Singing the enemy’s song


Senior Member
Aug 13, 2009
Singing the enemy’s song
Praveen Swami December 20, 2009

Sand sculpture to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attack on World Trade Centre at Puri in Orissa. File Photo: PTI

Rahman, many experts have long suspected, was allowed to enter the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency in an effort to infiltrate Al-Qaeda -- a high-stakes intelligence gamble that backfired spectacularly

“We have an expression in Arabic”, the blind Egyptian cleric who ran al-Qaeda’s networks in the United States once told an interviewer, “everybody sings for those he loves”.

On February 26, 1993, a fifteen hundred kilogramme improvised explosive device went off in the underground parking garage of the World Trade Centre in New York -- the very building that, eight years later, would be brought down by the Al-Qaeda. Six people were killed, and 1,042 injured. Investigators rapidly determined that the operation had been funded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged operational chief of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Its perpetrators were linked to the Brooklyn-based blind cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman.

Rahman, many experts have long suspected, was allowed to enter the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency in an effort to infiltrate Al-Qaeda -- a high-stakes intelligence gamble that backfired spectacularly.

Ever since news broke that Lashkar-e-Taiba clandestine operative David Headley had been a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, speculation has grown that the Pakistani-American jihadist may also have worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The evidence for the claim is thin. Headley’s links with the Lashkar, Federal Bureau of Intelligence detectives say, was only detected in July, 2009, when he posted inflammatory messages in an internet chat-room. Even at the time of his arrest, they claim, no evidence was available to suggest he had carried out pre-attack reconnaissance in Mumbai. For its part, the CIA has flatly denied any association with Headley.

But the Headley rumours offer an opportunity to examine the efforts of intelligence services around the world to infiltrate the global jihadist movement -- and what sometimes happens when their assets turn out to have been double agents, singing the enemy’s song.

Imprisoned by Egyptian authorities until 1986, Rehman initially travelled to the United States each year after his release, using funds provided by Saudi Arabia. He was later, however, placed on a terrorism watch-list. But in 1990, Rehman succeeded in securing a visa from the United States embassy in Khartoum. The visa, it turned out, was issued by an undercover CIA officer. The decision was officially characterised as a mistake. “In fact,” journalist Tim Weiner recorded in his book Legacy of Ashes, “CIA officers had reviewed seven applications by Abdel Rehman to enter the United States -- and said yes six times.”

Declassified State Department documents suggest United States intelligence officials had begun meeting with Rehman’s followers in the summer of 1989, in what appears to have been an effort to build alliances with the Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya against groups like Al-Qaeda. Many experts believe Rehman, who is reputed to have taken charge of al-Qaeda’s United States networks, was granted his visa to capitalise on that dialogue. It is possible the CIA believed their relationship with him would help monitor those networks, and provide protection to the United States against attack.

For that reason, authorities in the United States may have overlooked Rehman’s open calls to violence. His sermons to his followers, the researcher Evan Kohlman has recorded, included one condemning Americans as the “descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communists, and colonialists”. He called on Muslims living in the west to “cut the transportation of their countries, tear it apart, destroy their economy, burn their companies, eliminate their interests, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air, or land.” Language like this, after all, would have been precisely why the CIA granted Rehman a visa in the first place: to allow him to attract followers whom he could then betray.

Ahmed Syed Omar Sheikh -- the British jihadist who was released from a jail in New Delhi in return for the lives of passengers on board an Indian Airlines flight hijacked by the Jaish-e-Mohammad in 1999 -- is believed to have had an even more complex relationship with intelligence services. Pakistan’s former President, General Pervez Musharraf, charged in his autobiography In the Line of Fire that Sheikh was recruited by the British intelligence service MI6 to infiltrate jihadist groups operating in the Balkans. “At some point”, General Musharraf claimed, “he probably became a rogue or double agent”. But there is also credible evidence that Sheikh was closely linked to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence -- and the Al-Qaeda.

