New book traces the evolution of terrorism since bin Laden
HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a look at the state of global terrorism.
It comes from Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent who identified the 9/11 hijackers. He details the evolution of terrorism in this newest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf, "The Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State."
He recently sat down with Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: You write in this book that the night Osama bin Laden was announced to have been killed, you were home alone. And then, instead of feeling jubilation, you felt troubled. Why was that?
ALI SOUFAN, Author, "The Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State": I was happy that we finally got him. And a lot of my colleagues and friends that I know who sacrificed so much, some of them their lives, you know, finally can rest, knowing that he's dead.
But also, at the same time, I kind of was troubled that we are now not fighting an organization anymore. The terrorists, the threat mutated to a message. Bin Laden accomplished something way bigger. He had a message that was spreading around the Muslim world.
Unfortunately, on May 2, 2011, we killed bin Laden, but we didn't kill his message. His message lives.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the world has been focused for the last five years or so on Islamic State.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Major move to get rid of their territorial caliphate.
When that's accomplished, what then?
ALI SOUFAN: See, we forget that the Islamic State basically was a branch of al-Qaida. It used to be al-Qaida in Iraq.
So, when it comes to the message, it's the same message of Osama bin Laden. They differ at what stage they are in, in their plan. Are they in stage two, where they just need to create chaos and manage that chaos? Or they are in stage three, establishing a caliphate?
ISIS decided that they are in stage three, established a caliphate and prepare for the final confrontation with the West. But, today, as you mentioned, we see ISIS dwindling. We see that terrorist organization, with all their bravado, losing their territory and going back from a proto-state to an underground terrorist organization.
I think most of the people who joined ISIS are still believers in what bin Laden started back in the early '90s. I won't be greatly surprised to see some kind of a merger between these two organizations under the flag of the message of Osama bin Laden.
And I think his son Hamza today is trying to be the person who claims that message.
MARGARET WARNER: The next bin Laden.
ALI SOUFAN: Exactly.
MARGARET WARNER: You, in almost a novelistic way, look at bin Laden or al-Zarqawi, who was the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, or Baghdadi, the head of ISIS.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Was there a common thread among them?
ALI SOUFAN: Well, yes, absolutely. And the common thread is their own belief.
It is people who believe that there is an ongoing war between the West and the United States. And anyone who does not in their way of interpreting events around the world is an infidel, regardless if you're a Muslim or you're not a Muslim. That doesn't matter.
And that's why almost 95 percent of the victims of this form of terrorism are Muslims.
MARGARET WARNER: Now , you mentioned Hamza, Osama bin Laden's son, who, by my count, would be, what, 27 years old?
ALI SOUFAN: Twenty-eight, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: You think he's the coming face of al-Qaida?
ALI SOUFAN: I think they are preparing him to be the coming face. I mean, he has been a face of al-Qaida since he was a child. He was always featured in the propaganda tapes of al-Qaida.
At the age of 13, he was the voice of fiery poems in the presence of his dad about al-Qaida and about jihad. So, many of those old members of al-Qaida fondly remember him.
Hamza, recently, he put five or six messages, but only in the last message, al-Qaida announced him to be sheik, which indicates a promotion. Before, they used to call him Brother Mujahid.
So, we know that al-Qaida is putting him in a leadership position.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's go back to the threat to the United States.
ALI SOUFAN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: How can the West, which has been at it for 16 years already, confront that?
ALI SOUFAN: We're not seeing, you know, organizational terrorism threat anymore.
I think the boundaries, you know, between ISIS, al-Qaida, you name it, whatever you want to name it …
MARGARET WARNER: All their affiliates.
ALI SOUFAN: All the affiliates. It's kind of very blurry.
I think we have to focus on the message, not on the organization. I think the threat of terrorism mutated since 9/11. It shifted from being an organization to a message with affiliates across the Muslim world. And these affiliates are gaining a lot of strength because of the civil wars that exist in places like Syria or Iraq or Libya or Somalia, you name it.
So, I think what we need to do, number one, is to find a political solution and diplomatic solution for these conflicts. Without solving the conflicts in these areas, it's going to be extremely difficult to diminish the threat.
Second, we need to force countries in the region not to use sectarianism in their geopolitical struggle against each other to garnish back influence in the region.
Third, we need to fight the narrative by exposing the hypocrisy of an organization that claims or a message that claims the United States and the West are at war with Islam. But they kill more Muslims than anyone else.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the United States or the West is capable of doing effective countermessaging?
ALI SOUFAN: I don't think governments can do the job, not in the United States, not even in the Muslim world, because governments don't have the credibility.
But there are a lot of things that governments can do. We need to facilitate civil organizations to stand up and speak against these extremists.
Sixteen years after 9/11, we still don't even know what to call the enemy, rather than form a comprehensive strategy. And that's what I try to do in this book. I try to write a novel with real characters in it, with the hope that the American people understand the threat that you are dealing with.
And I hope, in a small, little way, I will be able to contribute to better understanding of the threat that we all continue to face 20 years later.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ali Soufan, "Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State."
Thank you very much.
ALI SOUFAN: Thank you.