FP: Let's stray a little into the broader war on terror. You told the Daily Beast earlier this year that you'd give the Obama administration an A- on its counterterrorism record so far. Do you think drones are a viable long-term option or could they ultimately serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists?
AS: No I don't necessarily think it will be a recruitment tool. I believe it's a good tactic to use, but it shouldn't be a strategy. Our counterterrorism strategy should be a multifaceted. It should include military, intelligence, law enforcement, economic programs, psychological programs, cultural and education issues -- we have to use all the tools that we have in the toolbox in combating the enemy. We have to keep in mind that this is asymmetrical warfare, and an essential component of asymmetrical warfare is winning hearts and minds.
FP: Are we doing enough of that in places like Somalia, northern Mali, and Yemen, where we're losing the ideological battle?
AS: No, I think what we're doing is trying to react tactically to events that are unfolding. But we never had a strategy from the beginning to combat the motivation and counter the narrative of these groups. And countering the narrative is not just a media event; it involves having intelligence programs and operational programs that diminish the ability of terrorist groups to operate, recruit, and win hearts and minds. Unfortunately, throughout the years -- during the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration -- we didn't do enough to combat the radical narrative that was initiated by al Qaeda and promoted by many other groups that came out of al Qaeda, like Ansar Din, Tawhid al-Jihad, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and so forth -- many different names for the same problem. And look what happened in Libya. That's part of not focusing on the narrative.
FP: But how do you focus on the narrative? There's a new book out about Yemen by Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge, in which you play a significant role as the lead investigator of the Cole bombing. According to Johnsen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is stronger -- numbers wise -- than it was on Sept. 11. What's wrong with our strategy there? We're using a record number of drone strikes and sent the government a record aid package, but al Qaeda is actually getting stronger. How should the U.S. be working to change the narrative?
AS: I think we need to merge our policy in Yemen on every level -- political, economic -- with our counterterrorism strategy. We also need to study the incubating factors that promote terrorism. What are the factors in South Yemen that are making people and tribes join al Qaeda? For example, one sheikh, when asked why he was sheltering al Qaeda fighters, responded that the government had promised to send him six teachers. Fahd al-Quso brought 16 teachers. In some areas al Qaeda has also supplied electricity and water. These things don't cost much, and we used to give billions of dollars to the Yemeni government, but most of it went to line pockets. It did not reach ordinary people. So we have to deal with the roots of the problem: What are the incubating factors for terrorism? And there's no cookie-cutter approach to this. What works in South Yemen probably won't work in the north of the country, and what works in Saudi Arabia probably won't work in Libya, because there's a range of incubating factors. Sometimes it's sectarian, sometimes it's tribal, sometimes it's economic, but the roots are never religious or ideological. There is a reason these people are joining. Of all the people I interrogated, I never found one person who joined just because he saw Bin Laden on television or he read al Qaeda's declaration of war. No, there are local reasons that led these people to hear Bin Laden and later join al Qaeda.
FP: What about Guantánamo? President Obama recently informed Congress that there are still approximately 166 detainees there, four years after he promised to close down the facility. Was his promise a mistake? Should he make good in his next four years?
AS: Closing Guantánamo is a noble act. And I don't think anyone wanted Guantánamo to be open forever. That doesn't help us internationally and this is not the way we do things in the United States. However, what do you want to do with these people who are in Guantánamo? What do you want to do with the people that who cannot for various reasons be prosecuted in federal courts in the United States, but who killed many Americans? At the same time, there are individuals -- Yemenis, mostly -- some whom were even Bin Laden's bodyguards. Do you send these people back to Yemen? Who is going to be responsible when one of these people, released from Guantánamo, issues a video tape taking responsibility for blowing up an embassy or downing an airplane? These are some of the questions that we need to think about before closing Guantánamo.
FP: Lastly, you have a book out, The Black Banners, in which you touch on the issue of enhanced interrogation. But the book ended up being heavily redacted by the CIA after being cleared by the FBI. What's the story behind that, and is there a chance we'll see an un-redacted version of your book anytime soon?
AS: I think it was basically because in the book I tell the story of what really happened throughout our war against al Qaeda -- a narrative that in some cases is at odds with what the American people were told at the time. I say, for example, that enhanced interrogation techniques did not work. And yes, there's a possibility that 9/11 could have been stopped. I put the facts out and let the people draw their conclusions, but unfortunately there are people who don't want some of those facts released to the public -- and so parts of the book have been redacted. I do not believe -- nor does the FBI -- that there's any classified information in there, so I'm still hopeful that [the redactions] will be lifted. This is not a book about FBI vs. CIA. It's a book about all these operational people in the field, and all the successes we had, and all the unfortunate failures that we had, including the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Many of the heroes from my book are from the CIA and Department of Defense. When I started talking about the flaws of EITs, I was called every name in the book. But now, every report -- from the CIA-IG to the DOD to the DOJ to the FBI to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence -- has come to the same conclusion.