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In 'Anatomy Of Terror,' Former FBI Agent Outlines How Terror Groups Stay Resilient

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ali Soufan compares al-Qaida to the hydra, the mythic serpent with many heads. Cut one off, and two more grow on. Ali Soufan was an FBI special agent. He interrogated several al-Qaida operatives. His new book, "Anatomy Of Terror," is about the groups and individuals that have survived battlefield defeats, bombings, assassinations, crackdowns, exile, imprisonment and who continue to pose a threat in both Muslim countries and the West. Welcome to the program.

ALI SOUFAN: Thank you, Sir.

SIEGEL: If you were to sum up as succinctly as you can what gives such resiliency to a cause that has witnessed so many defeats and deaths among its ranks, what do you say?

SOUFAN: It's the ideology. It's the narrative. They believe that they are fighting for the sake of their own interpretation of religion. We have been fighting an organization. We've been successful against tactically weakening that organization. However, strategically, they have been able to mutate because we focus on attacking structures. They are focused on ideology and message. And that ideology is actually the neck of this hydra.

Only when we cut off the neck, when we cut the ideology and we cut the narrative off, then we can be weakening the organization that has basically expanded enormously, you know, after bin Laden's death. Today is the sixth anniversary of his death, and the organization today is way more powerful than it used to be six years ago when the Navy SEALs took down Osama bin Laden.

SIEGEL: At the end of your book, you cite Northern Ireland as an example of a conflict that was marked by terror and suppression that was brought to a resolution. That entailed men whom the British regarded as complicit in assassination and murder and bombings into politics, even into Parliament, as it turned out. Is that sort of result conceivable with al-Qaida considering that even the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt resulted in their ouster and prosecution?

SOUFAN: I think it's too far away to think that al-Qaida can be part of any kind of a political solution in the Middle East. Al-Qaida's still in nature a terrorist organization. They don't believe in including others in their ruling schemes, whatever they are. They don't believe in democracy. They don't believe in elections. And I think the example that I put at the end of the book and the comparison with Northern Ireland is mostly about individuals.

In Northern Ireland, I was talking to a person who was top leader in the operations of the IRA. And the whole time in - during our discussion, he always talk about Catholics this and Protestants that. And the whole conflict - he sees it through a sectarian lens - you know, him being a Catholic who was persecuted by Protestants. And his family was persecuted by Protestants.

So - but some of the stuff that he was talking about did not make any sense for any person who actually believe in God - you know, the killing and the murders. So I ask him a very simple question. I said, do you believe in God? And I think he was really shocked. It was as if nobody ever ask him that question. And he said, I don't want it to insult anyone in his - in this room, but I think God is a stupid idea.

And I wonder if KSM or Mohamed Atta or any of the people who worked for bin Laden - if they had a moment of truth, if they actually believed the same way that that IRA believed. You look at their practices, for example, and their behavior. KSM was known in the brothels of the Philippine (ph).

SIEGEL: This is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

SOUFAN: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. Mohammed Atta, who led the operation - before he went on the plane, he was having shots of vodka at a bar. Some of the hijackers were having lap dances at a strip joint in New Jersey. So those guys are not, you know - they're not practicing...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SOUFAN: ...Muslims in any way, shape or form.

SIEGEL: Well, that observation which you made reminded me of an argument I've read that what we've witnessed is not simply the radicalization of political Islam but the Islamization of radicalism. That is, that there are people who have complaints, who have grievances, and it turns out that Islam provides a vocabulary for them to abuse and use and rationalize their actions.

SOUFAN: Absolutely, and I totally agree with this. You know, and I think what I try to do in this book is to focus on the story through the eyes of several leaders of al-Qaida - you know, bin Laden, for example, Abu Musab Zarqawi, Saif al-Adel, Zawahiri, al-Baghdadi - and to see the world through their eyes, to see what are their grievances. Why do people actually get so upset that they are willing to go and blow themselves up? How did they view the Iraq war, and how did the Iraq war played into their narrative because I think what we need and, in 15 years or 16 years after 9/11, we still unfortunately don't have - deeper understanding of the enemy.

And I think I tried in this book to create a sense of empathy. And I don't mean empathy in the colloquial sense. I actually mean more empathy in the clinical sense. Only then we can start to develop model in order to predict their actions. And I hope that the reader when they read this some kind of a fun novel - because it wasn't written as a terrorism book. It was written more about the stories of these individuals to the regular reader who basically don't know much...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SOUFAN: ...About terrorism and about the debate about al-Qaida and ISIS and what's happening in the Muslim world today.

SIEGEL: How do you draw a line between countering the al-Qaida narrative in our in our political discourse here and lapsing into an Islamophobia and just saying, it's crazy Muslims. You know, what can you do about this?

SOUFAN: Well, you know, Islamophobia will lead directly to more recruits for these groups. These groups believes that there are two camps - a camp of the believers and the camp of the nonbelievers. And there is nothing between - in between. In all that propaganda - for example, al-Awlaki, who is a main propagandist for this movement...

SIEGEL: He's an American.

SOUFAN: He's an American Yemeni, yeah. He always talk about - you know, his goal is to make the West turn against its Muslims because they wanted a clash of civilization. So we have to approach that not from a clash of civilization perspective but an intracivilizational (ph) clash perspective. What's happening today is a conflict within Islam between radicals and between, you know, moderates, between Sunnis and between Shia, between Kurds and Turks, Arab and Persian.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SOUFAN: And I think we have to realize the nature of these conflicts. Also, we have to wage war not only against the physical space. But more importantly is to wage a war, an international, global campaign...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SOUFAN: ...Against the space that these guys occupies in the minds of the vulnerable and the minds of the alienated. And this is the hard part. And when we begin winning that battle, we will finally win this war.

SIEGEL: Ali Soufan, author of "Anatomy Of Terror," thank you for talking with us.

SOUFAN: Thank you, Sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEL SONG, "KNOW YOU DON'T") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.