ANATOMY OF TERROR: FROM THE DEATH OF BIN LADEN TO THE RISE OF THE Islamic State
By Ali Soufan
W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95, 384 pages
Al Qaeda’s horrendous attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 represented a transformative moment in the history of international terrorism, with a foreign terrorist group daring to deploy its operatives from its training camps in Afghanistan to inflict catastrophic damage on its adversary’s soil, and with America deciding to counter this terrorist threat with all means necessary, including pursuing such terrorists wherever they operate.
With the 9/11 tragedy commemorated this week, we are fortunate to have Ali Soufan’s “Anatomy of Terror,” a comprehensive and interesting account of al Qaeda’s history and the emergence of its equally genocidal offshoot, the Islamic State (ISIS). Mr. Soufan is a highly regarded former FBI special agent who was one of the first to investigate al Qaeda prior to 9/11. He is currently head of The Soufan Group, a consultancy on these issues in New York City.
There is much to commend in this important account, beginning with the author’s discussion of the key individuals responsible for the evolution and current state of al Qaeda and ISIS.
As the author explains, through tracing the activities and interactions of key figures in al Qaeda such as Osama bin Laden, its charismatic founder and leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s longtime deputy and the group’s current leader (whom the author characterizes as “clever and strategic,” although noncharismatic), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the ambitious and brutal Jordanian-born al Qaeda operative who established the breakaway terrorist organization in Iraq that would eventually become the Islamic State, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ current “caliph,” and others, “we will trace the transformation of al Qaeda as an organization, the simultaneous development of bin Ladenism into a far more potent and lethal force, the rise and decline of the Islamic State, and the impending resurgence of al Qaeda.”
Also especially gripping is the author’s account of America’s intelligence agencies’ relentless manhunt of bin Laden, who had maintained a secretive existence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, until his whereabouts were penetrated by America’s spies and he was assassinated on May 2, 2011. Although, as the author writes, “American officials would liken the raid to ‘mowing the lawn,’ ” he cautions, “That may have been true. But the consequences of that killing on a moonless mountain night would unspool on a global scale.”
One of the consequences of al Qaeda’s weakening was the resurgence of the Islamic State, whose ambition was no less than the immediate establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the parts of Iraq and Syria that it had succeeded in seizing control, including their local banks and oil fields. This was made possible by the unprecedented expansion of its terrorist and guerrilla forces — especially the influx of foreign volunteer fighters, including from Western countries where its extremist narrative found a receptive audience among young Muslims.
As the author explains: “Prior to 2014, ISIS/ISIL may have had three to four thousand foreign fighters. By January of that year, the figure had risen to more than seven thousand, and by the end of 2015, it may have been as high as thirty-one thousand fighters from more than one hundred different countries, with the fighters still on the rise. Moreover, IS has managed to maintain its troop strength despite a death rate of up to 10,000 per year, suggesting that its pipeline of fighters remains formidable.”
To understand ISIS’ appeal (despite its current military setbacks), it is essential, as the author notes, to understand its undiminished ambition to implement its doctrinal management of savagery’s three phases of establishing an Islamic caliphate, which entails the employment of terrorism, guerrilla insurgency, and the establishment of a proto-state.
Thus, even if the prospect for the implementation of its third phase (i.e., the proto-state) is currently being rolled back by its much more powerful government adversaries (in this case, with the uncomfortable, yet effective, alliance of the United States, the Iraqi military, Syria, Russia, Iran and its Hezbollah proxy), which will result in the Islamic State’s reverting to its first terrorism phase, a sobering note is that its militant struggle will continue, particularly with mounting terrorist attacks wherever its operatives are present, including in Western Europe.
The concluding chapter presents the author’s recommendation for countering ISIS, which is based on four measures: exposing this movement’s “basic hypocrisy,” utilizing effective spokesmen, such as rehabilitated former extremists in counternarrative campaigns, “inoculating” the population that supports them with “the tools of critical thinking to resist false narratives and identify true ones,” and offering rehabilitation programs to help them reintegrate in their societies.
This book’s importance can be summed up in the author’s own concluding observation, “If you know who they are and how they are connected, and if you understand the forces that drive them, you can begin to anticipate their next move and, in the long run, start to undermine their appeal. If nothing else, I hope this book has contributed in some small measure to that process of understanding.”
• Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH) in Alexandria, Virginia.
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