A banner week in the war on terror
Recent arrests of Al Qaeda agents marked major successes, yet show weakness in US intelligence and may strain ties with Pakistan.
NEW YORK AND ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — What may have been the best week for international intelligence agencies in their fight against Al Qaeda since 9/11 highlights both what the US is doing right in the war on terror - and enduring weaknesses.
Experts say that behind the recent spate of arrests of Al Qaeda operatives in Britain and Pakistan lies growing international cooperation on intelligence-gathering, skilled use of high-tech surveillance, and good on-the-ground spying by Pakistani operatives.
But they caution that much more still needs to be done in bolstering the "human side" of the spy game - in other words, moles and infiltrators. At the same time, differences are surfacing between the US and other nations over how and when to release the information on individual cases.
Bush administration officials believe the recent arrests and information may have disrupted a plot to interfere with the November elections, but they also say they can't be sure and that other operations may still be in the works. Moreover, they note that the new information is still being analyzed and could lead to even more security alerts, both public and private.
Altogether, the sting operation at the heart of the recent successes netted more than a dozen Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and England and more arrests are expected. Several of those already apprehended are fairly high level operatives, including one Tanzanian on the FBI's most wanted list for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa. The operation also produced a stash of more than 1,000 computer disks that British and US intelligence analysts are still evaluating.
As much as anything, the recent arrests show how much the CIA and other US intelligence agencies are dependent on Pakistan and other countries for their ground-level understanding and infiltration of terrorist networks. "We have been cooperating with each other closely and honestly since the beginning," says a senior Pakistani security official. "But now we are more familiar with each other's functioning than ever."
Sources say the US provided technical assistance that helped Pakistani experts trace the locations of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the Tanzanian on the FBI's most-wanted list, as well as the "computer man of Al Qaeda," Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was at the heart of the sting operation that netted dozens of arrests in England. The Americans also helped the Pakistanis decode cyber messages used by Al Qaeda and local militants.
"The US provides high-tech communication assistance in nabbing Al Qaeda operatives, but completely depends on Pakistan for human intelligence," says Aisha Agha, a Pakistani defense analyst. "I believe never before has the US been so familiar with the sensitivities attached to Al Qaeda operations in Pakistan [nor as heavily dependent] on Pakistan. And it is showing results."
But serious strains are also surfacing in the relationship. Both British and Pakistani sources have accused the Bush administration of leaking Mr. Khan's name last week in order to mollify a skeptical press and public about its decision to increase the security alert to orange. That broke his cover.
Pakistani officials had not announced Khan's July 13 arrest and were hoping to use his continued contacts with Al Qaeda operatives to learn more about the terror group. Some had hoped they could even get Osama bin Laden. But when Khan's name was leaked, British and Pakistani officials had to arrest as many of his contacts as they could before they disappeared.
Pakistani officials were also upset by the FBI's decision to use an invented plot to assassinate the Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations in an unrelated sting operation in the United States. An FBI informant arranged for two leaders of an Albany, N.Y., mosque to help launder money to buy a shoulder-fired missile.
The two men were arrested last Thursday. Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Masood Khan, told the Reuters news agency that it was "bizarre" and "mind-boggling" that the FBI had used a foreign official, instead of an American one, as the bait. "This has increased our ambassador's and our mission's vulnerability," Mr. Khan said. "This technique and methodology ... could have endangered the life of our ambassador."
The increased activity against Al Qaeda, despite the successes, has also put renewed pressure on the US to improve even further its human intelligence-gathering operations. Immediately after 9/11, it became clear that US agencies had focused on technology at the expense of the more traditional human side of intelligence gathering. The CIA suddenly realized that it had a disturbing deficit of Arabic speakers and covert operatives in the Middle East. Since then, it's made significant strides in recruiting and training new operatives.
Still, last spring then CIA director George Tenant told a congressional committee it would be another five years before American human intelligence gets fully up to speed. Many analysts believe even that assessment is optimistic, in part because the intelligence community has been slow to change its own culture. It's still recruiting from the Ivy League, and, with a predominantly upper-middle-class-white-male culture, it's difficult for people from other ethnic communities to fit in.
That's been exacerbated by a backlog of security clearances, according to Juliette Kayyem, an intelligence expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "They have to recruit in universities they're not used to recruiting in," she says. "They have to make the working environment much more tolerant of a diversity of opinions and lifestyles and they have to make security clearances go faster."