October 06, 2005

Infiltrating al-Qaeda: The Turkish View

AP has a pretty good piece up on the failure of Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies to infiltrate al-Qaeda to date.

Turkish intelligence agents are infiltrating mosques, monitoring underground Web sites and investigating Islamic front charities but are having little success penetrating al-Qaida's tight-knit cells, agents and anti-terror police say.

I'm actually pretty surprised to hear this for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the Turks have very effective anti-terrorism and intelligence agencies that have been honed from over a decade of fighting the the Marxist Kurdish separatists in PKK, the Marxist Devrimci Sol, and the Islamist Great Islamic Eastern Raiders' Front (IBDA-C) and Turkish Hezbollah (not to be confused with the infamous Lebanese group of the same name). Given that members of the latter group were trained by Zarqawi from 1999-2001, my guess is that they're the local muscle while the al-Qaeda being referenced here are the actual controllers, financiers, and agent-handlers. There is also a racial dynamic at work here, given that many of al-Qaeda's top operatives are of Egyptian, Saudi, or Yemeni nationality, with Indonesians playing much the same role in Southeast Asia. I assume that the Turks have already infiltrated elements of the Turkish Hezbollah and there have long been allegations, some of them credible, that Turkey deliberately cultivated the Turkish Hezbollah in order to orchestrate a conflict between them and the PKK to deprive the latter of support. Whether or not these accounts are true, the success that Turkey has had against its domestic Islamist groups (arresting IBDA-C leader Salih Izzet Erdis in December 1998 and killing Hezbollah leader Huseyin Velioglu in January 2000) suggests that they are at least at present a manageable level for the Turkish authorities but that the ability to infiltrate and disrupt their new benefactors has been somewhat elusive to date.

As the AP story explains however, this isn't just a Turkish problem:

It is a common frustration around the world, with police in Italy, Britain and dozens of other countries finding it difficult to penetrate al-Qaida, a loosely knit terrorist organization where family ties and close personal relationships are often key.

I'd be interested to know if France is on that list, as the French have exceedingly capable human intelligence and informant networks that have been set up and carefully maintained ever since the first bombings in France during the early 1990s. Italy (or at least the Milan prosecutor's office) seems to rely more on wiretaps and there hasn't been as much incentive to do so since up until this point the country has served more as a logistics center than a potential target for al-Qaeda. So far, anyway.

And then there is the UK, whose counter-terrorism policies appear to boggle the mind at times. From the ongoing existence of Londonistan to trying to recruit Abu Qatada so that he would prevent terrorist attacks in the UK (I guess attacks in the rest of Europe and the Middle East are okay then?) to trying to assassinate Qadaffi using al-Qaeda operatives (a claim echoed by Gunaratna and others), there is much about British policy in this area that does not make sense to me. Even to this day, UK authorities continue to be in denial about the al-Qaeda link to the 7/7 bombings. These actions, to put it bluntly, do not inspire a great deal of confidence about their ability to infiltrate or understand the group.

The Indonesian government's inability to prevent Saturday's suicide bombings on the island of Bali - three years after a similar attack on the tourist haven and a month after the president strongly warned of the possibility of upcoming attacks - is the latest example of the elusiveness of Islamic terrorist groups and the need for better intelligence.

Indonesia's inability to prevent the Bali bombings is due more to problems among the political class as far as recognizing the threat is concerned and the institutional weaknesses involved in prosecuting domestic terrorists. The latter is a very common flaw in former dictatorships, but I have a healthy respect for the Indonesian police given the speed and dedication they've shown in rounding up Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members since October 2002. The problem is that they're operating in the absence of political support given that most of the political class still regards the idea of an organization as widespread and dangerous as JI as being too fantastical to believe.

Turkey's recent arrest of Louia Sakka, a Syrian accused of planning to ram a boatload of explosives into a ship carrying Israeli tourists to southern Turkey, illustrates the challenges.

Sakka slipped into Turkey with a fake passport two years ago and was detained, but police said they did not realize he was an al-Qaida operative and deported him to Syria.

He returned to Turkey and was caught in August only after an accidental explosion in the safe house he was using led neighbors to complain to police about a strange smell coming from the burning building. Police discovered more than 1,320 pounds of bomb ingredients in the house and later uncovered Sakka's alleged plot.

I've noted Sakra before and he definitely seems to be a major player, at least in Anatolia and the Levant. He first came to the public light when he was identified in Turkish court documents as one of the financiers of the November 2003 Istanbul bombings.

To gather information on al-Qaida-linked groups, police here and in other countries have been trying to use Muslim informants to penetrate cells, but police are having trouble recruiting people who can infiltrate al-Qaida, which has links often forged on battlefields in Chechnya, Bosnia and Afghanistan - and now Iraq.

