An interview with former DIA agent Julie Sirrs

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Julie Sirrs is a former DIA agent who made four trips to Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, two when she was with DIA. To discuss conditions of Afghanistan in that period and the alliance of the Taliban with Osama bin Laden, Julie Sirrs accepted our request for an interview, which we are offering today our readers.

We would like to thank Julie Sirrs for her kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: What can you tell us about the time you spent in Afghanistan as a DIA agent? What was your duty there?

Julie Sirrs: I made two trips to Afghanistan while I was with DIA, but both of those trips were on my own time, in other words DIA did not send me there officially. The second time that I went there had been some discussion about having that be a work-related trip, but for bureaucratic reasons that wasn’t able to be put in place before I went. Of course I used the information that I learned on both trips in my job at DIA.

Undicisettembre: Being there privately and not officially, who did you communicate to the information you got while you were there?

Julie Sirrs: I didn't really communicate with anyone regarding the information I was gathering while I was there. I waited until I got back and wrote reports from my notes. There weren't a lot of means of communication in Afghanistan at the time, it was before cellphones; there were occasional satellite phones but I generally didn't use those except occasionally just to let people know that had I arrived and that I was safe, that sort of thing.

While I was there I just gathered my own information. People I coordinated with to get into Afghanistan knew that I worked for the government, particularly my second trip when I traveled to areas held by the United Front, better known as the Northern Alliance, some of them had even met with me at the Defense Intelligence Agency so they knew who I was but they also knew I wasn't going there on any official trip.

Undicisettembre: How was Afghanistan under the Taliban? What struck you most?

Julie Sirrs: There was a sense among many in the United States at the time, in the Government or people who specialized in Afghanistan in the private sector, that the Taliban were welcomed by many Afghans because they restored order and they were not corrupt and even if they were harsh in their interpretation of Islam they had some good qualities. So what struck me in particular the first time I went to Afghanistan, and that was the only time I went into Taliban areas, was that the Taliban did not seem to be appreciated by the population.

During that trip I traveled over land from the Pakistani border to Kabul and then to the outskirts of Kabul and a town called Paghman. I sensed in all of those places people were afraid of the Taliban, the Taliban were very arrogant, they were seeking bribes. On the day that I left I saw people had been executed and hanged, they were still there for everyone to see. Their rule was very harsh and frightening. Even the ethnic Pashtuns, with whom I was traveling, had fear of the Taliban.

I got much more of an impression that the Taliban were not the somewhat positive force that I think some people in Washington wanted to believe at the time and that was the main impression that struck me. But even then in 1997 you could see the Taliban being very close with radical Islamist Arabs and having invited them into Kabul allowing them to take control over certain areas, these Arabs later became known for being affiliated with bin Laden and al-Qaeda. That was evident even in 1997, not long after Osama bin Laden had sought refuge with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Undicisettembre: How was the condition of women under the Taliban?

Julie Sirrs: It was very bad. When I was in Kabul and those areas and I was traveling with a family, so there were some men and some women, all of us women were of course covered up in a chadri. At one point there were ten of us packed into a car taking a driving tour of Kabul, there was one street we tried to go down and were stopped by a Taliban soldier who said the car was not allowed to go down that street because there were women in the car.

The Taliban would have this sort of police force and if they could see a woman's socks through her veil she would be beaten openly in the market place. The population was very fearful and the conditions were very bad especially for women.

Even in this house where I stayed one of the children wanted a doll and I remember they were told they couldn't have one because the Taliban had banned them because they were un-Islamic. It was a bad time.

Undicisettembre: How was as far as you know the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

Julie Sirrs: This is something I studied professionally and I think it was very good from very early on, I think they had a lot in common and the Taliban were more anti-western from the very beginning than it was generally understood at the time, so they very naturally fell in with bin Laden and al-Qaeda and their shared aims. Al-Qaeda and bin Laden saw the Taliban to be a real ally and were willing to help the Taliban with their goals in Afghanistan and central Asia in general. In Afghanistan specifically they would help the Taliban in their fight against the anti-Taliban resistance particularly the one led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. Bin Laden very early on assisted the Taliban with additional funds and his own Arab fighters and of course he was involved in the assassination of Massoud which was considered helpful by the Taliban. In turn the Taliban gave bin Laden a sanctuary not simply because he was a Muslim and a guest of theirs but also because they believed in his ideology and wanted to work with him.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, center

Undicisettembre: Could 9/11 have been avoided, in your opinion, if the different agencies communicated better between each other?

Julie Sirrs: I think it’s possible and it was also well documented by the 9/11 Commission. 9/11 might have also been avoided if American policy makers better understood the Taliban and their alliance with al-Qaeda and if the United States, rather than trying to remain neutral in Afghanistan, had instead provided better support to those who were fighting against the Taliban, in some ways as simple as diplomatic support or even funding. So I'm not in any way talking about US troops on the ground or anything like that but just providing more support and making it clear the United States was against the Taliban. I think that would have made it harder for the Taliban to hold the areas they did and it would have made it harder for bin Laden to have a secure safe haven in Afghanistan and without that it would have been harder for him to plan and implement the 9/11 attacks like he did.

