Terrorist attacks set to rise this year: Expert

Mr Ali Soufan believes the West has not even begun to fight the ideological battle online.
Mr Ali Soufan believes the West has not even begun to fight the ideological battle online.

Terrorist attacks are set to rise this year, as war-torn countries like Syria and Yemen fail to find political resolution and continue to be breeding grounds for Islamist militants, says Mr Ali Soufan, chairman and chief executive of The Soufan Group, a security intelligence consultancy.

The former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent, in Singapore yesterday for a homeland security conference, has another ominous prediction for the year: "I think on the sixth anniversary of bin Laden's death, which is next month, we're all going to be reminded that we killed the messenger but the message lives on."

Osama bin Laden, leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001, was killed in a raid in Pakistan by US Special Forces on May 2, 2011.

Despite recent US-led coalition successes in weakening the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group - "the rogue child of Al-Qaeda" - in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, Mr Soufan says these tactical successes amount to a strategic failure.

"Bin Laden only had 400 members in 9/11. Now the idea of Osama bin Laden attracts thousands of people. Al-Qaeda in Syria alone numbers more than 20,000. Al-Qaeda in Yemen has 6,000 to 7,000. We've spent trillions of dollars and Al-Qaeda is way stronger than ever before," he notes.

The crux of the issue, in Mr Soufan's view, is that the West is looking at the terrorist threat as a purely military conflict. "The local contexts in these places are now the underlying foundation for the terrorist threat. So we cannot diminish or deal with that terrorism threat without providing political solutions for these geo-political conflicts," he says.

"Conflict zones create a self-sustaining environment for these terrorists to group and have safe havens for training and indoctrination," he notes.

It is these local community issues that first need to be resolved, he says, for example through aid, education or economic measures, adding "that's not only the law enforcement, or intelligence or military job. That's a whole society's job".

Mr Soufan also believes that the West has not even begun to fight the ideological battle online, a key means by which militant groups radicalise, recruit and mobilise their members.

"It's not that we're losing the fight (online), we're not even fighting the fight. It's really good to fight ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the physical spaces like Iraq or Syria, but it's more important to fight them in the space they occupy in the minds of the people who are vulnerable, the people who are alienated."

He added: "I think we have to prevent them from having more recruits. Only when we start fighting them on that front, we might win the war. Unfortunately, 16 years after 9/11, we're not doing that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Terrorist attacks set to rise this year: Expert'. Print Edition | Subscribe