Educated at the exclusive Forest School in London and the Aitchison College in Lahore, Sheikh went on to study applied mathematics and economics at the London School of Economics. But he dropped out of university after his first year, after joining the Islamist student movement, and went on to serve with jihadist groups in Bosnia. Imprisoned in New Delhi from 1994 to 1999 for kidnapping western tourists, Sheikh is known to have met with British officials nine times at Tihar jail. The London Times later reported that the United Kingdom offered him a secret amnesty in exchange for information on his relationship with the Al-Qaeda. But after Sheikh was released by India -- and became the subject of international arrest warrants -- he was reported to have visited his parents in the United Kingdom in 2000 and 2001. The United Kingdom has never explained its failure to arrest Sheikh on his arrival in London.

It was only in the wake of the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States that Sheikh was charged by the United Kingdom with kidnapping its nationals in New Delhi -- a delay that his victims described as “a disgrace.” Former ISI Director-General Lieutenant-General Mahmud Ahmad was alleged to have used Sheikh to wire $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, a key member of the Al-Qaeda cell which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks. No hard evidence emerged to corroborate these accounts — but General Mahmud was indeed removed from office. Sheikh is now awaiting execution of a death sentence awarded for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

London-based Islamist cleric Omar Mahmoud Othman, spiritual mentor to the Al-Qaeda in Europe, is also alleged to have been a double-agent working for the United Kingdom’s domestic covert service, MI5. Known by the alias Abu Qatada, Othman’s followers included the chief suspect in the Madrid train bombings of 2004, and Al-Qaeda operative Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up a Paris-Miami flight with explosives. Nineteen audio cassettes of Othaman’s sermons were found in Atta’s apartments. For years before the Madrid attacks, MI5 resisted appeals from the European allies for Othman’s arrest. “Abu Qatada”, The Times later reported, “boasted to MI5 that he could prevent terrorist attacks and offered to expose dangerous extremists, while all along he was setting up a haven for his terror organisation in Britain.”

The costs of betrayal

Why, then, do intelligence organisations persist with the high-risk enterprise of cultivating agents who could betray them, sometimes with horrible consequences? The reason is simple. Even in an age of increasingly sophisticated electronic intelligence-gathering, there is no more effective source of information than an insider. For each embarrassing failure, agents have helped prevent dozens of attacks -- agents whose identities may remain secret for decades, or longer.

Had intelligence services succeeded in planting agents, several major terrorist strikes may have been averted. Last year, in November, India’s Research and Analysis Wing tracked satellite phone communications from the boat which carried the Lashkar-e-Taiba assault team to Mumbai, but lost the trial when the attackers hijacked a Gujarat-registered fishing boat for the final part of their journey. Deceived by the move, India’s intelligence services even cleared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to address a convention at the Oberoi Hotel scheduled for just one day after the carnage began.

Perhaps the most spectacular examples of the consequences of the lack of assets amongst the enemy emerged during investigations of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In January 2005, Al-Qaeda commander Tawfiq bin-Attash called a meeting of key operatives in Kuala Lumpur. Based on prior intelligence provided by the CIA, Malaysian police covertly photographed Ramzi Binalshibh, the logistical head of Al-Qaeda’s Hamburg cell, in the company of bin-Attash. His recruits Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, who were among the nineteen men 9/11 hijackers, were also at the Kuala Lumpur meeting. But without a source among the conspirators, the CIA was compelled to hold off targeting them, waiting for more information to emerge.

But the risk of betrayal is the inevitable price of attempting to infiltrate the enemy’s ranks. During World War II, John Cecil Masterman’s Twenty Committee -- which drew its name from the Roman numerals for twenty — put out a mixture of disinformation and credible military intelligence through German agents who were apprehended and put to work against their masters. For all practical purposes, the Twenty Committee ran the networks of Germany’s Abwehr and Sicherheitsdient. The Twenty Committee’s achievements included making trans-Atlantic military traffic safer, misdirecting German bombing attacks on the United Kingdom and easing the way for the eventual liberation of Europe.

