October 06, 2005

The Farther They Travel, The Less We Know

Building on Dan's insightful analysis of the difficulties and different approaches for infiltrating al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations, this short piece by Michael Scheuer is probably worth a look. Scheuer argues that we will never enjoy the same quality of human intelligence from the penetration of Islamist organizations as we did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, based largely on the level of ideological dedication of the members at various stages of power within the respective organizations (though, surely, not exclusive of the many other reasons cited in Dan's piece). He explains:

In the Soviet Union the people most difficult for Western intelligence agents to recruit were found at the entry level of the Communist system—young men and women who were moving from youth groups and school systems into the military, the KGB, Party organizations, or the diplomatic corps. At this stage these people were steeped in Marxism-Leninism, believed that socialism worked, had faith in the USSR, and were hostile toward the United States. The ideologically committed are always the toughest to recruit for intelligence services.

But on those occasions when the West could develop an informant at this level, the Soviet system unwittingly assisted in that development. With each promotion in the Communist ranks, the potential informant would see more clearly that socialism delivered nepotism, tyranny, and corruption, rather than fairness and equity. Non-Russians (those hailing from the Soviet republics and satellite states) would quickly realize that ethnic discrimination dominated the world in which they worked. In short, the further up the Soviet hierarchy our would-be informant progressed, the more likely the system was to disillusion him, making him more vulnerable to the Western intelligence services.

Here's the challenge that al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups pose: In such organizations the old Soviet scenario is exactly reversed—the militants who are least ideologically committed (and therefore most easily recruited by our spy agencies) are found at the edges of the groups, among the ranks of those who perform gunrunning, human smuggling, and narcotics trafficking. Once we've recruited these people, their value to us increases as they move toward the center of al-Qaeda. The problem is that the higher a would-be spy rises in al-Qaeda's ranks, the greater the ideological and theological commitment of his associates; Sunni leaders are often (though certainly not always) the devout and courageous men their media organizations claim them to be. Career advancement in al-Qaeda tends to wash away much of the mercenary hypocrisy found at the entry level—and therefore, in effect, to unrecruit those cultivated by our intelligence agencies. The odds of our ever having an informant among the senior al-Qaeda decision-makers are remote.

Infiltrating the fringes might not be so difficult, but there seems to be a barrier in place preventing potential informants from traveling too high up the chain of command. As Dan pointed out, the structure of the cells (separate, ignorant until the last moment before an operation, etc) means that the value of human intelligence from fringe sources might not be too high. We need people to penetrate the upper echelons, but that may require something close to a true believer - or at least someone capable of the subterfuge necessary to create that impression.

Posted by at October 6, 2005 04:39 PM | TrackBack (0)

You know, I tend to think that if a white rapper turned Jihadi from Marin County can wind up in a position where he can meet with OBL, then it's got to be fairly doable by someone who is actually native to the Islamic world.

What did Taliban John do that Joe Turk couldn't?

Posted by: Andrew Reeves at October 6, 2005 05:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, keep in mind we want more than a meet and greet. We want someone who is going to be in on operational planning meetings, someone who can maintain a position in the upper ranks and feed us valuable information over time. I don't think John Lindh was anything close to that.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 6, 2005 05:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yeah, point taken. The thing about Lindh, though, is that he was only in Al Qaeda for a couple of years before he wound up in a U.S. prison. It is my guess (and only a guess) that had he hung around long enough, he quite possibly could have risen in the ranks. Infiltrating Al Qaeda is one of those things that will take time and lots of it.

As far as I understand it, you'll basically have to have guys join in on the ground floor and just move up through the ranks. The big problem with such an approach, though, is that someone in such deep cover being constantly exposed to Islamicist dogma and surrounded by like minded believers might eventually wind up believing in Salafiism, at which point you're back to square one.

Posted by: Andrew Reeves at October 6, 2005 06:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In the cold war many of the best sources were people who has already risen to positions of power and spent some time in the west before they became disillusioned.

this is not in conflict with the original quotes.

Posted by: spencer at October 6, 2005 07:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree that penetrating ideologically motivated mass movements like jihadism or communism is very difficult, and in fact I don't know of a single case where we have accomplished that. I have no idea what Scheuer is talking about when he speaks of young communist agents who advanced through the ranks. So far as I know, and my colleague Reuel Gerecht as written this, every major Soviet agent we ever had was a "walk-in," somebody who became disenchanted and came to us out of disgust with his or her own political/social system.

I think the same is true with the jihadis and with radical islam in general. I know several former officials from places like Iran who became disenchanted with the regime and with radical shi'ism, and came to us. I don't think this is rare, I think it happens with surprising frequency, and I think that if we had an intelligence community worthy of the name, we'd do much better. Instead, there is--and long has been--a profound suspicion verging on contempt, for defectors.

This is a major problem for us, I think in part because case officers don't get as much credit for managing a defector as they do for "recruiting" an "asset," even though most of the so-called "assets" really aren't, or aren't much good.

The general principle is that our intelligence community wants people who will work FOR us, but many potentially valuable people don't want that; they want to work WITH us. They don't want to be agents, they want to be friends/allies. We need to accept them and embrace them. At present we don't. And I can give you lots of examples.

I also agree with Andrew Reeves that we should be able to place young spies inside the terrorist groups, if we had some patience and imagination. Johnny Jihad can certainly be replicated.


Posted by: michael ledeen at October 7, 2005 03:47 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Since when is al Qaeda a monolithic hierarchal organization directing the actions of a large number of "cells"?

Posted by: p.lukasiak at October 7, 2005 01:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mr Lukasiak here has a point. There seems to be a certain amount of strategic and ideological input coming from some sort of center but al Quaeda looks more like a 'franchise operation' than a classic cell structure, at least to this admittedly armchair observer. So even if you got someone in close to one of the prominent people, you might not be getting any intel on operations. Likewise, someone in one of the 'franchises' is only going to be able to provide intel on that local group, not any of the others or about any of the international strategy/doctrine gurus in the group.

Posted by: Jeff Rubinoff at October 7, 2005 01:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jeff: AQ has franchises like JI, but also apparently has "company owned stores" as evidenced by Pakistani connections for bombings in the UK.

Mr. Ledeen:

You mention walkins from IRAN. That would seem to confirm the original post, not contradict it. Iran is a long running state, with its own cynical internal maneuvering, that may well be as disillusioning in some ways as the former SU. AQ, OTOH, is NOT running a state (since November 2001) and so can maintain a greater degree of "idealism"

The possibility of an AQ-Iran alliance would not change this distinction.

Posted by: liberalhawk at October 7, 2005 03:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Dear Hawk:

Point well taken, as always, and fully embraced. Two things: first, the state sponsors know a lot about the terrorist groups they are sponsoring, so the "state" walk-ins are insiders, and we need to work with them. And second, there are disenchanted terrorists, too. I know one of them personally.

Posted by: michael ledeen at October 7, 2005 06:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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