Undicisettembre: During your time at DIA you also interviewed some captured al-Qaeda operatives. What can you tell us about them?

Julie Sirrs: These were individuals who had been caught by the Afghans who were fighting with Massoud’s forces, they were considered initially Taliban fighters and then it was realized they were not Afghans. Many of them were Pakistani, largely Pushtun madrassah students from northwestern Pakistan, but many of them were older, like in their thirties and up and weren’t Pushtuns but Punjabis, possibly official Pakistanis of some sort in the military or intelligence or recruited by them outside the madrassah network. There were also some individuals from China, the Uighur areas, and Arabs, I remember particularly people from Yemen. There were even prisoners from some for the former Soviet central Asian countries, but I never directly interviewed them.

Undicisettembre: What relevant information did you get from them?

Julie Sirrs: These weren’t the stereotypical foreign fighters I might have expected to see, the Pakistanis in particular. I learned about their networks, how some of these people would go into Pakistan and how they would be funneled to Afghanistan. Some of them were from madrassahs in various places in Pakistan but some of the network was outside of that. There seemed to be a pretty organized effort to get foreigners to Afghanistan to be fighting on behalf on the Taliban. Some of those people were told they were going to fight actual American or Russian troops or foreign fighters on the other side in Afghanistan; but when they got there and realized they were just fighting other Afghans and relatively devout Muslims some of them were disillusioned. Some others were still very ideological and even though the Muslims they were fighting on the other side of them were very conservative they still thought they were too liberal and they should die for something as minor as wearing western style pants. So these prisoners wanted to be released to continue the fight wherever they could.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of the use of torture during the so called War on Terrorism?

Julie Sirrs: Personally I’m opposed to it, in part morally, but also I don’t think it’s effective. I think when people are tortured they are inclined not to give accurate information; they’ll say whatever they think the person wants to hear. I also think from an operational security perspective if someone important gets captured, someone who might have good information, the capture of that person is generally pretty quickly known by the others in his organization, so they very likely change their plans as a result, so even the information that might have been valuable is no longer valuable.

So, I don’t think it accomplishes very much and in a larger sense makes it difficult to try to appear as a force for good in places like Afghanistan when that’s the reputation that you develop.

Undicisettembre: In your opinion would it have been possible to catch Osama bin Laden before 2011?

Julie Sirrs: I think so. We tried to some extent in terms of having open lines of communication with the Afghans in the Northern Alliance and particularly those who were most active in Afghanistan, those surrounding Massoud. I think they had helpful information, of course they didn’t know exactly where he was but I think if those who were opposed to bin Laden, and especially the United States, would have been more supportive of the anti-Taliban fighters that would have helped to reduce the territory that bin Laden had and it would have made him more vulnerable to move around more often. I think if bin Laden had been more insecure before 9/11, that might have made it easier for us to capture him.

Undicisettembre: What lead you to leave DIA at the end?

Julie Sirrs: As I said my trips to Afghanistan were unofficial, I learned after I got back after my second one that some officials were upset that I had chosen to do that. I thought it was okay before I left but it turned out it wasn’t true with some people. So DIA ultimately decided to revoke my security clearance which meant that I wasn’t able to work there anymore. So officially I resigned but basically they wanted me pushed out. I heard that some people at the State Department were especially unhappy about my trip and these were people among those more sympathetic with the Taliban at that time, so there might have been some political reasons as well, but ultimately I was forced to leave.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories according to which 9/11 was an inside job?

Julie Sirrs: Of course I don’t give them any credibility, I think maybe people who think this don’t understand all the events leading up to it. Terrorists had targeted the World Trade Center before, they were launching an increasing number of increasingly sophisticated attacks, from the Cole bombing to the two embassies bombing. They got lucky in terms of the destruction they were able to cause but it’s not that surprising in some ways. It was clear bin Laden was continuing to plot attacks against Americans. The exact details and the nature of the attack caught a lot of people by surprise including myself, but I think in terms of the whole context of what was going on in Afghanistan and Africa against al-Qaeda it wasn’t that surprising.

But people who were less familiar with that and less knowledgeable about it are more inclined to believe conspiracy theories.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of communication between intelligence agencies today? Does it work better now than before 2001?

Julie Sirrs: I don’t have any direct experience since I left DIA before 2001 but my understanding is there really had been an effort to improve communications and I also think some agencies, for example the FBI, have gotten more involved in countering terrorism and being directly involved in those sorts of issues than they were before 9/11, so I think they have been increasing their own expertise and that surely helps.

Undicisettembre: You are now a lawyer, right? Did you have to readjust your life when switching from being a DIA agent to being a lawyer?

Julie Sirrs: Well, no. After I left DIA I went to work for a small group that was made up of other former intelligence personnel and that was a natural transition, but eventually I wanted to do something different so I chose that. But I do think some of the same skills are helpful, at times you are sort of investigating. I deal with a lot of different types of people as a lawyer just as I dealt with a lot of different types of people when I was with the DIA in the United States and overseas. It’s different, but it has been a good transition and sometimes I’m surprised by how much I use the same skills.

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