The “Axis of Instability” and the State of Global Terrorism: Interview with Ali Soufan

The “Axis of Instability” and the State of Global Terrorism: Interview with Ali Soufan

. 9 min read

ALI SOUFAN, a former FBI special agent and the lead investigator on some of the world’s most complex international terrorism cases, gained an international reputation as a top counterterrorism operative. He is the Chairman and CEO of The Soufan Group, Founder of The Soufan Center and has been featured in books, films, television series, newspaper articles, and documentaries across the globe.

You gained a lot of prestige from your work investigating the 9/11 attacks. In fact, you were only one of eight FBI agents able to speak fluent Arabic at the time of the attacks – clearly, the FBI’s domestic counterterrorism capabilities have expanded since then. What techniques are currently at the forefront of preventing terrorism on American soil?

Well, unfortunately, these days, terrorism is not a priority. Not in the United States, not in so many different countries around the world. We’re more into the great power competition that you hear about—it’s China, [or] what's going on in Ukraine. The dynamics are very different in the world today. In terms of techniques we have at our disposal when we deal with the domestic terrorism component: [we have] the strategy of the Biden administration, [and] some of the issues that were implemented even before under the Trump administration. We're trying to be involved, not only [with] the US government, but with civil society, in raising awareness. The government is now more and more into intelligence gathering in pursuing investigations and prosecutions. However, unfortunately, I believe it took us a long time to recognize the threat of domestic terrorism. And I'm concerned that it's going to be difficult at this stage to deal with it without the political support from everybody in Congress from both parties, taking into account that the threat by supremacist groups or [the] far right, or whatever you want to call them, is as significant as the threat that we had before with the jihadis.

I think if you look at the tools [that are] available, we have criminal tools that are available to the FBI to investigate any criminal activities. But a lot of the important and significant tools that we had before in targeting jihadis or international terrorist organizations, tools like material support, cannot [be utilized] against domestic terrorists. So I think we need to start looking into how we can update some of the laws and protocols and procedures in order to deal with the threats as they are today, not as they were before. The Biden administration came with a domestic terrorism strategy, and it's based on, I believe, four pillars. [The first three are] to understand the threat, to prevent recruitment and mobilization, and to disrupt and deter domestic activities before they happen. And I think the fourth one is to attempt to deal with the core driver [of terrorism], which is very difficult. How do you deal with the core drivers when you have to deal with partisanship, polarization, rampant disinformation, [and the] spread of violent conspiracies over the Internet? It is very difficult for us to figure out how to develop a comprehensive operational plan to accomplish the goals set by the domestic terrorism strategy of the US government at this point.

The Department of Homeland Security argued in 2020 that right-wing violence is the most pressing terrorist threat facing the United States, overtaking foreign terrorist groups. Twenty-two years after 9/11, to what extent are foreign Islamic terror organizations – the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, etc. – still a threat to the average American?

Just because we have a new threat in the United States, in the form of domestic terrorism, doesn't mean that the jihadist threat is over. I think that now, if you look at the situation in the Middle East and other regions, you will see an arc of instability going all the way from the western shores of Africa to Southeast Asia. You have vacuums left behind by collapse of government [and] by Western coalitions, you have enormous opportunities for these terrorist groups and jihadi groups to exploit. And they are doing this. Before 9/11, for example, we had embassies in Libya, Yemen, [and] Syria. Just a few years ago, we had an embassy in Kabul and an embassy in Sudan. We had embassies in so many different places. Now we don't even have diplomatic eyes and ears on the ground. There is a significant vacuum, and many of these regions are controlled by non-state actors. Even the regions where you still have government—for example, Burkina Faso and Mali—up to 40-50% of their territory is controlled by jihadi groups, or groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, or with the so-called Islamic State. So this is a very dangerous situation.

Fortunately, at this point, these groups are not focusing on the global jihad. They are focusing on regional issues and domestic issues, because that's their strategy. If you look into the strategy of al-Qaeda, as stated in The Management of Savagery, there are three stages. First, you do terrorism in order to weaken the international and the regional order. Second, you prevent somebody else from filling the vacuum and have people depend on you for security [and] for social services. And you create alliances, and then you establish a state. I think they believe they are in stage two, and some areas are working better than others. But at any stage, with the amount of people they have been able to recruit, the capabilities they are building, [and] the networks that they are able to establish, at any time, these things can shift and they can go back to phase one. They can go back to conducting international terrorist operations. I'm concerned about the numbers of individuals around the world [that are] joining the regional affiliates of al-Qaeda. On the eve of 9/11, [they] had about 400 pledged members. Today, I think [they] have north of 45,000 members.

However, not all [of] these individuals are ideologically committed to al-Qaeda. They are not Bin Laden-type al-Qaeda. They are involved with regional affiliates for security or protection. This is the issue in the Sahel, for example. It's not ideological as much as it is ethnic and economic, because of a lot of factors [are] connected to global warming, [including] fighting over resources, which creates tension between the farmers and the herders. And [when] the government protects farmers, al-Qaeda comes and they protect the herders or take revenge [for] what the government is doing to the herders. So there are so many reasons that these groups are getting bigger, not necessarily [for] ideological [or] anti-Western [reasons]. And I think we need to pay attention to these organizations and how they are evolving and how they are moving around the regions in the world. Just because most of the threats in the Western world today come from far-right groups or racially and ethnically motivated individuals and groups does not mean the jihadi threat is over.

