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 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT