QIASS Executive Director Speaks to British Parlament
December 13, 2011
On Tuesday October 18, 2011, Ali Soufan, the Executive Director of QIASS, gave oral evidence before the House of Commons' Home Affairs Committee, on the "roots of radicalization."
Below is an excerpt, for the full testimony please visit the House of Commons website here.
You can watch a video of the testimony here.
Chair: This is the Committee’s second session on our inquiry into the roots of radicalism. We are delighted to have as our witness, Mr Ali Soufan. Thank you very much, Mr Soufan, for coming to give evidence to this Committee.
Ali Soufan: Thank you for having me. It is a great honour.
Chair: Mr Soufan, I understand you have just published your book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda. We have just had the anniversary. Looking back to the events of 9/11, do you think the atrocities and the tragedy could have been prevented by the Government or the security services in the United States?
Ali Soufan: I think we definitely failed to stop Al-Qaeda carrying out the 9/11 attack. We had a systematic failure in information sharing. I saw that first hand, and I think the result of that failing caused the tragic events that took place on Tuesday 11 September 2001 and resulted in the death of 2,977 innocent souls. It also changed the world in so many different ways. I believe that the findings of the 9/11 Commission report, the presidential commission on 9/11 and the CIA’s own Inspector General’s report came to the same conclusion that systematic failure in our institutions resulted in information not being shared among the entities that were responsible in keeping us safe in the United States.
Q95 Chair: When the New Yorker described you as being the closest person to stopping 9/11, is that because of the systemic issues, or was it to do more with the extent of radicalisation that had caused the people to do the terrible deeds that they had done?
Ali Soufan: Yes, the team that was investigating the USS Cole in Yemen and the information that we generated through that investigation that could have stopped 9/11. Just for the sake of background, we were interrogating a person who was directly involved in the attack on the USS Cole. He said that he went to south-east Asia a month before the attack in the company of one of the suicide bombers of the Cole and delivered some money to some Qaeda operatives over there. We asked for this information to be shared. We shared it with the intelligence community. We asked if they were aware of anything that probably took place in south-east Asia. The answer was no, and on 12 September we were given information that the two people who they met with in south-east Asia were on board flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon ...
Q106 Lorraine Fullbrook: Thank you very much, Mr Soufan, for the answer to my supplementary. I would like to ask you a bit about your organisation that conducted a study of the de-radicalisation and the rehabilitation of terrorists. You carried this out in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom. One of your report’s conclusions is that, "The state’s own actions, inactions and reactions might be fuelling rather than mitigating militant sentiments." Can you explain why you drew this conclusion, including in particular the UK?
Ali Soufan: For every action there is a reaction, and if you have a problem, let’s say in the United Kingdom, with the issue of radicalism, and we don’t create a venue for many people who can be basically recruited by organisations, if we don’t find a way for these grievances to be managed, for these grievances to be expressed, to open channels between the community and between the security services and the Government in general, that might cause different individuals who come over and recruit these people to do terrorist plots down the road. So this is where inaction can be a problem, and it is vice versa if you have a bridge with the community-in the United States I think more than 40% to 50% of the disrupted plots that we have is because of the community’s relationship with the law enforcement and intelligence agencies, where they go there and say, "Hey, you know what, we have a couple of guys who are missing. We believe they went to Afghanistan or to Pakistan. Can you find something about them?" That helped in stopping terrorist plots ...
Q120 Michael Ellis: What about if and when individuals find themselves incarcerated as terrorist offenders, so they are in prison? What do you think is the most effective way of de-radicalising people who are in prison when they are in the constraints of detention?
Ali Soufan: Well, this is probably one of the most difficult things that a lot of people are dealing with, especially in the West, because of the freedom of religion that we have. You cannot tell anyone that your version of religion is wrong and my version is right. So this creates a lot of problems, and that is the reason we find radicalisation is extremely difficult to combat and is on the rise in jails. We find that not only in the United States, not only in the United Kingdom, but in Indonesia, for example. As part of the QIASS study-the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, which did this-we went to Indonesia and we spoke to prisoners who were in jail and they basically told us, "Look, when we were in jail we were given boo ks on how to be suicide bombers." These books were given to them by other radicals and they were widely available to anyone who wants to read them . The terrorists were able to create a network where they even find wives for individuals if they found de-radicalisation or disengagement is working on them, so they can suck them back in . It is very complicated.
Q121 Michael Ellis: It is complicated, but have you seen or heard of any techniques that you think work in terms of de-radicalising people when they are in prison?
Ali Soufan: Yes, I think having their families involved works, having the community involved, not making it just as law enforcement, Government-sponsored, especially in that culture. Most of the people from that specific culture are more family oriented, more community oriented. When we saw these kind of things in different areas around the world, like from the Singaporean programme, to Indonesia, to different case studies that we found, I think family is extremely important and community is extremely important to have them involved in this.
Q122 Nicola Blackwood: You have mentioned the problems associated with the sensitivities of different versions of religion and not saying that one version of religion is acceptable. In the UK there is a debate at the moment about whether or not there is a role for non-violent extremists working with the Government to counter radicalisation. I just wondered what your views were, whether you think there is a worthwhile distinction between violent and non-violent extremism.
Ali Soufan: It is an excellent question, and I don’t like the term "non-violent extremists". I look at the term and I try to basically tell myself, "What do we mean by that? Do we mean that we are dealing with just religious people, conservative religious people, or are they really non-violent radicals?" I think we are trying to make terms that don’t exist. I see the world like this: I see you have violent extremists, which means extremists so radical that they are willing to commit violent acts to prove a point; then you have religious individuals who we say are radicals because-let’s talk about Islam here, my own religion-they have beards, they go to the mosque, and they are very conservative, but I don’t look at them as radicals but as just deeply religious individuals. I think we should not isolate these people, because they have a lot of credibility in the community, and when you isolate people who have credibility with the community you are marginalising a very good asset for yourself and then we are putting everyone in one pot, which down the road will backfire.
So I don’t like radicals, period. I don’t believe there are violent and non-violent radicals. I believe that there are individuals who are willing to do bad things and there are people who are just deeply religious and apolitical. Now, from these conservative people, conservative religious people, there are people who probably don’t agree with the British foreign policy in the Middle East, but that is fine. There are a lot of British people also that don’t agree with that. You know, you don’t isolate those individuals.
Q123 Nicola Blackwood: But in that case if you are trying to prevent radicalisation in prisons, how do you go about that without trampling on freedom of religion?
Ali Soufan: I think you have to do a couple of things. I think you have to realise that people like Abu Qatada al-Filistini, for example, or Abu Hamza al-Masri-those leaders-need to be isolated from others. We have that system in the United States, which is more difficult for you to do in the UK, to isolate the terrorist radicals in the jails that are causing these problems but at the same time dealing with people who you can bring back. There are some people you can never bring back, so I think there is an assessment here that some individuals you cannot reach. They are so far that you have to kind of be at peace that these guys you are not going to change, but there are other people that you can change, so you have to limit their interaction with the radicals and also bring some positive elements from the community, from religious people in the community, their families, in order to help the security service and the prisons to bring them back to reality.
Q124 Nicola Blackwood: Do you think that there is a role for former terrorists to be used to dissuade potential recruits from getting involved, or do you think that there are potential dangers in that?
Ali Soufan: No, no, absolutely. We found through the QIASS study when we went around-and we are doing now a counter-narrative part of the study that will be announced next year-that the role ex-prisoners play is extremely important, especially when you have an individual saying, "Look, you know what, it is not greener on the other side, believe me, I was there. They lie to you, they do this, they do that." But this needs to be also in very close co-ordination, I believe, with the security services and with the Government. You know, you can’t just trust a guy and say, "Okay, we’re going to give you whatever you need, go and do it." It needs to be a controlled environment, but I truly believe that nobody will reach out to these individuals more than a person who did it when they walk that road, talk the talk, walk the walk, and then come back and say, "Believe me, you don’t want to go down there." ...
Chair: Mr Soufan, thank you very much for coming. It has been extraordinarily interesting hearing your evidence, and we may write to you again if there are other issues that we need to explore with you.
Ali Soufan: It is a great honour to have been here. Thank you, sir.