"Al-Qaida is held together by bonds of friendship, kinship and discipleship," said Nick Pratt of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies based in Germany.

Indeed. In the case of JI in particular, Sydney Jones of International Crisis Group has documented more than 400 inter-locking marriages and family ties that make up the core of the group. One of the reasons why it took the Greek government so long to roll up November 17 was because the entire group was a single extended family of very capable Marxist kooks that made it all but impossible to infiltrate or subvert the way you could more traditional terrorist organizations. The Middle Eastern penchant for sealing alliances through marriage has in many ways made al-Qaeda's upper echelons far more difficult to infiltrate than any other group adhering to the classic Marxist Leninist clandestine cell model.

Paul Beaver, a British defense and security expert, said it took years for Britain to penetrate IRA cells, and infiltrating al-Qaida is "a more demanding job. There has been some success, but not enough, as the July 7 attacks in London showed."

I would actually attribute that more to the issue of not fully appreciating the ramifications and dangers of the al-Qaeda alliance with the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) with regard to the British Pakistanis, the effect of Londonistan as a radicalizing force on the British Muslim population, and a deep-seated unwillingness of the British political class as a whole to recognize the problems inherent in either situation. If the MI5 assessments leaked to the British press post-7/7 are any indication, there are upwards of 10,000 active al-Qaeda supporters in the UK and perhaps as many as several hundred members. Lest we forget, the UK has a Muslim population of upwards of 2,000,000, so this sounds to me as being about right. What then, do the British plan to do about this? I don't know, but so far I've been far from impressed on this score. None of this should be seen as denigrating the efforts of British law enforcement and intelligence, incidentally, both of which have done an outstanding job in thwarting attacks in the UK absent any real leadership from the political class.

The article then proceeds to discuss Turkish strengths as far as fighting terrorism:

Turkey has an advantage in investigating Islamic groups - with a 100 percent Muslim police force, as religious minorities are not accepted - but that has failed to translate into big gains.

Turkey is 99.8% Muslim according to the CIA, so even if they accepted religious minorities into their police force they'd still likely have a 90% Muslim police force. I'm also not certain that I'd accept the reporters' characterization that they haven't made big gains - the Istanbul bombers, with the exception of those who fled to Iraq or Iran, were apprehended in fairly short order. Planned attacks such as foiled 2004 plot against the NATO summit (whose plotters were trained in Pakistan, likely by the LeT, and planned to assassinate President Bush) were disrupted or the more recent maritime attack on Israeli tourists have been thwarted and major players like Sakra have been taken out of commission. If that isn't progress, I'm not certain what is. Had the assassination attempt on President Bush or the suicide attacks on Israeli cruise ships succeeded, we wouldn't be debating how much "progress" the Turkish authorities were making on this score.

One Turkish intelligence agent said it might be possible to infiltrate al-Qaida sympathizers or supporters, but it's far more difficult to penetrate an operational cell discreetly planning and carrying out attacks, because the structure is built on a "lack of trust."

Cells operate independently and each cell leader knows only the person above him in the organization, said the intelligence agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of the subject.

That's because the al-Qaeda supporters and allies like the Turkish Hezbollah or the IBDA-C are insulated from the operational cells the same way the financial, propaganda, recruiting, and operations wings of the network are insulated from one another. Moreover, the al-Qaeda MO is to keep a short-term operational cell as isolated as possible immediately prior to an attack to keep them from being detected until it's too late. What this means is that it is next to impossible to infiltrate a cell that has already completed its training and psychologically conditioning to carrying out an attack.

That's the theory and the trend anyway. In practice, while these guys may look, act, and even talk like comic book villains, they are not infallible, nor is it all that easy to adhere to rigorous definitions of discipline that may have worked in a controlled environment in Pakistan but is next to impossible to maintain in the far more open atmosphere of Western countries. Operating on the assumption that the 9/11 hijackers were some of the finest operatives ever produced by al-Qaeda training camps, even a casual reading of their MO once they entered the United States will indicate that these guys are not all robotic constructs unyielding in their operational security. Sooner or later they screw up, and that is when law enforcement or intelligence agencies are able to disrupt them.

Also, one cell leader may command several groups, the agent said. The leader will use one alias with one group and another with a different group, he said, so captured members of different cells give interrogators different names.

When Turkish police showed suspects pictures of Sakka, they identified him with different names, according to a police interrogation report obtained by The Associated Press.

Harun Ilhan, one of the key al-Qaida suspects on trial for the Istanbul bombings in 2003, said they frequently changed code names.

