep knowledge of the group.

You have -- I mean, Quso at one point -- and I mention it, actually, in many of my statements, at one point when I was interrogating him, he went like this, and he said, "Now I remember you. You were in Kandahar. You were in our guest house." He thought I was undercover. That's why we know everything that we know about Al Qaeda. So he --

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) Arabic.

SOUFAN: And I speak Arabic. So he started trying to recall everything that happened when he was there in order to prove to me that he was cooperating. And he gave us one main piece of evidence that linked that thing to Nanidabad (ph).

AMANPOUR: When you see and when you've read about this bomb plot that was foiled, where do you think these bomb plots could lead? Look, we've been hearing -- and I can quote any number of officials who've said, Al Qaeda is on its last leg, Al Qaeda is just in survival mode.

We've devastated Al Qaeda. How much of a threat does it remain to the United States? And do you think this bomb plot was designed to attack the United States?

SOUFAN: Yes, absolutely, and I think we have to give a lot of credit to the intelligence community and the men and women of the CIA and the other government agencies, who did not, you know, focus anywhere else and kept focusing on Al Qaeda.

Look, you know, yes, we devastated Al Qaeda. But we had a lot of tactical wins against Al Qaeda. The ideologies are still there. What --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) organization, that people have talked about now, bin Laden is gone, there's nobody really to have that charisma and that magnetic direction that he did.

SOUFAN: The global organization of Al Qaeda doesn't exist as much as it used to exist before 9/11. However you have these branches of Al Qaeda, and some of them, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are mini-bin Laden Qaedas, and they are trying to do whatever they can do in order to remain (inaudible).

Just one thing, bin Laden, his declaration of jihad in 1996 was expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula. Those individuals believe it is their duty. They are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

AMANPOUR: Stand by a second, Ali Soufan. I want to turn to the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers.

Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. You've just been listening to Ali Soufan, who was the first to interrogate Quso, who was killed by this U.S. drone over the weekend. Can you tell me, Congressman, was there a link between him and this bomb plot?

REP. MIKE RODGERS, CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I wouldn't be in a position to tell you if there's a direct link, but what you need to understand is that this is an operation -- and I disagree a little bit with the gentleman in the sense that the affiliates are in and they're in for good. They're in for good, and they're in for real.

They exchange money. They exchange logistics. They exchange people. They exchange training methods and operations. That in and of itself makes the Al Qaeda umbrella still very lethal and dangerous. The folks in Yemen are clearly committed to this attack against the United States.

So the Al Qaeda element in Yemen is real and I can confirm to you that, in fact, it was an Al Qaeda core group that was responsible for the development and procurement and financing and putting together this particular bomb.

AMANPOUR: So when you say I can't tell you whether the drone attack was connected, are you saying because you won't reveal intelligence or you don't know?

ROGERS: I just -- I can't reveal classified information and --

AMANPOUR: Well, would I be wrong in quoting what Representative Peter King told CNN today? He says that the White House told him that they are connected, that they're part of the same operation.

ROGERS: I'm just not in a position --

AMANPOUR: All right.

RODGERS -- as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee to confirm or deny the relationship of any activity like that that happens in Yemen.

AMANPOUR: Can you tell us, without breaking your intelligence and classified information, whether this bomb plot was directed at the United States? In other words, was this civilian aircraft, do you believe, going to come to the United States?

ROGERS: It was clearly intended for a U.S. aircraft coming to the United States, not necessarily a U.S. air carrier at this point. But a carrier that was destined to enter to the United States airspace.

AMANPOUR: And how exactly was it foiled?

ROGERS: Well, this is the value of international liaison partnerships with security services from nations who are committed to the cause of fighting a war against terrorist activities like these, and with because of those relationships, this was brought to the attention of the United States and through that process of working with our friends in these other liaison host security nations, we were able to put it together to actually take receipt of the bomb, which is important for us, in order so that we can forensically understand exactly how they've changed from the Christmas Day bomber to today.

AMANPOUR: Congressman, sources told CNN that the tip came from Saudi Arabia. Sources told other networks that it was foiled by a CIA insider, who infiltrated the organization. Can you tell me which one is correct?

ROGERS: I will tell you they are all wild-eyed and guesses at this point. I would -- I will tell you that it's a security service and I really can't tell you more than that. But those relationships, those liaison relationships happen with countries all over the world for this very purpose.