No enemy has ever been so comprehensively vanquished in an intelligence war since. But victory and defeat in the struggle against terrorism, perhaps more than in any war before it, still rests in large part on the outcome of a high-stakes game of deceit and double-cross.

Deceit, double-cross and the intelligence war against Islamist terrorism.

The Hindu : Opinion / Lead : Singing the enemy’s song


Senior Member
Aug 13, 2009
Paper no. 3581 01-Jan-2010

Counter-Penetration & Counter-Sanctuaries - International Terrorism Monitor --- Paper No. 600

By B. Raman

There can be no effective counter-terrorism without effective counter-penetration and counter-sanctuaries techniques and capabilities.

2. Penetration refers to one’s capability to penetrate the set-up of a terrorist organization to collect human and technical intelligence about its future plans. The impressive success rate of the unmanned Drone flights of the US in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan since August, 2008, spoke of a significant improvement in the penetration operations of the US intelligence community in their continuing fight against Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

3. Similarly, the impressive number of instances of detection and neutralization of indigenous and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist cells by the Indian intelligence community and police during 2009 was the outcome of an improvement in their penetration operations----after the series of explosions in the urban areas organized by the so-called Indian Mujahideen since November, 2007, and after the 26/11 terrorist strikes by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) of Pakistan in Mumbai.

4. Effective penetration is important for successful counter-terrorism, but the gains made by effective penetration can be diluted if it is not accompanied by effective counter-penetration.

5. Counter-penetration refers to one’s ability to thwart the attempts of the terrorists to penetrate one’s set-up-----sometimes to collect the intelligence required for planning their operations and sometimes for the planning and execution of their terrorist strikes.

6. A weak counter-penetration capability facilitates a terrorist strike. Weaknesses in the counter-penetration capability of the Indian counter-terrorism community were brought out by the ease with which David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana of the Chicago cell of the LET managed to obtain visas from the Indian Consulate-General in Chicago without a proper scrutiny of their visa applications and the equal ease with which they repeatedly managed to pass through the Indian immigration manned by intelligence officers without a proper scrutiny of their passports and their landing and departure cards.

7. The success of Headley in visiting different places in India in order to collect operational information, staying in hotels and making a network of contacts without being suspected even once by the police Special Branches in different states showed the disturbing state of our counter-penetration capability. One of the principal tasks of the police Special Branches and the regional offices of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) all over the country is to detect and neutralize attempts of indigenous and foreign terrorist organizations to penetrate our set-up. The fact that neither the passport-visa section of the Ministry of External Affairs nor the airport set-ups of the IB and the R&AW nor the Special Branches of different States and the regional offices of the IB and R&AW suspected Headley and Rana even once till they were ultimately arrested by the USA’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in October, 2009, speaks poorly of them.

8. Weaknesses in the counter-penetration capabilities of the US in the US homeland were brought out by an incident in a US military base in Fort Hood, Texas, on November 6, 2009.Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist of the US Army born to Palestinian migrants to the US from Jordan, suddenly went on a killing spree killing 13 soldiers with a handgun before he was injured and overpowered. Initially, it was presumed to be an isolated attack of an angry Muslim individual in the US Army, but subsequent enquiries have brought out worrisome details of his alleged contacts with Anwar Al Awlaki, an extremist cleric born in the US, who has been living in Yemen since 2002. Many regard Awlaki as an ideologue of Al Qaeda in Yemen. There were adverse indicators about Major Hasan in the past, but these were either not noticed or, if noticed, not taken seriously.

9. Even now, there is a reluctance in the Obama Administration to admit that the case of Major Hasan indicates a possible success of Al Qaeda in penetrating the US Army and was made possible by a weak counter-penetration capability in the US homeland. This is similar to the reluctance of the Government of India to admit weaknesses in our counter-penetration set-up, which were exploited by Headley and Rana.

