Top Counterterrorism Agent: Killing al-Awlaki Was the Right Thing to Do


When the C.I.A. insisted on torturing Al Qaeda members, F.B.I. agent Ali H. Soufan protested loudly: Not only did he believe the “enhanced interrogation techniques” to be legally and morally wrong, but Soufan — who, as one of the Bureau’s few Arabic-speaking agents, had extracted key information from terrorists while debating fine points of the Koran — knew that waterboarding would be counterproductive. But yesterday’s news that a C.I.A. drone strike had killed American-born Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki gave him no such qualms. “I’m not troubled by this at all,” says Soufan, who left the F.B.I. in 2005 and now works as an international security consultant. “I don’t discriminate between terrorists because of their citizenship. This is an individual who had repeatedly declared war on the United States and directly and indirectly killed innocent people. And capturing him? Killing Bin Laden inside Pakistan was an easy operation compared with what it would have taken to go into Yemeni tribal areas to get him.”

Soufan was first sent to Yemen in 2000, to investigate Al Qaeda’s bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He returned after the September 11 attacks — a tragedy he believes he could have averted with greater C.I.A. cooperation, as detailed in Soufan’s new book, “The Black Banners.” Those experiences, and his continuing consulting work in the region, give Soufan a nuanced perspective on what the death of al-Awlaki is likely to mean going forward. “This is important to the threat of terrorism against the United States and the West, because he was connected to every major plot since 2009, and his knowledge of English and the Internet made him extremely influential, more as an inspirational figure than an operational leader,” Soufan says.

The larger ramifications, though, are disturbingly familiar. The American raid came days after the return to Yemen of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after an attempted assassination. “I don’t think the timing is a coincidence,” Soufan says. “Most people in Yemen have no love for Al Qaeda, but the government has tolerated its presence, and sometimes left the jail door open after terrorists were arrested. Now Saleh returns and has a change of heart on cooperating with the efforts to get al-Awalki. He’s saying to the Americans and the Saudis, “I’m the only one you can count on to help fight Al Qaeda.’” It’s a game that Pakistan has played with deadly perfection: Apparently Saleh has been paying attention.