Ali Soufan is the chief executive officer of The Soufan Group. As an FBI Supervisory Special Agent, Soufan investigated and supervised complex international terrorism cases, including the East Africa embassy bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, and the events surrounding 9/11. He is the author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State and the New York Times top-10 bestseller The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, winner of the 2012 Ridenhour Book Prize. He had a distinguished career in the FBI, including serving on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, New York Office, where he coordinated both domestic and international counterterrorism operations. He often operated out of hostile environments and carried out sensitive extraterritorial missions and high-level negotiations, and he has received numerous awards and commendations for his work. He has authored several feature articles for CTC Sentinel, including the authoritative profile of deceased IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Twitter: @Ali_H_Soufan
Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of an oral interview conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It has been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.
CTC: On September 11, 2001, you were an FBI special agent with experience investigating complex international terror cases, including the East Africa embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole. Can you talk about how that day, 9/11, was for you and the sense of purpose it created in you and your colleagues, and the ways you were able to contribute to the CT mission in the months and years that followed? And when you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? What are your most memorable high and low points?
Soufan: Al-Qa`ida wasn’t something new on 9/11, and the attacks did not materialize out of thin air. Maybe for most of the world and most of Americans, Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida were new, they were not household names, at least. But they were not to us in the intelligence and law enforcement community. I was part of a team that had been tracking them for years. As you mentioned, we had the East African embassy bombings in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, many plots that we disrupted in between, in Albania, in the U.K., in Morocco, you name it, in Jordan with the millennium plot. So we were very familiar with al-Qa`ida and its capabilities.
My immediate thoughts after the attacks were that we are at war, that this is [the] Pearl Harbor of our generation. At the very beginning, we needed to find out who exactly was behind the attacks; that’s first. And second, we needed to do whatever [was necessary] to disrupt any further attacks. At that time, I was in Yemen working on the USS Cole investigation. My team made the connection with al-Qa`ida following an interrogation with Usama bin Ladin’s personal bodyguard, a guy by the name of Abu Jandal.a We found out that seven al-Qa`ida members from photos that we had in our investigations were all on the planes; we knew then that [that] was the very first evidence linking Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida to the attacks of September 11th. The mission immediately became to find those responsible and to destroy their networks and their infrastructure. So getting intelligence for our troops before they invade Afghanistan and walking in the footsteps of a lot of the previous great officers and agents who worked al-Qa`ida before, we were trying to prevent another attack from occurring. Those were the two priorities.
CTC: Talk a bit about how it was for you personally being involved in that mission, in that aftermath period. Obviously, like many other people, you had this emotion of what had happened in the United States. How were you able to proceed in a cool, calm, and collected way to do what you needed to do to advance the mission?
Soufan: It was such a difficult situation. Here we are, far away from home; we had no idea what was going on in New York. At the time, we thought many of our colleagues had perished in the World Trade Center. At the time, people were saying there is probably 50,000 people who are killed in downtown Manhattan.
It was a very difficult time, but we [got] our instructions and we needed to find out who was behind that attack. We needed evidence that our government can take to allies, to countries around the world, saying this is the harsh, hard evidence that bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida were behind 9/11. And we were able to obtain that.
It was such a difficult time. So many emotions, so many raw feelings that we still have until today, I still have personally until today. 9/11 for me is an event that did not happen 20 years ago; it just happened yesterday. And every time you talk about it, you remember these things that you experienced first-hand, but you remember also that determination that we had as a team to continue with the mission to find out who was behind the attacks, to identify individuals who are directly connecting to the plot, to get the intelligence that we needed in order to go to Afghanistan, in order to destroy the infrastructure of al-Qa`ida. It was a difficult moment. The emotions were so overwhelming at the time, but also the sense of rising up to the occasion and doing what the American people expected us to do. We lost friends, we lost colleagues, I lost my mentor that day, John O’Neill. But we were able to provide the intelligence and the evidence needed by our own government. We were able to identify al-Qa`ida operatives as being part of the 9/11 attacks.
CTC: This past May marked the 10th anniversary of the daring counterterrorism operation that ended up killing Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan. Over the past decade, as you well know, there’s been a considerable amount of debate about the state of al-Qa`ida and the broader al-Qa`ida network, especially its capability, status, and ability to endure. The Soufan Center have helped shape some of that debate and conversation. What is your assessment of the United States’ campaign to degrade and defeat al-Qa`ida and the nature of the threat posed by the group today? In what areas have the United States and its allies achieved some level of ‘success’ and ‘won’? And in what areas has the United States performed less well with challenges still remaining? Given the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the capital Kabul, what’s your level of concern that the terror group [al-Qa`ida] may bounce back as a major threat to U.S. security?
