ISIS will not find reservoir of recruits in Lebanon: expert
Elise Knutsen/The Daily Star/Nov. 17, 2014
BEIRUT: Although a number of Lebanese have joined the ranks of ISIS, the terrorist group will not find a deep reservoir of recruits in Lebanon, according to leading security expert Ali Soufan. Soufan, a Lebanese-American who was previously a special agent with the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations, says Lebanon does not provide a “nurturing environment” for those seeking to wage violent jihad with groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
The majority of the foreign fighters in Syria hail from predominantly Sunni countries with relative religious homogeneity, Soufan explained. Lebanon, however, is more of a confessional patchwork where an appreciable percent of the population supports dialogue and peaceful coexistence.
“You don’t have these issues like in some other countries where the ‘other’ doesn’t have the right to exist or even breathe,” Soufan said in an exclusive phone conversation with The Daily Star. “That takfiri concept is not mainstream” in Lebanon.
According to a report published recently published by Soufan’s eponymous consultancy firm the Soufan Group, more than 50 percent of the foreign fighters who have joined ISIS hail from five countries: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey.
“I don’t think that Lebanon will ever be in the top five countries” contributing foreign fighters to ISIS, said Soufan, a Beirut native.
Straight talking and well versed in the minutiae of Middle Eastern politics, Soufan is a seasoned expert in regional terrorism.
While he was born and raised in Beirut, Soufan emigrated with his family to the United States during the Civil War.
He applied to the FBI as part of a bet with his college fraternity brothers, but was ultimately accepted to the agency. Soufan quickly distinguished himself, and proved to be a crucial asset as the U.S. sought to track Al-Qaeda’s shadowy network across the globe both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks.
If G.I. Joe, all biceps and bravado, was once the epitome of American valor, Soufan came to represent a shrewder, more worldly approach to national security.
In his book, “Black Banners,” (which was reviewed by both the FBI and the CIA prior to publishing) Soufan recounts reciting hadiths to Al-Qaeda prisoners and debating theology with terrorists.
Soufan was dubbed “an American hero” by his colleagues after tirelessly questioning Al-Qaeda suspects in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a 2006 profile in The New Yorker magazine.
Vehemently against the use of torture, Soufan sought instead to outwit his interrogation subjects.
“People ask what is the most important weapon we have against Al-Qaeda,” Soufan writes in his book, “and I reply ‘Knowledge.’”
Since leaving the FBI in 2005, Soufan has sought to share his knowledge with high-profile clients and the public at large.
The Soufan Group, stacked with former intelligence analysts and counterterrorism officials, has emerged as a leading authority on ISIS, and was among the first to publically discuss the flow of foreign fighters to the group last June.
“At the beginning, nobody wanted to deal with this issue, to even look at it, until ISIS took over Mosul,” Soufan explained.
Since ISIS’ rapid advance this summer, however, Soufan has the world’s attention. When discussing ISIS, the U.S. government, the United Nations and leading news publications have cited data gathered by the Soufan Group.
“I think we contributed significantly to raise the awareness of this phenomenon,” Soufan said.
Through he does not believe that Lebanese will join ISIS en masse, Soufan cautions against underestimating the militant group’s abilities and regional reach. “This is the wild card here: between Iraq and Syria, ISIS controls an area about five times the size of Lebanon,” he said.
“They are very strategic in what they are doing. They’re not people just jumping on trucks saying ‘Hey, let’s do it.”
It remains unclear what role Lebanon will play in ISIS’ regional strategy. A report published by the Soufan Group claims that “in due course it may try to move into Jordan and Lebanon, where it already has supporters.”
Soufan has high hopes, however, that Lebanon’s problems can be solved in the political arena, rather than the battlefield. Though the deep division in the country between the rival March 8 and March 14 camps “might take on the ground level a sectarian tone on both sides, after all is said and done it’s a political matter,” he said.