Interesting article in this week’s WaPo, “After a Decade at War With West, Al-Qaeda Still Impervious to Spies.” The main theme is that Western intelligence agencies have had precious little success in penetrating any upper level of AQ’s structure, and that this has not helped the war effort. There is much truth to this, and the article exposes some of the issues at work.
Granted, this is a tough nut to crack. AQ’s footsoldiery is notoriously fanatic and doesn’t seem to have a long shelf life, and the leadership is tight and clannish in the extreme. It presents a different problem than the Warsaw Pact did, which although loathsome at least had a roughly symmetric structure. Not so the jihad network.
What we are looking for is a modern-day Kim– or perhaps a Strickland Sahib– who can assume not only the guise but the persona of the enemy, and has the wits and nerve to come out on top. Such a fellow is proving hard to come by. “Few operatives,” the article points out, “have the language skills, personal backgrounds and knowledge of radical Islam that would enable them to talk their way into the camps.” True, but one would hope that we’ve been laying the ground work in the last eight years. One would hope.
Another problem, certainly a self-inflicted one, is that law enforcement and domestic intelligence operations don’t always integrate well with overseas operations. An excessively legalistic view of intelligence matters can lead to a complete breakdown in interagency cooperation, with awful consequences. In the 1990s the US treated AQ more like an organized crime syndicate than a hostile foreign power at war with us. We are still living with the results today.
And yet, although the title of the article says “impervious,” it is not. Highly resistant yes, impregnable no. The author points out one French agent of Moroccan descent who did work his way into the organization, but was turned off by his superiors. “‘I was a gift that walked in the door, but they always underestimated me,” Nasiri said in a recent interview. “I told them, ‘You know, guys, I’m not doing even 10 percent of what I can do.’ And it made them mad when I said that. But they knew I was right.’” And of course, one of AQ’s senior figures today began as a walk-on hippy idiot from California, as was John Walker Lindh. It can be done, but we have to re-learn the art and science of doing it. I wonder if the Kim we’re looking for isn’t some quick-witted entrepreneurial kid in Dearborn or LA, treading just on the right side of the law.
Probably the sort who couldn’t pass a background check for a security clearance, ironically. Mores the pity, because we really need him.