Some observers, including at the HIR, have labeled the French Operation Barkhane, which was the French security forces’ attempt to quell terrorism in the Sahel, a failure. What does the French withdrawal mean for international security cooperation? Do you think this operation was in fact a failure? And if so, what could the French have done differently in your opinion?

Well, it was as successful as our engagement in Afghanistan, put it this way. Unfortunately, the French and the countries that were working with the French in the region, started to feel mission creep. I think France needed to redefine its strategy in the Sahel, especially after the very fraught relations with its partners over there on the ground, specifically in Mali. Also, you have to keep in mind, public sentiment in the region has been vocal in seeking distance from former colonial powers, such as the French. And you had significant disinformation campaigns, especially by the Russians, building and exploiting these grievances and promoting anti-French and anti-Western sentiment.

I think when you look at Mali [and] the Sahel region, it's becoming more and more now the focus of counterterrorism concerns for the US and for other Western governments, because you see all the different al-Qaeda-affiliated groups really being successful in controlling land, building relationships, [and] expanding their influence across ethnic and tribal lines. Now, al-Qaeda is not only the Arabs in southern Algeria, as it used to be before with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. With the new affiliates, you have ethnic groups [including] Fulanis, Arabs, Berber, the Tuareg and so forth.

Also, it's concerning to see a shift with some of the so-called jihadis coming from the Levant regions, Iraq, and even from areas in Pakistan moving towards the Sahel region. So we have affiliates of al-Qaeda [and] affiliates of the Islamic State operating freely in the region, controlling [a] significant amount of land, not only in Mali but also in Burkina Faso and in many other countries. But also, we started to see that the violence is spilling over to coastal Western African states that previously were unaffected—places like Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Ghana, and so forth. So we have this vacuum. And suddenly, we started to also see increased efforts by the Kremlin to woo African leaders and African governments, based on all the stuff that we talked about earlier, and [to] build relationships with them through the deployment of private military companies, such as the Wagner Group.

In Afghanistan, there are questions remaining about the Taliban’s connections to terror groups, such as al-Qaeda. How do you see the Taliban government's relationship with terror groups evolving: for the better, or for the worse? And should other countries, including the United States, provide the Taliban with anti-terror support, including intelligence on terrorist positions?

The Taliban has an enemy and it is mostly the branch of the Islamic State-Khorasan or IS-K. But that does not mean that just because the United States is an enemy of IS-K, and the Taliban are an enemy of IS-K, that the Taliban is a good partner or a trusted partner for the United States. The US government is [definitely] engaged through the Qataris and through other entities with the Afghans. But this relationship is very limited. And especially when it comes to counterterrorism, there [are] still a lot of specific sensitivities in dealing with them. You can see what happened, for example, with the targeting of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former leader of al-Qaeda, in Kabul. He was operating freely in the Afghani capital. Many terrorist organizations, groups, and individuals went back to Afghanistan.

The Taliban now are in a difficult position. They know how to be insurgents, but now they have to be a government. And how do you become a valuable partner for your region—I'm not even talking about the Western countries—if you don't [make] it very difficult and impossible for these terrorist groups to come over and operate freely in your land? Also, at the same time, I think there's a division among the Taliban. These divisions [are] not new. The Taliban hasn't been monolithic. You have the people down south, and they support Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob, who was the defense minister. You have the Pashtun in the north. That's more into the Haqqani Network, and they control the Ministry of the Interior. And now, we’ve started to see regional countries like Pakistan, China, Russia, [and] Iran trying to create and develop relationships with proxies within the Taliban government and the Taliban movement. And the return of terrorist organizations—as mentioned not only by the US government but also by the UN—back to operate in Afghanistan is at the least concerning.

Several Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been accused of funding terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State. Have American efforts in the region hindered the export of resources to terrorist groups? Or have we turned a blind eye to deeply entrenched networks of support in government and private industry?

That's a very good question. I think it will not be fair to say that the United States and the international community didn't do a significant job in hindering the terrorism finances in the region, especially in the Gulf countries. The US government and State Department and Treasury have created a lot of MOUs [memoranda of understanding], agreements with these governments to counter terrorism finance, and anti-money laundering operations to help them bridge the gaps that exist in their system. [The US shares] intelligence with them, in order to make it difficult [for] individuals, entities, organizations, and private sector companies to be used as a resource to these terrorist organizations. I think we have been very successful in this.

Now, there are other problems that sometimes countries have to deal with. And it is a problem of definition. For example, many countries in the Middle East do not consider Hamas [to be] a terrorist organization. They consider Hamas [to be] a Palestinian group operating within the Palestinian political system. And then there [are] a lot of geopolitical political relationships that happen between the United States, Israel, and, for example, Qatar in order to figure out how we can build bridges [and] de-escalate conflicts when they happen. That's why, when you see a problem in Gaza, immediately, Qatar and Egypt and other countries are working with the US government and the Israelis to de-escalate. If the Qataris or other entities all considered Hamas [to be] a terrorist organization, then this channel [would not be] open.

But also at the same time, we have to keep in mind that any kind of support that's going to Gaza is not going directly to Hamas. It's actually going through Israeli banks as part of a bigger agreement that includes Israel and the United States. So I think if we are talking about groups like al-Qaeda [or] ISIS, the State Department and Treasury continue to work very closely with all our partners in the Middle East in order to diminish the financial networks of these groups. And when it comes to different organizations that [are] not necessarily considered terrorist organizations by some of these countries, the situation becomes a little bit more complicated, and it has geopolitical dimensions.

Wyss spoke with Soufan on May 19, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.