Targeting the seeds of terror: the case file on Ali Soufan
September 30th, 2011
03:26 PM ET

Targeting the seeds of terror: the case file on Ali Soufan

By Suzanne Kelly, Sr. National Security Producer

Editor's note: In the Security Clearance "Case File" series, CNN national security producers profile the key members of the intelligence community.

As an FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan had to be patient. It was his job to use what he had at his disposal, including his native Arabic skills and dark complexion, to not only identify with terrorism suspects around the world but to earn their trust. His ability to glean information, however seemingly trivial, was the strongest tool he had when it came to identifying and disrupting terrorist organizations.

Such was the case with Abu Zubayda, who in 2002 confirmed to Soufan that another terrorist, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

That particular interrogation was also one of his most controversial because of his public criticism of the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques against Zubaydh. The CIA insisted that the techniques were not only necessary but useful.

Soufan argued otherwise. (Soufan elaborates on his experiences with and his stand against enhanced interrogation techniques in his new book with Daniel Freedman, "The Black Banners.")

By the time Soufan interrogated Zubayda, he had built a reputation for being tough, relentless and, some thought, arrogant. His aggressive style and his willingness to argue a point made him some enemies among friends, but none of it seemed to slow him down.

Soufan had played a leading role in the investigations into the 1998 West Africa embassy bombings and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, as well as a number of interrogations of terrorist suspects both before and after the September 11 attacks.

Quite simply, agree with him or not, in the world of interrogations, Ali Soufan was a force to be reckoned with.

Today, the 40-year-old works as an entrepreneur, heading a New York-based company that bears his name. While he speaks highly of his former colleagues at both the FBI and the CIA, he smiles slyly as he explains that he no longer faces the same kind of interagency bickering or bureaucratic red tape.

The particularly frustrating times were when he had to wait days, sometimes weeks, to even gain access to a detainee. Paperwork, after all, had to be filed.

In the private sector, he doesn't fight the same battles. For example, Soufan says, it was just August when he flew to Southeast Asia to meet with government officials for a research project his new company was undertaking, targeting terrorist recruitment networks around the world. Sitting in a conference room, he quietly leaned forward and asked a government official for permission to speak directly with Ali Imron, the only surviving terrorist in a 2002 attack that killed 202 people in Bali.

As Soufan recounts, within 10 minutes, he was sitting across the table from Ali Imron.

Continuing the hunt

Soufan very much sees his private sector work as an extension of the tasks he tackled for the FBI. He has surrounded himself with the people he worked with for years, including some who have had extensive careers within the FBI, the CIA, MI-5 and MI-6, Britain's domestic and international security services.

"Sometimes, I feel like it's still a continuation," Soufan said.

Among his most senior partners are people like Robert McFadden, whose three decades in law enforcement included high-level positions within the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service; Don Borelli, another high-level FBI man who served as assistant special agent in charge in the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force; and Mark Fallon, who also served more than 30 years in positions that targeted terrorists, including working as a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and at the Department of Homeland Security.

The Soufan Group now works to consult governments and multinational corporations on ways to mitigate terrorist threats in an environment where that threat is rapidly shifting. Several U.S. officials have come out and said as much in recent weeks, as the global focus moves away from a core al Qaeda to the serious threat posed by smaller affiliate groups around the world.

Soufan insists that in some ways, he feels like he never left the FBI.

"I look around me, and I see all the people I used to work with as part of my company," he said. "We have the same focus. We see what we're doing now as a long battle to secure the world."

Terrorism is a choice

In addition to his Manhattan-based consulting company, Soufan utilizes his extensive contacts around the world as executive director of the Doha-based Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. In this role, his approach to combating terrorism is slightly different and much more academic. He helps conduct research and then promote studies that help clients understand and combat local terrorist recruitment networks.

"In Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Niger, we're looking at the different regions where people are joining terrorist movements, and we are asking, 'how can we help each other in making our own area secure?' " Soufan said.

