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

Bombmaking materials linked to 14 men arrested in Barcelona in January. French officials were outraged when Spain disclosed the existence of a Pakistani informant, reporting to France, who had succeeded in infiltrating al-Qaeda.
Bombmaking materials linked to 14 men arrested in Barcelona in January. French officials were outraged when Spain disclosed the existence of a Pakistani informant, reporting to France, who had succeeded in infiltrating al-Qaeda. (Spanish Interior Ministry Photo Via Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 20, 2008; Page A01

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.

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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.

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