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After a Decade at War With West, Al-Qaeda Still Impervious to Spies

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 20, 2008

BARCELONA -- A decade after al-Qaeda issued a global declaration of war against America, U.S. spy agencies have had little luck recruiting well-placed informants and are finding the upper reaches of the network tougher to penetrate than the Kremlin during the Cold War, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials.

Some counterterrorism officials say their agencies missed early opportunities to attack the network from within. Relying on Cold War tactics such as cash rewards for tips failed to take into account the religious motivations of Islamist radicals and produced few results.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, officials said, al-Qaeda has tightened its internal security at the top, placing an even greater emphasis on personal and tribal loyalties to determine who can gain access to its leaders.

Alain Chouet, former chief of the security intelligence service of the DGSE, France's foreign spy agency, said it can take years for informants to burrow their way into radical Islamist networks. Even if they're successful at first, he said, new al-Qaeda members are often "highly disposable" -- prime candidates for suicide missions.

He said it might be too late for Western intelligence agencies, having missed earlier chances, to redouble efforts to infiltrate the network. "I think you cannot penetrate such a movement now," he said.

At the same time, those agencies have made their task harder by blowing the cover of some promising informants and mishandling others.

In January, Spanish police arrested 14 men in Barcelona who they suspected were preparing to bomb subways in cities across Europe. Investigators disclosed in court documents that the arrests had been prompted by a Pakistani informant working for French intelligence.

The revelation infuriated French officials, who were forced to withdraw the informant -- a rare example of an agent who had successfully infiltrated training camps in Pakistan. Spanish authorities expressed regret but said they had no choice; after they failed to find bombs or much other evidence during the arrests, the case rested largely on the informant's word.

"Suicide attacks don't allow for a lot of margin to make a decision," said Vicente Gonzales Mota, the lead prosecutor. "Acting after an attack would be a tragedy."

Ten years ago, on Feb. 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring it "the individual duty of every Muslim" to kill Americans and their allies around the world. Looking back, some U.S. and European intelligence officials said their governments had underestimated the enemy and thought they could rely on old methods to destabilize al-Qaeda.

During the Cold War, for example, the CIA had enjoyed some success in recruiting KGB moles and persuading Soviet officials to defect. The agency was also able to buy off Afghan warlords with suitcases of cash, persuading them to fight Soviet forces in the 1980s and to turn on the Taliban in 2001. A similar approach has worked, to a limited extent, against insurgents in Iraq: An informant's tip led directly to the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006.

But al-Qaeda's core organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan has so far proved impervious to damaging leaks.

Part of the problem is that the CIA and FBI had very few Arabic-speaking officers who could handle or recruit informants. Instead of making it a priority to develop human sources, the agencies assumed they could rely on spy satellites and other high-tech tools.

Arab and Pakistani spy agencies, preoccupied with domestic politics and other threats, weren't much help either, officials said.

From 1992 until November 2004, "we worked side by side with the Egyptians, the Jordanians -- the very best Arab intelligence services -- and they didn't recruit a single person who could report on al-Qaeda," said Michael Scheuer, who in the 1990s led the CIA unit dedicated to finding bin Laden. He left agency in November 2004.

After Sept. 11, U.S. officials tried another tried-and-true tactic: offering huge rewards for information leading to the capture or death of al-Qaeda leaders, including $25 million apiece for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

That lure, however, has proved largely ineffective in Pakistan and Afghanistan. No rewards have been publicly announced under the program in either country since Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks, was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in March 2003.

Scheuer said money and other traditional inducements are unlikely to persuade Islamist radicals to betray a religious cause to which they are fervently committed. While people operating on the fringes of al-Qaeda -- arms suppliers, narcotics dealers and rival extremists -- might be tempted, he said, the chances are remote with people higher up the chain of command.

"We're still kind of stuck in the Cold War approach to this," Scheuer said. "This is a much more difficult target than the Soviets were. These people are true believers. They're living according to their beliefs, not in the lap of luxury."

Walled Off Against Spies

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI and European law enforcement agencies have had some luck recruiting informants in their own countries, enabling them to break up alleged terrorist cells in Miami, New York, London and Copenhagen.

But al-Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan has remained immune, in part by further tightening its already sophisticated internal security apparatus, current and former intelligence officials said.