"There is no cookie-cutter approach," he continued. "For example, heading off terrorist recruitment in Singapore is different from doing the same thing in Saudi Arabia. Every region has its own set of socioeconomic and tribal issues. Extremists find the vacuum and fill the vacuum for people who feel that they are disenfranchised."

Soufan points to Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists were from.

"Much of the population is under the age of 25," he explained. "Sexual frustration and tension are some of the motivators, and you see a lot of these people talking about the 75 virgins they are going to meet in paradise, but there are actually many reasons why people turn to terrorism in Saudi Arabia. It is a rich country, but it has big problems with the economy and a high unemployment rate. There is a big discrepancy between the government, much of which is in their 80s, and the percentage of youth under 25. There are cultural and social stresses that create a lot of the problems in Saudi Arabia."

Combating a terrorist group's ability to target recruits means understanding those local conditions.

"In Southeast Asia, most of the people who join (Jemaah Islamiyah) join based on sectarian issues, problems between Christians and Muslims," he said.

In the northern part of Africa, which is home to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, local extensions of the Sunni jihadist group offer Soufan and terrorism experts like him a critical reason to look at how the group is attracting recruits.

"Now you see them expanding into Niger, Mauritania, and there is a much a different recruitment tactic. They get money and tend to take hostages, and now we are seeing relationships with Boko Haram." (Related: What is Boko Haram?)

In a crowded field of private companies with impressive ex-government employee rosters, whether Soufan will have as much impact in his new role could take a while to figure out. Soufan says he's not in a hurry, and whether he succeeds or not, giving it a shot is better than the alternative.

"We just try," Soufan said. "Shame on us if we don't try. We don't know how successful we're going to be, but if we try to focus on these issues and try to promote these studies and research, then strategically, we will learn something. It's a duty for us to do something. The only time the bad guys succeed is when the good guys do nothing."

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Chrissie Seal

    Good Post, thanks. Has anyone ever heard about the health benefits of chia seeds?

    February 12, 2012 at 4:02 am | Reply
  2. Open Society

    Ali Soufan is a singular asset the US has against Islamist terrorism. His linguistic and cultural knowledge, his skill and dedication, and his adherence to a path of legal investigation vice the expediency of "coercive" tactics has earned him a level of access and respect few others have. I suspect he will be able to accomplish far more in the fight against terrorism on the outside than locked in the bureacracy of the FBI and US IC. He understands that this is, at its core, a fight of ideas amidst a clash of cultural perceptions, and engagement works far better than high explosives.

    October 6, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Reply
  3. C.Cantu

    The great majority of Christian Arabs could do a much better work than Ali Soufan. Christian Arabs in the Middle East are in need of support to stand up against their Muslim brethren. All Muslim nations without exception are shrinking -or not having any at all- their Christian minorities. America needs to realize that the root of the problem is Islam and its Muslim clergy and leaders.

    October 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  4. sam

    Good agents do not write books, they keep their mouth shut. Seven years in the FBI does not make you an expert in the intelligence world. Where is your loyalties really? Hizbollah? Syria, Iran? or Alqaeda? The time has come to tie your shoe.

    October 2, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
  5. Jeff Norton

    McFadden never worked for the FBI, he is former CIFA and NIS.

    October 1, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  6. Tracy722

    Soufan, your passion to fight terrorizm is remarkable. I've met many people of goog character from Lebenon but your an exception I would rank you along side the bravest of our U.S. military. God speed.

    October 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  7. JC

    Instead of spending all this money and effort to fight terrorism we just need to remove our troops from the middle east and quit propping up dictators in the middle east.

    October 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  8. Dan

    Soufan – how do you avoid becoming the interrogated? Whom can you trust?
    The US will certainly watch you very closely. This line of business has no allies.

    October 1, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  9. ThinkAgain

    "Soufan points to Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists were from."

    This is a very telling statement:

    "It [Saudi Arabia] is a rich country, but it has big problems with the economy and a high unemployment rate."

    Religious police, virtually no Middle Class, the top 1% owning and controlling everything ... this is the path the US is headed down if we don't stop the far-right agenda in this country. And we, too, will then become a hot-bed for terrorists.

    October 1, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Reply

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