Skip to main content

What works in fighting terrorism

By Ali Soufan, Special to CNN
updated 8:03 AM EDT, Wed June 5, 2013
Lee Rigby was identified as the victim killed in a cleaver attack on May 22. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The brutal killing of Rigby shocked the United Kingdom, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying the act appears to have been a terrorist attack. Lee Rigby was identified as the victim killed in a cleaver attack on May 22. He was a member of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The brutal killing of Rigby shocked the United Kingdom, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying the act appears to have been a terrorist attack.
HIDE CAPTION
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Photos: Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Photos: Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
Attack in Southeast London
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. has been effective tactically vs. al Qaeda, since 9/11, says Ali Soufan
  • He says tragic events such as the Boston bombing keep happening
  • Soufan: We need to craft narratives to counter the ones terrorists are using to recruit

Editor's note: Ali H. Soufan is a former FBI special agent, CEO of The Soufan Group, and the author of "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda."

(CNN) -- The Achilles heel of America's policy against terrorism is its failure to counter the narratives that inspire individuals to become extremists and terrorists.

That's why -- despite the skill and numerous successes of our military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies -- the type of tragic events seen most recently with the stabbings of soldiers in London and outside Paris, and the April bombing of the Boston Marathon, will continue to occur. We're failing to use a key weapon that needs to be used.

There's no question that the United States has been extremely effective tactically against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups since 9/11. Our military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have done what they were charged with doing, from routing them in Afghanistan to hunting down Osama bin Laden to thwarting plots against New York.

Ali Soufan
Ali Soufan

But this isn't enough. For as long as extremists are able to attract new recruits, they'll keep producing replacements for those killed or apprehended and the battle will never end. This is why the strategic tool known as "countering violent extremism," or CVE, has to be used alongside special operations, drones and other weapons.

As an FBI Special Agent, I interrogated dozens of senior terrorists. It quickly became clear that part of al Qaeda's effectiveness in gaining recruits was in their tailoring their rhetoric and their messenger to the personality, location and likely local grievances of their target.

Extremists won't use a Yemeni railing about U.S. "crimes" in Iraq to try to appeal to American-Somali youths in Minnesota. They'll find someone with as close a background as possible, and who understands grievances that resonate, such as foreign powers intervening in Somalia's affairs.

Once a person is recruited they are indoctrinated with the group's counterculture. Asymmetrical groups like al Qaeda often develop their own countercultures, with certain religious texts, events and a consciousness that allows them to in many ways create their own religion within Islam. It isn't an ideology. That's factually inaccurate and gives it undeserved credit. It's a false narrative.

As I travel around the world today, I've seen how that counterculture, once centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has worryingly spread to places like Nigeria and Southeast Asia.

Its spread is helped by today's new technological tools: Recruitment is not just happening in training camps and in secret meeting rooms, but in Internet chat rooms and through social media. That has been a major factor in the increase in homegrown terrorism in the West, seen horrifically on May 22 on the streets of London and April 15 at the Boston Marathon.

In his recent speech on terrorism, President Obama told the nation that the values the United States holds will ultimately defeat the terrorists. This will be the case as long as we take the steps to effectively deploy our message. We need to counter extremists in the same manner that they recruit: Targeting extremists with the ideal medium, messenger and message.

A mistake the United States has been making to date is in repeatedly making broad gestures toward the Muslim world and the U.S. Muslim community, making the argument that the United States is a friend. These broad messages don't have an impact on those who need to be targeted.

The United States is working on developing a CVE program, but it has mistakenly spread the domestic portfolio across a range of agencies, from the Department of Education to the FBI. This makes it difficult to have a clear and effective strategy, and also hampers efforts: Charging law enforcement with both collecting intelligence on suspected extremists as well as handling community engagement programs creates natural conflicts and means that neither job can be done effectively.

The ideal situation is one in which the federal government provides support to local efforts to deal with local extremists and recruitment factors, not by imposing a strategy dictated from Washington. This requires local communities -- whether in New York or in Sana'a, Yemen -- to step up and take the lead in increasing the resiliency of their communities against these groups by identifying what the extremist narratives are and where they're spreading -- and then by countering them.

When people are being recruited because of alleged local or tribal grievances, it is community leaders who are the best messengers to counter that narrative. When it's a distortion of Islam, it's the duty of religious leaders to take the lead. Sometimes it's former extremists, who have taken the same path and have credibility, who can be the most effective messengers.

The best CVE programs, such as Singapore's, do this. They have a focused aim of reducing the pool of potential recruits and the appeal of violence, and they target accordingly. When done correctly, CVE should not be an excuse for broad social work or for anthropological studies; it's a focused counterterrorism weapon.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ali Soufan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT