Penetrating Al Qaeda

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.


  1. SSgt OB says:

    Lt Col P said: "Probably the sort who couldn't pass a background check for a security clearance, ironically. Mores the pity, because we really need him. "

    I have always believed that to catch the bad-guy you have to be a little bit of the bad-guy yourself. There is no way a silver spooned, ivy educated, career driven, choir boy, for example, is going to be able to understand the cultural or behavioral makeup of a bad-guy. They can read psychological profiles and intel reports but a kid who grew up on the streets, running scams, stealing for what he needed to survive and knows how to live among and bluff with those sorts because he has done it before to survive will be able to get inside and tear down the monster from within.

    There are those that know when to blur the lines to get the mission accomplished and the term "by any means necessary" are a life long mantra. Those who do well by giving them an end state and allowing them to work solo to accomplish those goals. Some of those people are right before the face of their commanders and like the referenced french officer, those commanders have no idea what assets lie at their feet.

    To truely beat and conquer this unconventional force, fighting by unconventional means, you need to have the same in return. To many times unconventional is transformed into special forces, special operations, direct action, door kicker etc. Unconventional means unconventional and should be addressed and handled as such.

    It takes a great sacrifice of the individual to be that true unconventional warrior, but i think there are more of those willing to do so than leaders think and those who may be the most effective are not always those who are the Soldier or Marine of the Quarter.

    Strike hard, strike deep and no fucking mercy!!!

    SSgt OB

  2. S says:

    "There is no way a silver spooned, ivy educated, career driven, choir boy, for example, is going to be able to understand the cultural or behavioral makeup of a bad-guy"

    oh, how so true and unfortunately so. I just really hope our government is focusing on I guess what they call human intelligence. We are in deep shit without these people.

  3. Jason B says:

    I hate to say it, but WaPo is missing out on the fact that we HAVE gotten a ton of captured terrorists, and the info that comes from them, as well. To start off with, one needs to have good intelligence to capture them in the first place. This probaly means at least a low level of HUMIT.

    Secondly, the info that we gleaned from the terrorists that we've captured have also given us a really good idea of how they operate and the culture behind it.

    Lastly, there's no doubt that the WaPo are not privy to classified sources and documents, especially anything as sensitive as spies, intel operations, and special forces work.

  4. Possum says:

    The missing element here is that AQ usually requires an outsider to kill in order to provide his bona fides. U. S Intell cannot legally penetrate an organization with an officer or agent who would have to do this. We cannot legally participate in such an operation even indirectly. This law needs

    changing but with the wimps in Congress it probably won't be.

  5. Dave says:

    1. al Qaeda is about 15-20 people

    2. they are winning

    3. when their 401k goes boom Americans will notice