Soufan: Al-Qa`ida today is nothing like the group that attacked us on September 11, 2001. Al-Qa`ida’s core has been weakened after a period of high leadership attrition, but its regional affiliates worldwide still pose a threat, particularly the Yemen-based al-Qa`ida of the Arabian Peninsula, Shabaab in Somalia, various groups in the Sahel region in West Africa. And jihadis now are even opening new fronts in part of Central Africa, like in Mozambique and the DRC. Al-Qa`ida has evolved considerably over the last 20 years or so, yet it remains very dangerous. The network today is like a hydra, a serpent with many heads. It is more geographically dispersed. It has branches all over the Muslim world, whereas on 9/11 it was mainly relegated to operating in and around the Taliban-controlled territories in Afghanistan. The group today is focused on local issues throughout its branches and affiliates and franchises, but that focus could change.
Al-Qa`ida continues to have international aspiration, make no mistake about it. So just because today’s al-Qa`ida haven’t targeted the U.S. or the West does not mean that cannot change. We cannot get stuck in a conventional mindset; we cannot have a failure of imagination again. Unfortunately, we continue sometimes to repeat past mistakes at a great peril. The conditions that gave rise to the September 11 attacks are resurfacing in places like Iraq, like Syria, like the Sahel and now definitely in Afghanistan, which will allow groups like al-Qa`ida to grow in strength. We’ve also failed so far to deal with the ideology. The next attack won’t be something we did not predict, but likely the manifestation of something we did not learn from in the past or we are not effectively addressing today.
Let’s take Afghanistan, for example. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan certainly provides an opportunity for al-Qa`ida to regrow its capabilities, to grow its operation within the country. If Afghanistan once again descends into civil war, if Afghanistan becomes like it used to be before, most probably it will again be a magnet for foreign fighters from the region and from beyond. So frankly, back to square one.
However, this time, the Taliban is likely to rule differently than it did in the past. If the Taliban learns lessons from other violent non-state actors, and instead of destroying the state and its existing institutions, they manage to absorb it from within—similar to what the Houthis did in Yemen or the Hashdb did in Iraq—then we might be dealing with a larger problem. This is a group that remains highly cognizant of what is at stake geopolitically, as evidenced by its relationship with Turkey, Iran, China, and other regional players. If the Taliban is able to behave in a less reactive, and a more pragmatic manner, it will likely acquire increased political legitimacy within Afghanistan. With the Taliban gaining effective control of the country, it will be an absolute boon for groups like al-Qa`ida, which have been loyal to the Taliban and their relationship is sealed with a religious bay`a. In turn, al-Qa`ida is going to expect some room to maneuver in Afghanistan, allowing it to recruit, fundraise, and train.
CTC: Over the past 20 years, the United States has developed an impressive array of investigative expertise, new tools, methodologies like F3EAD,c operational capabilities, and partnerships such as the global coalition to counter ISIS that have been integral to the CT fight. Over that same span of time, the United States has successfully prosecuted many terror offenders and also demonstrated its ability to deploy new or enhanced capabilities and tools tactically and operationally around the world in precise and impactful ways. How would you describe the evolution of U.S. CT over the past two decades? What stands out to you? And when you think about the future of U.S. CT over the next five to 10 years, what does that picture look like?
Soufan: Too often, the U.S. has remained fixated and focused on enhanced capabilities that have provided significant tactical benefits but that do little to helping round out a comprehensive and effective counterterrorism strategy that deals with all aspects of the counterterrorism threat. The United States has cutting-edge technology and world-class special operators, but decapitation of terrorist organization is a tactical innovation. It cannot do much in addressing the jihadi narrative, for example, or the ideology behind that narrative.
We have had significant successes in creating partnership in helping others stand up for themselves and fighting the extremists, like with the ISIS coalition. We have done a great job—the FBI and other law enforcement entities—in prosecuting terrorists here in the United States. But all these successes are because of the amazing intelligence officers that we have, the amazing law enforcement agents that we have, the amazing military that we have.
But the solution has to be a strategic solution that’s outlined by our political leadership. Unfortunately, we have failed in that. Tactically, we have been successful every step of the way. Strategically, I think if you look at the threat matrix today and how it’s spread across the Muslim world, it’s just a significant blaring indication of the strategic failure that you cannot blame [on] the people in the field. The people in field and the military do not set the agenda. That’s a political agenda.
