Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Ali Soufan, Former FBI Special Agent.

AuthorCruickshank, Paul

CTC: On September 11, 2001, you were an FBI special agent with experience investigating complex international terror cases, including the East Africa embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole. Can you talk about how that day, 9/11, was for you and the sense of purpose it created in you and your colleagues, and the ways you were able to contribute to the CT mission in the months and years that followed? And when you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? What are your most memorable high and low points?

Soufan: Al-Qa'ida wasn't something new on 9/11, and the attacks did not materialize out of thin air. Maybe for most of the world and most of Americans, Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa'ida were new, they were not household names, at least. But they were not to us in the intelligence and law enforcement community. I was part of a team that had been tracking them for years. As you mentioned, we had the East African embassy bombings in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, many plots that we disrupted in between, in Albania, in the U.K., in Morocco, you name it, in Jordan with the millennium plot. So we were very familiar with al-Qa'ida and its capabilities.

My immediate thoughts after the attacks were that we are at war, that this is [the] Pearl Harbor of our generation. At the very beginning, we needed to find out who exactly was behind the attacks; that's first. And second, we needed to do whatever [was necessary] to disrupt any further attacks. At that time, I was in Yemen working on the USS Cole investigation. My team made the connection with al-Qa'ida following an interrogation with Usama bin Ladin's personal bodyguard, a guy by the name of Abu Jandal. (a) We found out that seven al-Qa'ida members from photos that we had in our investigations were all on the planes; we knew then that [that] was the very first evidence linking Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa'ida to the attacks of September 11th. The mission immediately became to find those responsible and to destroy their networks and their infrastructure. So getting intelligence for our troops before they invade Afghanistan and walking in the footsteps of a lot of the previous great officers and agents who worked al-Qa'ida before, we were trying to prevent another attack from occurring. Those were the two priorities.

CTC: Talk a bit about how it was for you personally being involved in that mission, in that aftermath period. Obviously, like many other people, you had this emotion of what had happened in the United States. How were you able to proceed in a cool, calm, and collected way to do what you needed to do to advance the mission?

Soufan: It was such a difficult situation. Here we are, far away from home; we had no idea what was going on in New York. At the time, we thought many of our colleagues had perished in the World Trade Center. At the time, people were saying there is probably 50,000 people who are killed in downtown Manhattan.

It was a very difficult time, but we [got] our instructions and we needed to find out who was behind that attack. We needed evidence that our government can take to allies, to countries around the world, saying this is the harsh, hard evidence that bin Ladin and al-Qa'ida were behind 9/11. And we were able to obtain that.

It was such a difficult time. So many emotions, so many raw feelings that we still have until today, I still have personally until today. 9/11 for me is an event that did not happen 20 years ago; it just happened yesterday. And every time you talk about it, you remember these things that you experienced first-hand, but you remember also that determination that we had as a team to continue with the mission to find out who was behind the attacks, to identify individuals who are directly connecting to the plot, to get the intelligence that we needed in order to go to Afghanistan, in order to destroy the infrastructure of al-Qa'ida. It was a difficult moment. The emotions were so overwhelming at the time, but also the sense of rising up to the occasion and doing what the American people expected us to do. We lost friends, we lost colleagues, I lost my mentor that day, John O'Neill. But we were able to provide the intelligence and the evidence needed by our own government. We were able to identify al-Qa'ida operatives as being part of the 9/11 attacks.

CTC: This past May marked the 10th anniversary of the daring counterterrorism operation that ended up killing Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan. Over the past decade, as you well know, there's been a considerable amount of debate about the state of al-Qa'ida and the broader al-Qa'ida network, especially its capability, status, and ability to endure. The Soufan Center have helped shape some of that debate and conversation. What is your assessment of the United States' campaign to degrade and defeat al-Qa'ida and the nature of the threat posed by the group today? In what areas have the United States and its allies achieved some level of 'success' and 'won'? And in what areas has the United States performed less well with challenges still remaining? Given the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the capital Kabul, what's your level of concern that the terror group [al-Qa'ida] may bounce back as a major threat to U.S. security?

Soufan: Al-Qa'ida today is nothing like the group that attacked us on September 11, 2001. Al-Qa'ida's core has been weakened after a period of high leadership attrition, but its regional affiliates worldwide still pose a threat, particularly the Yemen-based al-Qa'ida of the Arabian Peninsula, Shabaab in Somalia, various groups in the Sahel region in West Africa. And jihadis now are even opening new fronts in part of Central Africa, like in Mozambique and the DRC. Al-Qa'ida has evolved considerably over the last 20 years or so, yet it remains very dangerous. The network today is like a hydra, a serpent with many heads. It is more geographically dispersed. It has branches all over the Muslim world, whereas on 9/11 it was mainly relegated to operating in and around...

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