This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Bobby Ghosh: You’re chairman and CEO of The Soufan Group, a national-security and counterterrorism consulting firm, and author of the book “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State.” In your previous life as an FBI special agent, you investigated and supervised some of the most important terrorism cases of our time, including the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, what is your overriding emotion?
Ali Soufan, chairman and CEO, The Soufan Group and author, “Anatomy of Terror:” It’s very difficult to think that 9/11 happened 20 years ago. For me, it feels as if it was yesterday. I was in the middle of the whole thing. From the second day, on September 12, we started to realize the significant breakdown that had occurred within our intelligence community and our law enforcement community, allowing the events of 9/11 to happen. Everything that happened after that for 20 years — all the mistakes we’ve made — it adds salt to that wound.
BG: You were on the ground in Afghanistan not long after 9/11, part of the hunt for the suspects. Given the Taliban’s return to power, do you feel like that was in vain now?
AS: Well, we went to Afghanistan as a response to the murder of more than 3,000 Americans in New York and in Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C. That was the right war. We went there because al-Qaeda attacked us and the Taliban refused to surrender the leadership of al-Qaeda.
But at the end of 2002 we came to a crossroads in Afghanistan. At the time, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were successfully regrouping in some areas, especially down south in the Helmand Province and other locations. The Haqqani network was also still operational in the Afghani/Pakistani border.
This is a time when the U.S. military was getting orders to leave Afghanistan in order to prepare for the Iraq war. It was such an important time for us to be there and to protect this new society that was flourishing after we got rid of the Taliban. Unfortunately, we took a path that eventually led us to the disastrous exit from Afghanistan couple of weeks ago.
We’ve come full circle, back to a situation that I believe is way more dangerous than it was on September 11.
BG: Can you expand on that?
AS: They won, we lost. We left Afghanistan and they are back. This by itself strengthens their propaganda. Before 9/11, there were maybe 400 terrorists who pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Now we have thousands of people around the world who pledge their allegiance to him. There are even more who believe bin Laden is their idol.
Before 9/11, you could say there was one country controlled by militants: Afghanistan. Today, you look at what’s happening in the Sahel region of Africa, you look at Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria… there are so many Afghanistans. The incubating factors that allowed these terrorist groups to function in Afghanistan exist in so many different places around the world.
We cannot just look away from what’s happening and hope that the threat will go away. We did that in 1989, when the U.S. closed its embassy in Kabul and we left with the Soviets. We waited 12 years, ignoring everything al-Qaeda and the Taliban were doing in the country and then finally we had to wake up after 9/11. Now, there are similar conditions in so many countries where militants are on the rise, and America, in terms of our diplomatic initiatives and missions and presence, appears to be in retreat.s
BG: Will Afghanistan now become, once again, a breeding ground for al-Qaeda, for the Islamic State? Do you buy the argument from the Biden administration that the Taliban will be able to deal with these groups?
AS: Well, the Taliban is not a monolithic organization. Yes, you have the political leaders, people who want a better Afghanistan. But there are many factions that are very radical and I think they’re going to cause a lot of problems for people who want to be moderate.
People ask, “Will al-Qaeda return?” Well, al-Qaeda never left. They still have operations and training camps there. They have relationships with elements of the Taliban. Maybe the political leadership of the Taliban doesn’t like it. But, like the moderate leaders in Iran, who don’t like a lot of things that the Revolutionary Guard does, they’ll have to live with it.
Afghanistan is so big and very difficult to control. If the U.S., with all our military might and technology, was not able to control all the different regions, how do you expect the Taliban to do so?
BG: Can the situation in Afghanistan be monitored from a distance? Are you persuaded by the counterterrorism theory of an “over the horizon” monitoring and strike capacity?
AS: About six years ago there was an al-Qaeda camp on the Afghan-Pakistani border. It took 63 airstrikes by coalition forces and 200 Special Forces on the ground destroy it. That gives you an idea how complicated the situation is.
Now we don’t even have sources on the ground. We don’t have eyes and ears. Yes, we have signal intelligence, but that doesn’t mean much if you don’t have human resources telling you exactly what’s going on. This is going to be absent.
BG: Do we have other allies we can bank on? The Qataris seem to be playing a role, the Turks want to play a role… and there are always the Pakistanis.
AS: I think the Qataris have been a very trusted partner. We can deal with the Pakistanis when it comes to Afghanistan, but they have their own agenda. Geopolitically, they are more in sync with the Chinese than with the U.S. these days.
You have different players in Afghanistan, from Iran to Russia to India. Whoever wins in Afghanistan, I feel they’re going to have anti-American views and they’re going to create a dangerous situation for world security, for the U.S. and for our allies in the region.
