As an FBI agent, Ali Soufan helped unravel the plotting of al-Qaida’s September 11 attacks. His questioning of the group’s leaders prevented pending terror attacks, but Soufan’s old-school interrogation methods, like bonding with prisoners by speaking Arabic or bringing a plate of sugar-free cookies to a diabetic detainee, were pushed aside by the CIA in favor of waterboarding and other “enhanced” techniques. Soufan went on to open his own security consulting agency, where he works with clients around the world. Lately, the Israel-Hamas war has been occupying a significant part of the company’s attention. Soufan spoke to Vanity Fair between trips to the region.
Vanity Fair: You are painfully familiar with the American intelligence failures that helped enable the September 11 attacks. What’s your assessment of the mistakes made by Israel’s intelligence agencies leading up to October 7?
Ali Soufan: Hamas and Hezbollah were doing exercises this year on the borders, an exercise similar to what Hamas did on October 7. Maybe the exercises were misread by Israeli intelligence. But this is Monday morning quarterbacking at this point. One thing that the Israelis do better than us, frankly, is after-action reports and accountability. I trust that there will be a thorough investigation. At the same time, I believe it was a bigger failure than 9/11. Bigger because Gaza is in the backyard and has been surrounded for 16 years, and Israel has intelligence agencies that are so professional and powerful that they know what’s happening around the world. And here it is happening literally across the street.
President Biden, when he visited Israel, cautioned its leaders not to repeat the errors the US made in responding to 9/11. What did you think of his comments, and does Israel seem to be heeding them?
President Biden’s advice to our Israeli friends is very sound. You need to pay attention to the way you’re executing this war. Because in 9/11, we started the war to get rid of al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then we ended up doing stuff that had nothing to do with it, like invading Iraq and creating torture black sites, a lot of things that are not really part of who we are. Sometimes, we did things that made al-Qaida and the Taliban more powerful. All of this experience that the people in Gaza are having now will have a significant impact later on. We had a huge sledgehammer, and we destroyed our enemy. But then what? Because the enemy can come back.
For the past month, the focus has understandably been on Israel and Hamas. But there are many other actors indirectly involved in this war. Which ones do you believe are most important?
Iran gained a lot. Not necessarily Iran as a country, but the so-called axis of resistance [a loose coalition of anti-Western and anti-Israel militant groups] gained a lot. On October 6, we’re talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia. We’re talking about the importance of the Abraham Accords. We’re talking about Israel normalizing with the Arab world. And Netanyahu was talking about a new trade line from India to Haifa. On October 7, everything changed. It ushered in a new era of chaos to the region where Iran’s non-state actors—some of the militias in Iraq, some of the militias in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—are as powerful politically, especially with the Arab street, as nation-states. The whole world was waiting last Friday for Hassan Nasrallah [the secretary general of Hezbollah] to speak. The whole Middle East sits glued to the television, waiting for the spokesperson of Hamas [Ghazi Hamad] to speak. The world realized what we’ve been warning about since 2019: that the so-called axis of resistance that Iran was creating is an axis of chaos and instability for the region.
In the past you’ve been involved in delicate hostage negotiations. There are currently believed to be about 250 people held by Hamas and other groups, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Reports say CIA director William Burns is trying to broker a deal for the release of some in exchange for a pause in fighting.
It’s definitely more complicated than hostage cases with al-Qaida and ISIS or other regular terrorist groups because with those folks, there’s a negotiation, and there is an ask, mostly money. Here, it’s more connected to the whole Arab-Israeli conflict and to the battlefield in Gaza. If you look into the history of Hamas and Hezbollah or groups that operate under the Iranian umbrella, they kidnap Israeli soldiers or Israelis or bodies of soldiers who have been killed. And they have been successful in negotiating the release of hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners. But this is not a transaction just between Hamas and Israel, negotiated through Egypt and the US and Qatar. Iran hasn’t spent all that money and all that effort supporting Hamas, regardless of whether they were involved directly or indirectly in the October 7 attacks, not to have input to the negotiations.
Israel continues to press its offensive in Gaza. Where could you see the war going from here?