Another evolution that we cannot overlook is the complete moral and security failure in some elements out of the war on terrorism—for example, enhanced interrogation techniques, or some people call it the torture program. From all perspectives, from a security perspective, from a counterterrorism perspective, from a legal perspective, from a moral perspective, as mentioned by the CIA’s Inspector General, or the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, or the Armed Services Committee report, that program has been a complete failure and affected our reputation around the world and helped the terrorists recruit. We have terrorists now in Guantanamo Bay with American blood on their hands, who have been waiting trials for years and years, but because of torture, because of that program, many families and victims will not get accountability or justice. This is not a success, and I hope it will never be repeated by the U.S. It is why I fought so hard to un-redact information concerning this program so now the American people can read what really happened and they can learn from the lessons of the past, and so that these lessons would forever be in the public record.
CTC: When you think of the CT mission over the last 20 years, how would you summarize the key lessons learned in terms of keeping the United States safe from the kind of catastrophic attack we saw 20 years ago?
Soufan: We have to learn our lessons and ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. I spent years tracking, analyzing, and trying to understand and disrupt terrorist groups and organizations. And today, I see many similarities between the rise of global salafi jihadist ideologies in the ‘80s and ‘90s and the rise of global white supremacist ideology in recent years. What most surprised me is how we can overlook the parallels between the rise of these two movements, how we cannot learn the lessons over two decades of the War on Terror. We completely and totally overlook the threats to the homeland from within, and we have not heeded any of the lessons about the rise of domestic threats and the threats that these kind of groups pose to our society. So our current counterterrorism framework was set up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to deal almost exclusively with foreign terrorist groups, groups like al-Qa`ida. But our threat landscape has changed, and so too must our thinking and our response.
CTC: At a time of ongoing transformational technological change in fields such as synthetic biology, drones, and artificial intelligence, and as the United States emerges from a global pandemic that has renewed concern over biological threats, what are the potential threats from terrorist groups and non-state actors that most concern you in the years ahead?
Soufan: I am drawn to Sun Tzu’s saying: If you know your enemy and know yourself, you will win a hundred times in a hundred battles. We talked about failure of imagination before with 9/11; that was a conclusion the 9/11 Commission came with in describing 9/11. Our imagination is always very limited. It’s limited by our perceptions, limited by our knowledge, limited by our experience, and now even with our partisan politics. But one area where we have failed repeatedly is in the battlefield of narratives and the battlefield of diplomacy. Fighting an ideology is a long process, one in which progress may not always be immediately apparent. After 9/11, it was common to hear analysts testify that they simply could not imagine someone flying a plane into a building. In Afghanistan, we had no idea what to do after the military victory. I recall listening to high-level administration officials back in 2003 saying we could not imagine it will take more troops to secure Iraq after Saddam than it will take to take out Saddam. We could not imagine—we heard that so many times—we could not imagine we will be in Afghanistan for 20 years.
In terms of the main [likely future] threats, I would draw attention to three key areas that [are] shaping the terrorism landscape right now, and which will continue to shape it, I believe, in the foreseeable future. First, the enduring threat from salafi jihadi-inspired terrorism. Second, the rising threat from anti-government, violent groups and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists. And three, the prevalence of conspiracy theories and disinformation online and the corresponding effect offline.
As for that possibility of a biological terror attack, our CBRN defense apparatus was significantly bolstered after the anthrax attacks in 2001, which particularly blindsided us because it happened shortly after 9/11. Whether or not this is a type of attack that law enforcement and federal entities can interdict without substantial preventive measures is less clear, especially with the possible implications of emerging technology—for example, on potential CBRN terrorism. The possibility of a CBRN attack rightfully gets a great deal of attention because an attack with biological or chemical weapons could be a tremendous shock to society, a tremendous shock to the perception of safety that we aim to protect. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are still significant institutional and intellectual barriers keeping terrorists from replicating chemical and biological weapons. However, technology is changing faster than regulators can keep up, and we’ve been apprehensive about the possibility of a CBRN attack for decades. Chemical and biological attacks pose a significant threat. If terrorists are successful in launching a CBRN attack, even if not a highly lethal event, it will still have a profound psychological impact.
CTC: What is the most important personal lesson that you’ve learned over your many years working on counterterrorism that you think would be helpful for the many men and women in the United States and partner countries around the world who will lead and take part in the next generation of counterterrorism efforts to know?
