9/11 Anniversary

09.11.12

Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan on Bin Laden’s Death, War on Terror

On the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, former FBI agent Ali Soufan talks to John Avlon about the Obama administration approach to al Qaeda, how the invasion of Iraq opened ‘Pandora’s Box’—and what more the U.S. needs to do to win the war on terror.

Terrorism is always one bad day away from being issue No. 1 and on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it can be easy to forget that the terrorist’s war on us hasn’t stopped.

The good news is that we have made measurable progress in this fight—not only with the elimination of bin Laden, but also with the more than 45 attempted jihadist plots foiled in the last 10 years.

The Obama administration’s strategic decision to intensely focus on the destruction of al Qaeda has proven especially effective to date, providing a useful contrast to the more unilateral, boots-on-the-ground approach of the Bush administration. This should inform our domestic debates.

And so on this anniversary, I spoke to Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent, security consultant, and author of the award-winning Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al Qaeda to get his take on the Obama counterterror doctrine. How would he sum it up in a sentence?

“Total elimination of al Qaeda.” Soufan said. “They are hitting leaders of al Qaeda, and anyone who is known to be plotting against the United States. But at the same time they are trying to stop all the incubating factors that help terrorist recruitment, funding, P.R. and so forth. They are hitting them on different levels. A lot of people see the success of the drones … but the global partnerships that have been created have been effective—and that includes law enforcement, diplomacy, economic aid, educational programs, and definitely boots on the ground when needed, i.e., killing Osama bin Laden.  So I think it's more comprehensive in nature.”

“We joke sometimes that Obama does a lot of the same tactics as George Bush, but he keeps his mouth shut,” Soufan says. “The Bush administration’s war on terror wasn't actually working because most of our allies around the world—including England, Germany, other European countries, and the Muslim world—did not have the same concept of the war on terror. So, it makes it difficult when you have a strategy that your partners are not buying into. No. 2, it was wrongfully viewed in the Muslim world as a war on Islam,” said Soufan.

Soufan clarified that he doesn’t “want to blame everything on the Bush administration. I think you have to put yourself in their shoes at the time. But the two things I disagree with the Bush administration on, the invasion of Iraq and EITs (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques), because it just created a lot of problems to our reputation around the world.”

“We joke sometimes that Obama does a lot of the same tactics as George Bush, but he keeps his mouth shut,”

But Soufan doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the Bush White House’s failures during the war on terror. “The Bush administration had a huge disaster by going into Iraq in 2003,” Soufan says. “Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda. Saddam and bin Laden were not working together. This is where some people decided to take advantage of the support after 9/11 and unfortunately that backfired and created a really significant rift. Basically, we opened Pandora's box.”

Soufan received the director of the FBI's Award for Excellence in Investigation as well as a commendation from the Defense Department that described him as "an important weapon in the ongoing war on terrorism.” He is now chief operating officer of the Soufan Group, a consultancy that works with governments and companies around the world, offering a rare perspective on the partnerships that have now been created. “For the first time you have Muslim countries, European countries working together hand in hand,” Soufan explains. “It was clearly outlined in Obama's speech in Cairo, [which] in the Middle East was viewed as ‘the time of unilateral action is not going to be there anymore.’ What he decided to focus on upon creating these partnerships to counter violent extremism, talked about human security, economic development, education, literacy, women's rights, a lot of these issues.”

Despite the high praise, Soufan is not without criticism of the Obama record.  “I think he rushed into the idea of wanting to close Guantánamo,” he says. “There was a lot to be studied before closing Guantánamo, such what to do with the detainees. Some of these detainees are very dangerous. We cannot release them. We cannot send them back to their homelands. As you know, some of the people we send we ended up tracking again.”

What does he think a Romney administration counterterror policy would look like?

“I hope we put the era of partisanship in counterterrorism behind us,” says Soufan. “There are a lot of professionals in the field who don’t play politics. And I hope that will continue under Romney, if he is elected. You know, some of the people around him might be a little bit hawkish and advocate a return to the old ways. But I think the world is very different now than it was, and the partnerships that have been created around the world have proven very effective.”

If Soufan had to put a grade on the Obama administration's counterterror record to date, what would it be?

“I’d give them an A‑. I think even though they have been correct to focus on al Qaeda, and they have been trying to work a little bit on the ideology, but I think that there is a spread of the narrative and rhetoric of al Qaeda to areas like Mali and Syria and Yemen and Somalia—in many different areas around the world, and I don't think we're doing enough to counter the narrative and counter the rhetoric. I'm not talking about putting boots on the ground, but I think we need to basically do more in order to deprive them from any sort of roots where they're trying to recruit and start again.”

We now have perspective on the actions taken in the wake of 9/11—what worked and what didn’t—and much of the partisan polarization has faded away in the face of practical realities. “We don't live in a world of white and black,” Soufan reminds us. “We live in different shades of gray, and we have to do what we have to do to keep America safe and to weaken our enemies.”