Those are what's known within the trade as "masterminds" or "failed masterminds" depending on their success rate. This isn't a new concept either, as I'm sure our own spies do it all the time when dealing with overseas contacts. If you take a look at the Rewards for Justice website, for instance, you'll notice that bin Laden is known by a variety of nom de guerres even within his own organization, including the Prince, the Emir, the Director, Abu Abdallah, Mujahid Sheikh, and Hajj. Al-Zawahiri, who has been far more active clandestinely than bin Laden, is known as the Doctor (a reference to Dr. Who, perhaps?), the Teacher, Ustaz (a Muslim religious title), al-Nur ("The Light"), Abu Mohammed, Abu Mohammed Nur al-Din, Abu Fatima, Mohammed Ibrahim, Abu Abdallah, and Abu al-Muaz.

Turkish authorities monitor more than 800 Turks who have fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya or Bosnia; they are also now monitoring people who have fought in Iraq, police say.

That's quite interesting, as it means that some Turkish jihadis who have gone to fight in Iraq have already returned, either by accident or some design of Zarqawi's. One of the things that needs to be understood, however, is that these jihadis do not constitute a majority of the Turkish population (69,660,559 per the CIA) who, regardless of what they think about Iraq or the United States or even the role of Islam in politics, do not seem to be lining up to join Zarqawi at this time. Some of the good news about the Iraqi jihad is that it doesn't carry any of the long-standing Turkish cultural-religious grievances against Slavs and/or the Eastern Orthodoxy that the Bosnian or Chechen jihads do and hence is unlikely to obtain anything resembling the same level of popular support, even within the Turkish Islamist community.

Turkish undercover police often join Friday prayers in certain mosques, trying to see who known suspects may be meeting and where they are going, said an anti-terror police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the record.

Police also use cameras to monitor streets and airports in some major cities.

Sometimes the police make their presence obvious. During a recent Istanbul Islamic charity event to collect aid for Palestinians, some people seemed startled when a police radio began blaring under the jacket of a man attending the event. The man - clearly a plainclothes police officer - made no effort to turn off the radio, possibly to intimidate people.

All of these are good methods and are probably going to pay off in spades within the next 5-10 years as the Turks find themselves more and more redirecting their counter-terrorism efforts away from the PKK (which has killed far more Turkish citizens than al-Qaeda and is still their #1 priority) and towards a more Islamist-oriented strategy. Keep in mind that it has taken the French over a decade to refine their counter-terrorism efforts to where they are today, simply because the 1994-1996 terror campaign by the Algerian GIA left them little choice but to do so. Because of that, they were able to identify bin Laden is the main driver of the GIA during a period when the CIA still saw him as merely a "financier" of terrorism and by the time of the 1998 World Cup in Paris they were ready for action, working with their neighbors to arrest over 100 suspected GIA members living France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. I have no doubt that the Turks can receive similar results, but it is going to take time and effort to do so.

Police and intelligence agents also tap telephones of suspected Islamic militants and try to intercept Internet messages, but security forces are also finding that task frustrating.

"Just as it was difficult to infiltrate al-Qaida's inner circle in the real world, the chat rooms, Web sites, and computers of today's displaced network have become more challenging to observe," said Chip Ellis, coordinator of terrorism studies at the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism based in Oklahoma.

"Some of these have been around for years and have closed themselves to new members and encrypted their communications," he said. "Others are constantly relocating and resurfacing."

I'm a big believer in SIGINT, even after its failure with regard to Iraqi WMDs. Anyone who is even remotely aware of the wealth of information contained in the wiretaps that the Milan prosecutor's office was able to obtain is probably of a similar mindset, at least once you get over the reaction that nobody talks like that. Monitoring Internet sites for terrorist content is a little bit more iffy, though the efforts of Internet Haganah and others on this score are extremely useful. The challenge for investigators is to determine which sites are genuine and which are run by wannabes, though some of the more notorious such as Azzam Publications, al-Neda, Farooq.net, Jehad.net, Qoqaz, etc. sort of stand out by themselves.

There are also legal barriers. Phone and Internet companies in the Netherlands, for example, have protested demands by the Dutch government that they store data such as Internet service provider addresses and phone calls for three years for police.

I'm not terribly surprised to learn about the legal barriers, particularly in Western nations. Some ISPs used to housing controversial content such as some of the seedier porn sites or racial supremacist sites simply refuse to shut down websites even when confronted with proof of their extremist leanings. Another favored tactic by al-Qaeda is to hack in to another website and then install their content as part of an obscure image subdirectory.

Authorities also are trying to convince militants to give up violence.

Following the 2003 truck bombings in Istanbul that killed 61, some al-Qaida-linked suspects expressed regret for their role in the killings while under interrogation, but after they returned to their prison cells, "they were seen quickly returning to their militant views," said Emin Demirel, a Turkish terrorism expert and author of a new book titled "Al-Qaida Elements in Turkey."