AMANPOUR: OK. Can I read you a couple of quotes? You know, we've all been led to believe, especially in the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden that Al Qaeda is pretty much on its last legs, except, of course, in Yemen. We know about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But things like senior U.S. officials describing Al Qaeda as largely in survival mode or within reach of strategic defeat or the moment the movement has essentially been marginalized. Would you describe it as that, marginalized, basically in survival mode? Or is this still a major threat?

ROGERS: Well, clearly it's a major threat. Had they been successful they would have gotten a bomb on an individual on an aircraft that would have exploded over the continental United States. That is a danger to the United States. And what we have to -- again, we have to understand, the core leadership of Al Qaeda has been hit very, very hard.

And it has been disruptive to their ability to conduct successful operations. That's a good day. However, we have to understand that Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, who is very financially well off, is supporting finances to the rest of the affiliates of Al Qaeda, including the folks in Yemen.

And the Al Qaeda that we see in the tribal areas of Pakistan, that core group, it's still alive and well. Zawahiri is still ascended to number one. That tells you -- and he's been around as long as bin Laden has been around.

So that tells you that they still have a core element, and they still have affiliates that are willing to listen. That combination spells lethality if they're successful. And that's why we have to be so aggressive about pursuing them wherever we may find them.

AMANPOUR: And just a quick one, because it is absolutely connected, you just came back from Afghanistan and you have said that you feel the Taliban is stronger, not weaker, than it was before the surge. President Obama has said -- and he said in his address from Afghanistan that the tide has turned and the momentum of Al Qaeda -- of Taliban has been devastated. What is it?

ROGERS: Well, until we deal with the safe havens that exist along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, I don't see that. Matter of fact, the intelligence tells us exactly opposite of that, that, in fact, since in the last few years they've gotten better organized, that they are in a better position not because they're winning -- they have never won an engagement with the U.S. military, not once, never.

They take huge casualties. But they've adjusted for that. And the intelligence tells us that, that they've adjusted their campaign activities to try to not engage directly with the United States, and they're waiting till that timeline which was set by the president in -- to when to reengage in Afghanistan. And they're very clever.

They're participating in political assassinations just to let provinces know that they're there and they're coming back when the American leave. And again, without a disruption of those safe havens, without going after the Haqqani network that helps supply their efforts, we're not in a position to say that they're not going to come back with gusto when we leave in 2014.

And that's, I think, what both Senator Feinstein, Democratic; Mike Rogers, Republican; were referring to when we looked at the intelligence on the ground.

AMANPOUR: We'll be watching. Representative Rogers, thank you very much for joining us. Thank you very much indeed.

Ali Soufan, stand by, and we will be right back after a break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. As we've been saying, Al Qaeda is not totally down. As we've seen, both Representative Rogers and Ali Soufan agreed that the most virulent form still exists in Yemen and the networks are still powerful.

But while the war against them continues, so do the challenges over how to try the highest profile cases in military tribunals at the much despised Guantanamo Bay prison facility, cases such as the self-confessed terrorist and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Back in 2007, at his first court appearance, he seemed to cooperate with the court.

A year later, he actually pleaded guilty. But that trial was halted when President Obama decided to move the case to the federal court in New York. A storm of public criticism forced the case back to Guantanamo and back to a military tribunal. And now the defendants are no longer cooperating, calling into question the legitimacy of the process.

And another question hangs over the tribunal: how can it proceed, say some, given that torture was used on people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? The prosecution is faced with the uncomfortable task of proving such a trial will not just be fair but legitimate.

Brigadier General Mark Martins is the lead prosecutor at Guantanamo, at the military tribunals. I asked him about the criticism.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL MARK MARTINS, LEAD PROSECUTOR, GUANTANAMO BAY: These are courts that are strongly grounded in law. They are fair. They afford all of the guarantees that, in the Geneva Conventions, the words are judicial guarantees recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. And they fully, fully comport with that international obligation of ours. And, finally, they are transparent.

AMANPOUR: You yourself have talked about the reforms that have been underway. What precise reforms from the Bush era have happened?

MARTINS: The Military Commissions Act of 2009, they include, importantly, a prohibition on the admission of any statement obtained as a result of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and also establishing that the standard by which a statement will be admitted in a court will be that it was voluntarily taken.

We also, in the 2009 Act, expressed a sense that it was important for commissions to ensure that individuals could obtain the assistance of counsel and the appropriate resources to mount an appropriate and zealous defense against any charges. And so that was another important reform.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you this, then. Obviously, the most notorious terrorists are going to go on trial. It's going to start in the military tribunals. But already it's been stated that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded some 183 times in one month alone. So how can his trial be deemed fair?

