As a resurgent Al Qaeda threatens to turn its attention away from violent sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and target the West again, a leading counter-terrorism expert questions whether Washington can devise an effective strategy when “we still don’t have deep knowledge of the enemy.”
According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent and current member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, even the most aggressively planned and executed military tactics against Islamic terror groups are doomed without psychological insight and appreciation of centuries of Middle East history.
“We need to have a vision going forward,” he told a recent seminar sponsored by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism.
“Why do you have individuals willing to blow themselves up for an evil ideology?” said Soufan, himself a Muslim—and he noted that answering that question has never been so critical.
“The most potent weapon is not a gun, a knife, or a bomb; it’s an ideology.”
Soufran was expanding on points raised in his new book “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” which describes the history of Al Qaeda before and after 9/11, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the waning threat of ISIS just as a rejuvenated Al Qaeda presents itself to the West—possibly with Osama Bin Laden’s son Hazma as its new leader.
Soufan said understanding the enemy requires what he defined as “clinical empathy.”
When asked about his repeated use of the word “evil” in descriptions of the individuals and groups written about in Anatomy of Terror, Soufan said the word choice is deliberate.
He dislikes the phrase “radical Islam,” saying, “It’s not radical and it’s not Islam.”
He also disagrees with the theory of economic forces forging the leaders of these terrorist groups.
“Most of these people are not poor,” he pointed out.
Soufan was largely dismissive of claims of a “dwindling” ISIS, and ridiculed its taking credit for the mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month that killed 58 people.
“If I were to fall down the stairs, they would take credit for it,” he said.
Nevertheless, for Soufan, who was the FBI’s lead investigator of Al Qaeda after the 9/11 terror attacks, the group founded by Osama bin Laden is definitely now the greater threat.
Ironically, America’s $2 trillion war on terror has turned a core of some 400 committed members of Al Qaeda pre-9/11 into a far larger group, even after Osama Bin Laden was shot to death and Khalid Sheik Mohammed was captured.
“Sixteen years after 9/11, we have thousands and thousands of followers adhering to Bin Laden’s ideas,” Soufan said.
The West’s lack of political engagement with the leaders in the Middle East after the Arab Spring was a missed opportunity, Soufan said.
Now, he added, the U.S. urgently needs to pursue full political and diplomatic engagement with those leaders.
“We need to use all the tools in our toolbox to fight the extremist narrative and create a counter- narrative,” Soufan told the October 6 seminar.
One of those tools is discrediting Al Qaeda whenever possible with sophisticated public relations efforts, utilizing social media, to discourage recruitment.
But the U.S. also needs to form local alliances, and demanding more of the nation’s existing allies in the region is critical, argued Soufan.
“We talk about democracy and human rights, but when it comes down to it, we don’t care about those things,” he said.
“We must have the courage to force our allies to do what they need to do.”
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) at The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.