BG: You mentioned the Russians and the Chinese. Presumably they have the same counterterrorism goals as the West does? They don’t want to see al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group take root in Afghanistan. Can the U.S. work with the Chinese, with the Russians, to deal with the threats?
AS: I think we have to. The British foreign minister said just the other day that we have to work with China and Russia to figure out how to moderate the Taliban. I think that’s tragic: after we’ve spent $2 trillion in Afghanistan, we want to depend on the Chinese? And remember, one of the reasons we pulled out of Afghanistan, according to the Biden administration, is to focus on the great-power competition with China, and on security challenges posed by China and Russia. But now the West needs to work with the Chinese and with the Russians in order to figure out what to do in Afghanistan? This is a colossal failure.
BG: Thinking more generally about counterterrorism strategies and tactics around the world, has there been an evolution over these 20 years? What do we know now about counterterrorism that we did not know 20 years ago?
AS: When it comes to counterterrorism, we mostly focus on intelligence, on law enforcement and on the military. We did not focus on the things that radicalize people, that make them terrorists. In some places it’s the economy, in other places it’s sectarianism and in still others there are cultural issues. In Mali and in the Sahel Region, as you know, a lot of it has to do with the environment, the competition for water between herders and farmers. One group is supported by the government, the other group looks to al-Qaeda and other extremists for protection.
Unfortunately, for 20 years, we thought that these issues were irrelevant and we did not think about them. Our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies and military are amazing at what they do. But while we’ve had a lot of significant tactical victories, we lost strategically.
BG: Explain that a little bit.
AS: Well, if you want to secure a city, there is nobody better at it than the U.S. military. When we went to Afghanistan, the military took down the Taliban regime and created an environment conducive to holding elections, to having civil society, schools, universities. But finding the political solution in Afghanistan was not a job for the military. Nation-building is not the job of the military.
The military secured the conditions that would allow our politicians to get engaged, but they never showed up. First, they were focused on Iraq and then on other things. Afghanistan was always an afterthought.
The intelligence community, law enforcement and military — these entities deal with the symptoms, not the root causes.
BG: If we can zoom in on just the intelligence community: Early on, when the U.S. faced this threat, there was a lot of rivalry and disagreement between the different agencies. The CIA and the FBI didn’t always see eye-to-eye on the nature of the threat and what ought to be done about it. Are we better at this now? Is there more consensus and better coordination between agencies?
AS: I think the situation got a lot better after 9/11. Structural changes were made to prevent individuals from taking their personal hostilities against other individuals and turning them into institutional hostility. Information sharing is way better than it used to be. The cooperation between the law-enforcement and intelligence communities, with the joint task forces across the U.S., has disrupted a lot of terrorist plots and attacks.
BG: One of the biggest changes in the past 20 years is the emergence of a very large private sector in the counterterrorism space. You now work in the private sector. How does the skillset of the private sector compare with the state sector?
AS: I think that the private sector will always go hand-in-hand with what the government needs, especially in the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. We’re seeing advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing. I think these will be major components of the security business down the road. Access to semiconductors and other precious resources also will be very important, internationally.
We’re going to have a big shift now, from focusing on counterterrorism to great-power competition. To meet the needs of this contest, we’ll see a shift in the private sector, in the intelligence-industrial complex. There will be a big shift in the way we do things because we have to meet what the clients need, which has more to do with this global competition than counterterrorism.
BG: Looking back, 2001 seems a more innocent time. We had quite different ideas, as citizens and governments, about our freedoms. We’ve lost some of those along the way. Do you think, as somebody working in this field, that this was necessary, given the world we live in, or have we gone too far in giving up our freedoms?
AS: There was a tendency at the very beginning to forget about our freedoms for the sake of our security. I think we know now, after 20 years, that that was the wrong position to take. In the U.S. [intelligence community], we take an oath on our Constitution. Just because we were attacked, it doesn’t mean we forget about that oath, the values we were taught and swore to protect. That’s one of the reasons why I stood up against enhanced interrogation techniques and torture; that’s why so many people stood against illegal surveillance.
There’s a [Benjamin Franklin] saying: If you sacrifice your liberty for the sake of security, you deserve neither. I think every time we did this, without getting benefit from it at all, it just damaged our reputation around the world. It damaged the trust that we have with the public, which is essential for our government and our institutions to function. That’s why people who are spreading disinformation today are successful, because that trust doesn’t exist with government.
Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you will win a hundred times in a hundred battles.” In the past 20 years, we did not take the time to learn about our enemy and we forgot about who we are. That’s why we have this disaster on our hands today. –Bloomberg