A string of violent demonstrations against U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East--including an attack that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, on September 11--raises the specter of Islamic extremism in transitioning Arab democracies. Former FBI top agent Ali Soufan, who investigated the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 strike on the USS Cole, says it’s significant that out of the entire Muslim world, these violent attacks only took place in Arab Spring countries. "The extremists, especially al-Qaeda, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, felt very weakened," he says, "not only by the death of Osama bin Laden, but also by the weakness of their narrative in the Muslim world."
The protests seem to have been, at least partially, set off by a U.S.-made video denigrating the Prophet Mohammed, but analysts speculate whether some of the uproar was pre-planned, perhaps by al-Qaeda linked groups. What’s your take on who is responsible for these attacks and whether they were planned to coincide with 9/11?
I truly don’t believe the attacks took place just because of an ignorant video. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence they happened in places where the so-called Arab Spring occurred--in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya, where the U.S. ambassador was tragically killed. In the Muslim world, there are so many different countries, from Indonesia to Morocco--to have the whole thing focused in areas that have experienced the Arab Spring is significant by itself.
The extremists, especially al-Qaeda, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring felt very weakened, not only by the death of Osama bin Laden, but also by the weakness of their narrative in the Muslim world. The narrative of global jihad doesn’t really exist anymore. They need something to energize their people and find new recruits to oppose the U.S.--even though this movie has nothing to do with the U.S. government, and most of the demonstrators know that.
I think the issue has been taken advantage of by radical elements that are now functioning in all of these countries because of the vacuum created after the former regimes toppled. They are taking advantage of this movie to reignite the anti-American rhetoric because it has been really weakened in the last few years.
Is this a balancing act for these countries’ leadership?
The leadership in these countries appears so reluctant to deal with what might be perceived as divisive issues, especially among those who helped put them in power--issues such as combating violent extremism. But I think [President] Obama’s very clear message to [Egyptian President] Morsi on this-- the Telemundo interview where he said that Egypt is not considered an ally or an enemy--has changed things. Now Morsi realizes he’s not Muslim Brotherhood anymore, he is the president of Egypt, and that might have a lot of implications, not only political but economic. These countries must realize they need to take more effective measures to combat violent extremism.
Is this a pivotal moment in U.S.-Muslim relations? What should the White House focus on?
I think this is where the rubber meets the road. What’s happening today is that Obama’s Cairo speech [in 2009] and U.S. initiatives for countering violent extremism and creating partnerships between the western and Muslim world, such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum, have showed a lot of results.
For these extremists, it’s a sign of failure that they are taking advantage of something as irrelevant as this low-budget movie. The United States helped the Libyan people liberate themselves from [former president] Muammar al-Qaddafi. The U.S. supported the millions of people in Tahrir Square. The message that we delivered was that when people go about protests in the right way, the U.S. is going to be in their corner.
However, there is a vacuum now in some of these states, and we need to take a stand against the extremist narrative, against the rhetoric promoted by al-Qaeda and its allies. Unfortunately, that rhetoric is spreading from Mali to Yemen to Libya to Somalia to Syria to Lebanon. We need to establish a relationship with these countries and say they must stand up against the types of [violent] events we saw in Egypt and Libya and elsewhere recently.
Some commentators will frame these events as sort of a prototypical clash of cultures between the liberal West and a more conservative Arab and Muslim world. What are your thoughts on this?
You have people on both sides that advocate the clash of civilizations. However, these are small minorities. There are so many shared interests between the Muslim world and the West that are much larger--economic interests, political interests, social interest, energy interests, defense interests, security interests. The great majority of people in the Muslim world and the United States are peace-loving. And we have a lot of interests in common, so we have to move forward.
Because the Obama administration’s policy in the Muslim world over the last three years has been effective at isolating extremists and the rhetoric of entities like al-Qaeda, it is forcing these extremist groups to find other ways to bring in recruits and money--so they have to leverage moments like this.
To that point, we obviously live in an international media environment where these videos can go viral in a matter of seconds, and I’m wondering about ways we can mitigate some of these problems in the future.
I’m sure there are some things that can be done to keep a balance between free speech and hate speech. I think governments around the world need to recognize this. They need to do it in the Middle East and also in the Western World. This is part of the U.S. constitutional legacy. I believe it was a Supreme Court judge who said "your right to swing your fist ends at my nose."
Finally, all of these countries present unique challenges for the United States, but Yemen obviously is of particular concern as home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Is AQAP still a top threat?
I think al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, because of Anwar al-Awlaki and other factors, came to the fore of our understanding of what al-Qaeda is today. But al-Qaeda, the organization that attacked us on 9/11, doesn’t really exist anymore. It didn’t even exist when bin Laden was killed. It was very weakened. As I mentioned, the Arab Spring deprived them of their narrative, especially the far enemy, global jihad narrative. Many of the fighters who are still members went back to their homeland to battle the dictators that they were always told by bin Laden they could only defeat after conquering the United States first. So there are a lot of changes that took place on that.
We have to understand now that when we talk about al-Qaeda, we have to talk about narrative. I don’t like to call it ideology because it doesn’t have the scientific definition of an ideology. And this is where, sometimes, terminology matters. Because when you say ideology, a lot of people will think you’re talking about Islam, because a religion can be an ideology, but al-Qaeda’s rhetoric is not an ideology; it’s anti-American narrative. So if you want to take that rhetoric, we need to counter it and combat it, as part of our strategy, exactly like we combated the organization of al-Qaeda tactically.
Unfortunately, we are still behind the eight-ball in doing that. And you see this narrative expanding into areas like northern Mali, like southern Algeria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria. We’ve started seeing some presence in Lebanon. So we have to be very careful in monitoring these places and depriving them of any kind of local incubators that can be used to find new recruits, to raise money, to find areas to train, and so forth.
And in Yemen specifically?
In Yemen, as you know, AQAP has created some alliances with different tribes. However, now a lot of the tribes are fighting them. And the government in Yemen, after Ali Abdullah Saleh, is effectively fighting them down south. They were able to defeat al-Qaeda in many areas and get them out of Abyan and Zinjibar and so forth. But there is a lot of internal political division in the country where even the different security agencies are not operating on the same sheet of music.
That’s why the Yemeni government yesterday announced they were going to do an investigation about how these demonstrators were allowed to be close to the walls of the embassy and actually climb over them. In the pictures that I saw, demonstrators were sitting on the barricade that was supposed to be manned with heavy machine guns. And I know these places because I served in the embassy of Yemen for a long period of time, by the central security. And where was the central security? So there are a lot of questions here to be asked. We have to put this in the context of the wider political and tribal divisions that have developed in the areas that experienced the so-called Arab Spring, and how extremists and others are trying to take advantage of the situation for their own sake.