ISIS is deliberately trying "to suck the west" into a new war in Iraq, one of the world's leading experts on Islamist terrorism has warned.
Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, former FBI supervisory special agent Ali Soufan, who spearheaded the bureau's hunt for Osama bin Laden in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, said he was "sceptical" of the US government plan to tackle ISIS. "Obama didn't provide a comprehensive strategy, he provided a plan which had series of tactics in it.. We're still missing a strategy to combat the roots of extremism. We've had tactics but no strategy to combat the ideology."
The American, who now runs the Soufan Group, which develops counterterrorism strategies for governments and corporate clients, said the recent beheadings of two US journalists and a UK aid worker were not aimed at deterring a Western military intervention in Iraq and Syria, but at provoking one.
"They are trying to suck the west into the war with them," he said. "Then they'll be not only the regional bad boy, but also the bad boy for the global jihadi movement. They can then claim they are in an international war - a modern day Crusade - against all the countries coming to fight them."
According to Soufan, ISIS is "fearful of Islamists within [their movement] turning against them.. They want to fight the British and the Americans.. to unify the extremists within and diminish any kind of meaningful threat [to them] within their support base. They are not fearful of secular or moderate people."
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan spearheaded the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the run-up to 9/11
Soufan led the FBI's investigation into Al Qaeda's bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and has interrogated, among others, Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard Abu Jandal. He told HuffPost UK that ISIS fighters would "eventually" target Western countries. "That's why they have been working hard to recruit people from the west. They were able to recruit more people from the West than Al Qaeda ever dreamed of."
Soufan made clear that he supports targeted air strikes against ISIS positions, by the United States and it allies, but only as part of a wider strategy to tackle the root causes of violent extremism in the Muslim-majority world.
"The military campaign is only a tool, it's not a strategy. The solution is not only by drones. It's not only by airstrikes. The solution is a regional solution that [is about] defeating the ideology that promotes extremist groups like ISIS, defeating the incubating factors that promote extremism, and [making] countries in the region.. understand they cannot use extremism in their proxy wars against one other."
Soufan stressed, particularly, the need to "deal with the regional environment" in which extremist groups have been allowed to grow and mutate. "As long as you have a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, you have a lot of problems which allows ISIS and others to exist. You need a regional solution for a regional problem."
Military action, though, is unavoidable as "ISIS is not going to be defeated by words". However, the former FBI agent is "against putting people from the West on the ground. Because this fight is about the Muslim world, this is about the soul of Islam. The roots are not solely based in the US or the West, they're mainly based in the Muslim world."
He said the new anti-ISIS coalition that the Obama administration is trying to build in the Middle East may not be viable, given the differing agendas of the countries involve. "Unfortunately, what we see with all these nations allegedly signed up for this coalition [is that] each one of these countries - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, etc - seems to be trying to co-opt the fight against ISIS to promote its own interests."
Soufan also highlighted the role of Gulf members of the coalition in fanning the ideological flames of what he calls "Bin Ladenism" and said some Sunni-led autocracies across the region were now "fearful of ISIS" only "because" ISIS became a tiger that they could not ride any more".
The former FBI agent, however, dismissed those in the West calling for an anti-ISIS alliance which also includes the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria. "I don't think we should be working with Assad," he told HuffPost UK. "In the West, we think the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In the Middle East, the enemy of enemy can also be an enemy."
Soufan said there was an urgent need to "establish a strategy to counter the [Al Qaeda and ISIS] narrative globally. Talking about it is one thing. But we need to focus on the ideology."
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