Soufan: We need to learn from the past. We need to keep our eye on the ball. The threat is not gone yet, and now we see a lot of people trying to make this false dichotomy between counterterrorism and great power competition. I think the United States can and must do both. There are significant areas of overlap and conversions between counterterrorism and between great power competition, including, for example, with the Iranian-sponsored proxy groups. You have the Houthi in Yemen, Lebanese Hezbollah, you have Hamas, you have the Shi`a militias in Iraq, the Russians assistance to separatists in eastern Ukraine. What we are seeing more and more is a violence conducted by non-state actors—in some places, they are terrorists; in others, they are insurgents or militias—they are using sophisticated weaponries and technology supplied by state actors who also provide tacit knowledge transfer through hands-on training. Also, let’s keep in mind that the threat from both the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida—now they are operating in various regions—that threat remains potent. The U.S. will continue to require the capacity to retain counterterrorism capabilities and partnerships with reasonable proximity to these areas that have a threat.
We’ve learned that we cannot just focus on the threat in our own backyard, as global threats will eventually threaten our own security here at home as seen on 9/11. The U.S. has always been the leader in this realm, and we should try to keep hold of that position, even after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Apart from Pakistan, for example, Central Asia is a region that has historically served as a key hub for U.S. military, logistics, and intelligence capabilities during the global war on terrorism. That region has been flagged as a possible location for U.S. presence. A more robust U.S. presence in Central Asia could result in a closer partnership between China and Russia, already influential in that region. This is another area where we see the convergence of counterterrorism and great power competition.
With regard to the new generation of counterterrorism folks, they have never dealt with a significant crisis management situation like we had after 9/11, but they’ve seen the pandemic. And I think there is a possibility—we’re still a ways from understanding the full impact and predict the full impact of the pandemic on terrorism—but there will be some second- and third-order effects that we’re not necessarily prepared for or even ready to respond to. There is no doubt that the pandemic has heightened social, economic, cultural, political divides. There’s no doubt that the pandemic further isolated individuals and pushed them towards groups and echo chambers online, even more than usual. These dynamics have ripened future opportunities for radicalization.
With the pandemic, it wasn’t just one thing that went wrong. We had confusing public messaging, shortages of PPE [personal protective equipment], problems with supply chains, varying lockdown requirements. We need to have a close evaluation of that response to understand what we can do better. For decades, we told ourselves that pandemics were real and that we were prepared. But we were not. This crisis was not a failure of imagination, but a failure of preparation. We have witnessed a global phenomenon of politicization of mask wearing and the vaccines. It has become a sense of politics or even identity, in many cases, to shun precautionary measures. We now have to factor in disinformation and misinformation when it comes to response and future planning. The impact of disinformation campaigns, the impact of misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories, underpinned by this wave of anti-government rhetoric, should be a significant cause of concern. Our crisis management down the road must contend with an information climate that’s defined by polarization and lack of trust. Our preparedness must now account for this, unfortunately. It’s also something that our adversaries have recognized and seize upon and frequently use against us. Some of these adversaries might be non-state actors and terrorist organizations and groups.
CTC: You’ve had the experience of sitting across the table from people like Abu Jandal and dozens of al-Qa`ida members during your FBI experience and different moments of your career. What do you think al-Qa`ida has learned from these past 20 years?
Soufan: Al-Qa`ida has been able to evolve in the past 30 years, from one group to another. Al-Qa`ida in Sudan wasn’t the same as al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan before 1998. Al-Qa`ida after 1998 was a little bit different than al-Qa`ida on 9/11 and al-Qa`ida after 9/11 was very different than al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan, and it continued to evolve. And I think the Arab Spring changed the calculus of al-Qa`ida. So they started to focus more on dealing with local conflicts and taking advantage of these local conflicts in order to prevent anybody else from filling the vacuum that existed because of the fall of dictators like Ali Abdullah Saleh or Muammar Qaddafi or the civil war in Syria, and so forth. So they change their calculus in order to go from one stage in their strategy to another stage.
Al-Qa`ida has a strategy called the “management of savagery.” Phase one, you do terrorism to disrupt the regional and global order. Phase two, you prevent anybody else from filling the vacuum, and establish relationships and alliances with other groups, tribes, members of the population. And phase three, you establish a state, and then you take all these states together and you combine them under a caliphate. And if you look at the map, you see them doing this strategy in the Sahel. You see them trying to do the strategies in areas in Yemen. You see them trying to do it also in East Africa. You see them trying and failing in one way or another to do it in Syria. And now with us pulling [out] from Afghanistan, their calculus is also, I believe, going to change. Their calculus is, the main goal of al-Qa`ida has been accomplished. In 1989, the mujahideen defeated one of two superpowers, the Soviet Union. On September 11, 2021, they defeated the second superpower, the United States. And this is going to be a huge propaganda tool for al-Qa`ida, which is going to help them further spread their message not only [in] Afghanistan but also with sympathetic groups in Pakistan and Tajikistan, and all across the Muslim world.