10. Weaknesses in the counter-penetration capabilities of the US in the Af-Pak region have now been revealed by the ease with which the Afghan Taliban penetrated the Afghan National Army (ANA) by having one of its members recruited into it and used him to kill seven officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deployed near the Pakistan border in the Khost province of Afghanistan through an act of suicide terrorism.

10. Details available till now indicate that the CIA set-up in the Khost area was playing an important role in facilitating the Drone strikes in the FATA. If this is correct, the Afghan Taliban not only managed to identify the CIA set-up in Afghan territory, which was behind the increasing successes of the Drone strikes against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but also managed to penetrate it without its penetration efforts being thwarted by the counter-penetration capabilities of the US intelligence community.

11. Counter-penetration is a difficult task in an operational area such as Jammu & Kashmir in India’s fight against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism or in the Af-Pak region in the USA’s fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Failures are bound to be there despite the best efforts at counter-penetration. One should keep admitting and analysing those failures in order to identify and close gaps in counter-penetration security.

12. Counter-penetration failures in non-operational areas such as in the Indian hinterland in the case of Headley and Rana and in the US homeland in the case of Major Hasan should be a matter of serious concern. In the case of India, the failures lasted nearly three years before they were noticed after the arrest of Headley and Rana by the FBI in October, 2009.

13. If such failures have to be reduced, if not prevented, in future, one must have the political courage to admit them and go into them thoroughly. One does not find evidence of such courage either in Washington DC or in New Delhi. The reflexes in the two capitals are similar---- play down the gravity of the failures and avoid a thorough probe.

14. The post-1967 escalation in terrorism by organisations such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Abu Nidal Group, the Hizbollah, the set-up of Carlos, the Baader-Meinhof of the then West Germany, the Red Army factions of West Germany and Japan, the Irish Republican Army etc was made possible partly by the support received by them from the Muslim States such as Syria, Libya, Sudan, Iraq and Iran and partly by the support from the USSR and other communist states.

15. While the PLO, the Abu Nidal Group and the Hizbollah were the beneficiaries of support from the Muslim States, the other organisations received the backing of the communist states in East Europe, North Korea and Cuba. In both cases, the support consisted of not only money, training, arms and ammunition and false documentation, but also, more importantly, sanctuaries.

16. It was the realisation that no counter-terrorism fight against a foreign-sponsored terrorist organisation can be effective unless action is taken against the guilty State, which motivated the US Congress in the late 1970s to make it mandatory for the US Administration to act against foreign state-sponsors of terrorism. The post-1991 collapse of the Communist States in East Europe practically brought an end to the activities of the ideologically-oriented leftist terrorist groups. Without sanctuaries and other assistance from countries such as the then East Germany and Yugoslavia, they could not survive.

17. It was again the pressure exercised by the US against States such as Syria and the Sudan, which made organisations such as Al Qaeda shift their sanctuaries to the Af-Pak region. It is the present reluctance of successive US administrations to act as vigorously against Muslim States sponsoring or aiding jihadi terrorism in foreign territories as they used to act against communist states in the past which should account for the continuing successes of organisations such as Al Qaeda and the LET.

18. India paid a heavy price on 26/11 for the continuing inaction against Pakistan’s state-sponsorship of jihadi terrorism. The US almost paid a similar price at Detroit on 25/12 when a Nigerian terrorist, trained in a sanctuary in Yemen, narrowly failed in his attempt to blow up an American plane over Detroit. Whereas Pakistan has been using terrorism as a strategic weapon to advance its foreign policy objectives, there is no reason to believe that Yemen is doing the same. But Yemen’s inability to act effectively against the sanctuaries in its territory is posing the same threat to the security of the US homeland as Pakistan’s active complicity with the terrorists is posing to the security of the Indian and US homelands.

19. Unless effective counter-penetration and counter-sanctuaries strategies are devised and enforced vigorously, we will all continue to bleed at the hands of the jihadi terrorists.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: [email protected])

Counter-Penetration & Counter-Sanctuaries - International Terrorism Monitor—Paper No. 600

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