Infiltration of al Qaeda?

Den Beste had a recent post in which he questioned whether CIA infiltration of al Qaeda is actually feasible, or merely desirable but practically unattainable. He seems to come down more on the latter. This is an unusual case where I am disagreement with him.

I don’t think this is really a feasibility issue. It is more a deployment of assets issue and an institutional/legal issue. There is probably no organization in the world that cannot be penetrated given enough time, willpower and resources. You need to have lots of people who speak the language, who understand the culture, who can pick up in nuances, and who can get around in the appropriate areas without being obviously an American spy. Such people can be hired or trained or both. You need to have the patience to let them insinuate themselves and get involved in activities which will bring them in touch with promising contacts. You must have the resources to bribe or otherwise reward and protect those who help you. You need to maintain secrecy. All of this is feasible, though difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

I heard a good talk by Patrick Fitzgerald, the US Attorney in Chicago, who prosecuted the 1993 WTC terrorists in New York. He discussed the fact that terrorist organizations, like criminal organizations, have people with ordinary weaknesses like greed, jealousy, pride, laziness, loneliness, fear. For example, there were informants he worked with who were tired of living in hiding and justified their defection by claiming that the whole thing was unfair to them, because the Egyptian guys got all the money and good assignments. Even al Qaeda is not composed entirely of suicidal supermen. Any organization composed of human beings has its weak points. You have to do the grunt work so you have someone nearby who can find those weak points and exploit them.

This is all old-fashioned stuff, really. Recruiting and training people to infiltrate in the Arab world, to eventually get in touch with al Qaeda or its equivalent, could begin tomorrow as far as feasibility goes. It is not like developing a dream-battery with capacities which are technically impossible, which den Beste uses by way of analogy.

This article from Parameters is not exactly on point, but it gives a good flavor of dealing with “humint assets.” Note particularly the two paragraphs under the heading “An Asset Is Not a Commando or Hero”.


Den Beste responds:

The key word in there is “time-consuming”. Yes, the kind of things he describes can be done. And fifteen years from now, once we have actually done those things, we will finally have the resources required to permit us to insinuate moles into the top brass of al Qaeda.

But if al Qaeda still exists by then and is still enough of a threat to be worth infiltrating, we’ll already have lost this war. Part of feasibility is timeliness. A solution which is too late is no solution. A solution which requires resources which don’t exist is a solution which relies on magic.

I do understand him, actually. The figure “fifteen years” is a guess. I don’t know why he thinks we will have lost the war if we haven’t totally defeated al Qaeda by then. But, even assuming it is accurate, I disagree that this means what I have suggested becomes “not feasible.” “Al Qaeda” will long have mutated out of existence by then, even if any of its current members are alive, but that is not the point. The point is that Islamist terrorism is going to be with us for a long, long time. I’d guess more like decades than years. I’d be surprised if this problem were not around in 15 years if only because it has been developing in its current incarnation for decades already, since the late 1940s (e.g., Sayyid Qutb). And it will take any number of forms and go by any number of labels and have any number of new recruits in that period of time. Developing the intelligence capabilities to investigate, understand, infiltrate and then either manipulate or destroy the persons and groups which will develop does not require resources we don’t have. As I noted, these capabilities are actually something we already know how to do. We have done and continue to do things like spy, learn languages, do detective work, pay bribes, prey on human weaknesses, etc. I am assuming the current war will be decades in length, so we do have more time than SdB seems to think. We should start now to build the capabilities we will need for the long-term foreseeable future.

We disagree on the time horizon involved. But what I am saying, given my assumptions, requires no magic.

This could all be combined most effectively with the kind of cultural/intellectual “War of Ideology” which David Brooks refers to here. He notes that the 9/11 commission found that “We are facing … a loose confederation of people who believe in a perverted stream of Islam that stretches from Ibn Taimaya to Sayyid Qutb. Terrorism is just the means they use to win converts to their cause.” The enemy is “primarily an intellectual movement, not a terrorist army” so it is in “no hurry” but rather is operating from an “extensive indoctrination infrastructure of madrassas and mosques, they’re still building strength, laying the groundwork for decades of struggle.” That sounds about right. Decades. Not 15 years. We need to build deep capabilities to fight on all levels, to use a term from another context, we need full-spectrum dominance in the war against Islamic terrorism, and it will take much money, much effort and much time, and no magic to acquire these capabilities.

5 thoughts on “Infiltration of al Qaeda?”

  1. Den Beste assumes that we would recruit spies from among “reliable traitors,” but ignores (unless I misread him) the possibility of recruiting Americans to fill the same role. Surely there are loyal U.S. citizens who immigrated, or whose families immigrated, from Arab countries, Pakistan, India, etc., who would be well suited to spying for us. We would need years to recruit and train such people, and then to get them recruited by terror organizations and sympathetic governments, but why couldn’t we do this successfully?

  2. I think it’s less a matter of infiltration than it is developing contacts already within the organization.

  3. “He discussed the fact that terrorist organizations, like criminal organizations, have people with ordinary weaknesses like greed, jealousy, pride, laziness, loneliness, fear.”

    Why are the emotions fear and pride a weakness?

  4. Den Beste, I think, is right. The infiltration issue (even to a non-expert like myself) is harrowing. AQ isnt a novice organization. It has survived where others were squashed for a reason, they are experts at internal security. They dont deal with strangers, they are highly compartmentalized, they are well funded. There simply arent hundreds of useful possibilities to sort through. I understand AQ has perhaps 20 high ranking members left responsible for connecting their networks. Thats a tight window, and easily monitored by AQ themselves. This isnt a Ludlum novel where anyone with a dark face that speaks fluent Arabic gets shuttled up to secret HQ where OBL divulges his plan for the benefit of the audience.

  5. A great deal seems to rest on timelines. One of the great unknowns is how serious George Tenet was when he said earlier this year that we are in year 7 of a 13 year program of rebuilding the clandestine services. If we’ve been quietly beefing things up for the last 7 years, Al Queda may already have multiple low-level agents already burrowing into the organization, feeding enough information that people above them get taken out, advancing them up the organizational ladder.

    So, does anybody want to maintain that Tenet was lying? What evidence of that do we have? The Tenet timeline implies we’re going to be in good shape in 2010. I think we can hold out until then.

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