CTC: There’s this belief that we’re in maybe the end of the fourth quarter when it comes to the fight against terrorism. There’s this fatigue with terrorism. The public is tuning out. There’s a desire in Washington, London, other capitals to move on to great power competition. Obviously, reality sometimes intervenes, and it seems to be intervening at rapid speed right now in Afghanistan and parts of Africa. With that analogy of a football game, where are we at with this struggle against the global jihadis, to include the struggle between moderates and extremists in Muslim societies?
Soufan: We always think that terrorist groups have a timeline. They don’t. We create these timelines and start focusing on them even though they mean nothing to groups like the Taliban or al-Qa`ida or ISIS. They are not working on a timeline. They are working to accomplish their mission, and they see—if you look at the map today, if you look at the situation in the Sahel, in Mali, in West Africa, if you look at Yemen, if you look at Libya, if you look at Chad, if you look at what’s happening in Syria, if you look at Iraq, and yes, if you look at Afghanistan—they’re going to see themselves winning. Their strategy shifts. They are like a snake, like a serpent. It’s shifted from place to place.
Al-Qa`ida has this McDonalds approach to jihad. They look at the al-Qa`ida branch in the Sahel, and they say, “Hey, do whatever you want to do regionally in order to become popular in order to recruit.” Their strategy might be very different than the one in Syria or very different than the one in Afghanistan. It’s not as centralized as it used to be, but however, we have to remember that each one of these affiliates—the leaders of their affiliates and each member of the affiliates—gave bay`a to the leader of al-Qa`ida, whoever the leader of al-Qa`ida is going to be. So this is a situation that we have to keep in mind. The threat is still there. I believe the threat is probably more dangerous today than it used to be in 1996 or 1998 when bin Ladin started operating in Afghanistan. We have a lot of things that we need to be careful about. And yes, we’ve pulled out of Afghanistan, but we need a safety net. We need a plan B to contain that threat in Afghanistan and prevent al-Qa`ida and prevent the Taliban and prevent other terrorist organizations [from using] Afghanistan like they used it before—[and in the case of al-Qa`ida] to plan the East Africa embassy bombings, to plan the USS Cole, to plan 9/11. Do we have a plan to do so? This is not a military decision. This is not [a] law enforcement decision. This is not [an] intelligence community [decision]. This is a political decision. This is a whole-of-government approach [that is necessary for] dealing with this.
As for the great power competition, there is significant overlap between both. Now we see so many countries around the world—to include Russia, to include regional powers like Iran and Turkey—using non-state actors to accomplish their regional missions. We talked about Iran and their relationship with the Shiite militias in Iraq or the Houthis in Yemen or Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Gaza. We saw mercenaries being used in Libya and even during the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We see Russia using non-state actors in Ukraine and using the Wagner Group in Syria and different places in Africa, to include Libya.
So in the last 20 years, the United States established significant amount of partnership with regional groups, with local entities to counter terrorism, and we cannot just walk away from these groups in order to follow a new strategy about great power competition. The world is a messy place. It’s not [like] we can pick and choose. The world operates differently, and we need to deal with the world as it is, not as some analysts in Washington believe it ought to be. We have [a] significant amount of threats to deal with today, and I think the counterterrorism strategy of the last 20 years, specifically the part of establishing partnerships and establishing training relationships or engagement with countries around the world, is going to be very significant to help us, even with the great power competition strategy. CTC
[a] Editor’s Note: Nasser al-Bahri, also known as Abu Jandal, was Usama bin Ladin’s bodyguard in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. He later renounced al-Qa`ida and died in Yemen in 2015. “Bin Laden’s former bodyguard Nasser al-Bahri dies,” BBC, December 28, 2015; Raoul Wootlif, “Bin Laden’s former bodyguard dies in Yemen,” Times of Israel, December 28, 2015.
[b] Editor’s Note: The Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF) are a Shi`a-dominated constellation of militia groups in Iraq. They played a significant role in Iraqi efforts against the Islamic State and are now “officially and legally organs of the Iraqi state.” Crispin Smith, “Iraq’s Legal Responsibility for Militia Attacks on U.S. Forces: Paths Forward,” Just Security, March 10, 2021.
[c] “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, and Disseminate (F3EAD), pronounced ‘F-three-e-a-d’ or ‘feed,’ is a version of the targeting methodology utilized by the special operations forces (SOF) responsible for some of the most widely-publicized missions in support of overseas contingency operations.” “F3EAD: Ops/Intel Fusion ‘Feeds’ the SOF Targeting Process,” Small Wars Journal, January 31, 2012.