MARTINS: Well, I won't speak to any particular case. I will talk about specific rules and how they apply in military commissions.

But, Christiane, any statement that is admitted and considered as evidence cannot have been the result of torture or cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment. And I'm confident you and your viewers can envision types of evidence that are not at all tainted. And that's what the military commission will do.

AMANPOUR: General, what is wrong, though, with the civilian courts?

MARTINS: Well, I'm a big fan of the federal courts. They actually, the number is in the hundreds, of international terrorism suspects who have been tried successfully in federal courts and legitimately. The initial forum choice for some of the cases was federal court.

Congress then entered the picture. We are a government of the rule of law. Our legislature passed a law which stated that no individual would be moved from Guantanamo to the United States. So if we are to vindicate our values and try those we can try, for whom we have evidence to try, we must do it in a reformed military commission.

AMANPOUR: What does this mean to you personally now, to be the chief prosecutor of these military tribunals in 2012?

MARTINS: Well, I'm assigned to this job. I'm a military officer. I could have been assigned in any number of places. I was assigned to do this and I will do it as well as I can. And that's the case for everyone involved in commissions.

And I know that we'll do justice. Everybody involved in the system is sworn to uphold, you know, not some person's view of this, but the Constitution of the United States and our laws. And that's what we'll do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: So despite the best of intentions, can these tribunals really work? Will the defendant ever end up cooperating?

Joining me again is Ali Soufan, who was a counterintelligence officer for the FBI, oversaw the agency's investigation of the Al Qaeda activity in Yemen and beyond.

We've been talking about these terrorist suspects that have been killed. And now, of course, they've -- some of them are being tried. One thing that the brigadier said, which I want to ask you about, evidence that is not tainted, will it be able to be used? Can that happen?

In other words, has the whole process been contaminated, or will they be able to try these people on the evidence that was gathered without being --

SOUFAN: Absolutely. I agree with the brigadier 100 percent. And I actually participated in a Guantanamo trial. I participated in the trial against Hamdan, bin Laden's driver, Balool (ph), other individuals who gave us confessions, full confessions. They pled guilty.

So I've been dealing with both the prosecution and the defense of the Guantanamo -- and it's a good tool. You know, I am a big fan of definitely federal courts, you know --

AMANPOUR: As was the general.

SOUFAN: Exactly.

AMANPOUR: And he did all prefer to see it happening there.

SOUFAN: Absolutely. I mean, the history of Guantanamo, we can -- we are able to convict two or three people in Guantanamo at the same time period, we convicted more than 200 international terrorism in federal courts. So it works.

However, I think Guantanamo Bay, you know, it's a valuable tool. We have a lot of individuals that do not meet the threshold of a federal court, but they can be easily prosecuted in Guantanamo Bay. And I prefer to see them facing justice in Guantanamo than being left (inaudible) escaping and conspiring to kill Americans.

AMANPOUR: Again, as the brigadier said. But what about if they don't cooperate, which right now Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, public enemy number one, mastermind of 9/11, is not cooperating, having already pled guilty, the first time around, and now he's not cooperating. What will that mean?

SOUFAN: Well, we have a lot of evidence on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that, with his cooperation or without his cooperation, the proceeding can go. We have introduced that he did to media channels, talking about his role in 9/11. We have a lot of investigation that took place, that conducted by the FBI and other agencies. So we have a lot of harsh evidence and documentation to prove his connections.

AMANPOUR: Will that possibly be tainted by the fact that he will probably come in and his defense lawyer will say, well, hang on a second, he was waterboarded 183 times. So no matter what he says, the whole thing is -- I mean, can -- is that a risk?

SOUFAN: This is what I testified to in the Senate, you know, when we're talking about the end game of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. I mean, this is one of the problems. And the 600-pound gorilla in the courtroom is the word that nobody else is allowed to say publicly. It is waterboarding and it is torture.

However, we should not forget that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed conducted 9/11, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the subject of a lot of investigations and there's a lot of professional people in the U.S. government, CIA, FBI, DOD, who did their job, collected evidence, collected intelligence. And a lot of these things did not come out of the 183 water session, waterboarding.

Actually, what we know now from the DOD, from everyone else, that basically he did not cooperate and he provided false information (inaudible) 183 sessions of waterboarding.

AMANPOUR: We are still going to be watching this, of course.

Ali Soufan, thank you so much, and we will be right back after a break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: That is it for tonight's program, much more online at amanpour.com. Thank you for watching. Goodbye from New York.

END