The Yemenis claim to be having some success on this score, but their method is far more akin to the kind of deprogramming regimen that people go through after leaving cults than anything else. It also unambiguously challenges the tenets of Salafism, which could lead to all sorts of interesting legal issues as far as attempting to employ it in Western nations are concerned. As far as the fact that terrorists express regret upon being caught, the Jihad in Europe case studies produced by Norwegian intelligence awhile back makes it quite clear that many terrorists have no compunctions about lying, particularly with regard to infidels. As documented by the Norwegians, captured terrorists would cite the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as their motivation, express remorse for their activities, claim racism, and a whole host of other despicable tactics all designed to elicit popular support. This doesn't even begin to get into how many of these people got into Europe to begin with, ranging from claims that they have been persecuted for their political views to their religion to even their homosexuality if it gets them refugee or asylum status. Minus the Yemeni de-indoctrination program, I think we're going to have to take claims of the repentance of captured terrorists with a definite helping of salt. Moreover, if memory serves most of the Londonistan crowd still to this day denies any involvement in terrorism. Truly, the cynicism of these people knows no end ...

Posted by at October 6, 2005 01:26 AM | TrackBack (6)

Extremely interesting.

Is there a typo in the following sentence?

"One of the things that needs to be understood, however, is that these jihadis do constitute a majority of the Turkish population (69,660,559 per the CIA) who, regardless of what they think about Iraq or the United States or even the role of Islam in politics, do not seem to be lining up to join Zarqawi at this time. "

You surely don't mean that "these jihadis", i.e. the 800 just mentioned, "constitute a majority" of 69 million?

maybe you meant to write "do **not** constitute"? or "do not represent"?

Anyhow, as now written I don't see that the claim makes much sense.

That typo aside--this is a *really* fascinating piece of analysis.

Posted by: Tad Brennan at October 6, 2005 02:05 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yes, that's a typo. It's a recurring problem of mine and I hope readers will be kind enough to point them out and correct them to me as they appear.

Posted by: Dan Darling at October 6, 2005 03:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You said:

Al-Zawahiri, who has been far more active clandestinely than bin Laden, is known as the Doctor (a reference to Dr. Who, perhaps?)

Wouldn't that be a reference to the fact that Zawahiri is actually a medical doctor? Or did I miss your humor?

Otherwise, great post.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 6, 2005 04:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I actually believe he's an eye doctor by trade, though I'll have to check to be sure. The Dr. Who reference was just my own attempt at geek humor.

Posted by: Dan Darling at October 6, 2005 05:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I figured I wasn't telling you anything you didn't know.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 6, 2005 05:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I figured I wasn't telling you anything you didn't know.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 6, 2005 05:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Dan, please allow for the possibility that various intelligence agencies will tell the AP that they aren't doing well in penetrating the terrorist groups, when they are actually doing quite well.

With this in mind, some oft-asked questions may point in that direction. For example, why has it taken Iran so long--so far as we know--to perfect its atomic bomb? They started their "crash program" in 1991, when Saddam was driven out of Kuwait. They said 'if Saddam had the bomb, the Americans couldn't have done that. So we must have the bomb.' Do you really think they are somehow incapable of building an atomic weapon in fourteen years, with all the help they got from the Paks, the Russians, the Georgians, the Chinese, the North Koreans and who knows who else?

Maybe we or somebody penetrated the program and screwed it up, systematically?

For example, why have there been so few terrorist attacks on the West since 9/11? Maybe because we know a lot more about their plans and operations than we are letting on?

One thing is for sure: if we did penetrate them, we wouldn't be bragging to AP or al-Reuters, don't you think?


Posted by: michael ledeen at October 7, 2005 03:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

While what Mr Ledeen suggests is plausible, it does remind me of the old 'tiger repellant' joke.

The reference to the Yemeni deprogramming approach is particularly interesting. I wonder if techniques based more on cultist deprogramming could be the most effective tools for 'breaking' captured jihadists, who do after all resemble nothing so much as brainwashed cult members? (Next time I'm approached by a group of tambourine-banging Hare Krishnas, I can at least be thankful none of them have Semtex devices strapped beneath their robes.)

Posted by: Jeff Rubinoff at October 7, 2005 02:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Not only does it remind me of the 'tiger repellant', but also of, perhaps, a forgetfulness of the pacing of Al Qaida attacks.

Dan: "...ongoing existence of Londonistan...".

Dan, if you wish to be taken seriously outside of winger/'think tank'[1] circles, you might want to cut out that sort of language.


[1] Using the term in quotes to indicate that I'm not talking about RAND or Brookings, but sleazy propaganda mills.

Posted by: Barry at October 7, 2005 09:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Actually, the term "Londonistan" is used at both RAND and Brookings, it was originally coined by French counter-terrorism authorities during the 1990s to describe the convergence of Islamist ideologues and propaganda in London and has been adopted into the analytical parlace ever since.

Posted by: Dan Darling at October 8, 2005 02:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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