Its recruiters cautiously seek out new operatives at training camps run by other radical groups, such as the Taliban. Those chosen are given specific assignments and rarely come into contact with high-ranking al-Qaeda figures. They must also pass extensive background checks, which usually require personal references from movement sympathizers, officials said.

Tribal or family connections are paramount, and certain categories of people automatically come under suspicion, officials said. For years, al-Qaeda avoided Algerian recruits, they added, because it was assumed that Algerian terrorist groups had been infiltrated by that country's security services.

"We're facing a very disciplined organization," said Louis Caprioli, former chief of international counterterrorism for France's domestic security service and now a consultant for GEOS, a global security firm. "These people have well understood they are the target of informants, so it makes it all the more difficult to penetrate them."

U.S. and European spy agencies have avoided sending their own undercover officers to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, officials said.

Few operatives, they said, have the language skills, personal backgrounds and knowledge of radical Islam that would enable them to talk their way into the camps. Plus, the political consequences of having a spy unmasked by al-Qaeda would be enormous, they added.

Beyond that, undercover officers usually require an extensive support network that would be hard to sustain for the several years it might take to worm into the al-Qaeda hierarchy, said a former senior British intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Undercover operatives might also find themselves ordered by al-Qaeda to organize a suicide attack or kill someone. "Which you can't let them do," the former British official said. "You have an obligation to prevent it from happening."

Attempting to wiggle out of such an assignment would only raise suspicions. Al-Qaeda people are "very canny about this sort of thing," the former official said. "They have this preemptive and fairly brutal approach. If you're suspected of being an informant or agent, you're dead."

Recruiting outsiders to serve as spies has its own challenges. The United States and European countries have restrictions on hiring informants with shady pasts. In 1995, for instance, the CIA adopted guidelines that require special approval to recruit paid sources who have been accused of human rights abuses or serious crimes.

Partnering with such people, moreover, can backfire.

Last month, authorities in Casablanca arrested a Belgian-Moroccan citizen, Abdelkader Belliraj, and charged him with plotting terrorist acts. Investigators said he worked closely with al-Qaeda and had met in Afghanistan with Zawahiri, the network's deputy leader, in 2001. During his interrogation, according to Moroccan officials, Belliraj confessed to involvement in six unsolved murders in Belgium in the late 1980s.

The case exploded into a scandal a few days later when newspapers in Brussels reported that Belliraj had served as a paid informant for Belgium's domestic intelligence service, even as his network plotted assassinations and robbed armored cars in Europe.

'Inside the Jihad'

But counterterrorism officials maintain the hope that one day they will succeed in placing someone inside al-Qaeda. The network does have a vulnerability, they note: It remains dependent on a fresh flow of outsiders to replenish its ranks, and agents could be introduced into that flow.

On March 6, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, an al-Qaeda commander, posted an audio recording on the Internet in which he advertised for recruits to fight NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The network has a particular need for engineers and doctors, he said, adding, "Your brothers in Afghanistan are waiting for you."

Al-Qaeda has also shown that it will accept newcomers from unusual backgrounds.

Adam Gadahn, a 29-year-old Californian with Jewish roots, moved to Pakistan after he converted to Islam a decade ago. He joined al-Qaeda a few years later and now serves as a propaganda adviser, in direct contact with Zawahiri and other top leaders. In 2006, he was indicted for treason by a U.S. grand jury.

In the mid-1990s, a Moroccan-born informant working for France's foreign intelligence service infiltrated two training camps in Afghanistan and forged a personal relationship with several high-ranking al-Qaeda figures.

The informant -- a wine-loving, tobacco-smoking Muslim with the gift of the gab -- found his way to the camps simply by showing up in Pakistan and asking around, according to a book he published in 2006 titled "Inside the Jihad."

Writing under the pseudonym Omar Nasiri, the informant said his French handlers had discouraged him from undertaking the mission because they doubted he could succeed.

"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."

He was placed in a witness protection program in 2000. European intelligence officials confirmed that he had worked as an informant but would not discuss details.

In the interview, Nasiri said it would be very difficult, but not impossible, for paid informants to infiltrate al-Qaeda in South Asia today. "Every moment of my existence was a test, every little answer, every little movement," he recalled of his time in the camps. "You had to show complete devotion to the cause. If someone does all this to blend in, even if it is deception, the risk is that sooner or later he will believe it."

Special correspondent Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.

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