By Fred Burton
In our Geopolitical Intelligence Report earlier this week, we proposed that al Qaeda is engaging in the terrorist equivalent of a Tet Offensive: launching a series of attacks — some significant, others mere psyops — in an effort to turn the tide of a war it has been losing. Certainly, there is evidence of such a shift at the strategic level, in terms of the number and pace of operations around the globe, but at the tactical level there appears to be a widespread case of business as usual. Let's take a moment to examine that statement. Al Qaeda has taken some heavy hits in the past few years, losing a number of high-value operatives — planners and tacticians such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Hambali, Abu Farj al-Libi and Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan. This likely has contributed, at least in part, to perceptions that it is losing its edge — turning to poorly trained local sympathizers to carry out attacks, such as the July 7 bombings in London, or the more recent series of explosions in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The truth of the matter, however, is that this is how al Qaeda has operated throughout its history — with the notable exception of the Sept. 11 strikes. The July 7 attacks in London were jarring to Westerners because most of the suicide bombers were British-born citizens attacking on their home soil. In fact, most al Qaeda attacks — ranging from the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa to the Khobar Towers attacks to the 1993 World Trade Center strike to the Bali nightclubs — have been carried out by locals, with the help of an al Qaeda operational leader. Woven throughout this history of deadly successes are a series of equally notable, and at times almost laughable, failures
, such that even the aborted July 21 attacks against the Tube in London don't really seem surprising. At one point, for example, the storied Abdel Basit — a.k.a. Ramzi Yousef — and his assistant Abdul Hakim Murad caught themselves on fire in Manila while cooking a batch of triacetone triperoxide. A fair number of 20-watt actors — with names like Ahmad Ajaj, Richard Reid and Ahmed Ressam — who rendered themselves ineffective through bumbling have always been part of the group. At the tactical level, we are seeing a shift (and with good reason) away from the elaborate, grandiose killing schemes that characterized 9/11 and various precursor plots, such as Operation Bojinka, in favor of the simple and utilitarian — if still coordinated — strike. As a rule, al Qaeda planners seem to have adopted the rule that "less is more." The loss of what might be called tactical sophistication, however, does not necessarily mean that al Qaeda is now gasping its last as an organization. The Tet-like offensive, obviously, is meant to help the group regain credibility and some of its earlier momentum, which eventually could lead to growth or regeneration. But even if it fails in that effort, the current trend — should it hold — points toward a fundamental intelligence problem and a crucial shift in the way the war against al Qaeda is fought, rather than the end of fighting itself. For purposes of this discussion, it is useful to think of al Qaeda in terms of a pyramid. The apex of its leadership — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others known to the world through video clips — are on the run, believed to be hiding in Pakistan or adjacent areas of southwest Asia. The middle layer is populated by tactical commanders, couriers and logistical planners — connected, knowledgeable, well-trained and high-value operatives who, logic argues, must be small in number in order to maintain operational security for the group. It is this layer that has been heavily targeted by covert intelligence and security agencies, for obvious reasons: These operatives are the key to reducing both the numbers of attacks and the worst of the carnage. At the bottom of the pyramid are al Qaeda's foot soldiers. These are local sympathizers and militants with rudimentary training, those who waste themselves in suicide attacks or can be cut loose if arrested and questioned, with little impact to the rest of the organization. This is a finite but still significant sea of potential suspects, through which move the likes of Mohammed Sidique Khan — the apparent ringleader of the July 7 suicide cell — who may have attracted the notice of authorities in the past, but then been dismissed as a potential threat. It also likely is home to others who live completely below the radar — nameless, to the wider world, until after the bombs detonate. Judging from the types and relative simplicity of the attacks now being carried out, we can theorize that a certain amount of attrition has occurred within al Qaeda's middle command tier. The impact of that attrition is perhaps best illustrated by the al-Hindi takedown — part of a larger rollup of al Qaeda operatives that triggered a heightened security alert on the East Coast of the United States last year. Dhiren Barot, better known by his nom de guerre
Abu Eisa al-Hindi, is believed to have been a regional militant commander operating out of Britain and probably the United States. Between August 2000 and April 2001, al-Hindi is believed to have conducted surveillance on several landmarks in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. — including the world headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Prudential Corporate Plaza, the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Centre. Authorities discovered evidence of very serious engineering-type surveillance focusing on the design of the buildings. This is suited for one purpose — to bring them down. An al-Hindi — the likes of whom populate the middle tier of the pyramid — is very unlikely to be found taking part in the actual operations of a plot, but instead would transmit plans and instructions through a field command to the foot soldiers who carry out attacks. Had the plans he was helping to foment been carried out, the economic and psychological impact would have been quite serious — perhaps rivaling that of 9/11. Contrast that, then, with the Tube attacks in London. In the 7/7 attacks, the bombers committed a number of easily avoided violations of operational security — including carrying their own identification documents — struck at poorly defended ("soft") targets, and detonated their explosives in ways that, while deadly, did not inflict the greatest damage or loss of life possible under the circumstances. From these examples and others, it appears that al Qaeda has suffered a rather serious decline in the quality — though not necessarily the quantity — of its operational assets, which in turn points toward a decline in its effectiveness as a strategic force wielding influence over world events (though not, on the whole, as an organization capable of violence). On a related note, it also appears that national intelligence and security agencies, in the United States and elsewhere, who have taken "preventing the next 9/11" as their primary mission have been successful, at least so far. But herein lies the problem. The middle layer of the pyramid — that consisting of highly skilled operatives — might be seriously damaged, but it has not yet been eliminated. We strongly suspect the existence of an al Qaeda "ghost" — a high-value operative, likely someone with dual nationality or multiple passports — who is still able to move from cell to cell or at least transmit signals to local groups awaiting a "go" order to carry out a strike. Government-run intelligence agencies have suspected the same, and MI5 actually identified a possible ghost, named on a terrorism watch list, who entered and left Britain shortly before the July 7 attacks. Yet the agency also signaled, three weeks prior to the event, that there were "no known threats" to world leaders who would be attending the G-8 summit in Scotland at that time. Clearly, the intelligence puzzle is not yet complete. The intelligence dilemmas and failures are magnified at the foot-soldier level. Again, using the London case as an example, consider that Khan and possibly other members of his cell had been investigated — and then dismissed as potential threats — prior to the attacks. This analysis might have been wrong on its face or utterly correct at the time — but the threat is no more static than human beings themselves. At its simplest level, the dilemma is mathematical: There are too many potential targets, which cost too much to fully defend, with too few government resources, against too large a universe of potential actors — the bottom tier of the pyramid. Without significant help from human intelligence sources — and a great deal of luck — it is all but impossible to prevent some forms of terrorist attacks (exemplified by London). The best any government intelligence or security force can do is to defend the highest-value targets and take pains to mitigate, rather than prevent, the damage or loss of life elsewhere. Intelligence failures occur for a variety of reasons but almost always boil down to a lack of tactical analysis, lack of humint needed to develop sufficient detail to thwart an attack, and failure to identify and penetrate terrorist cells — again, due to a dearth of actionable information. National and international security agencies can be expected to continue focusing efforts against the high-value ghosts who haunt the middle tier of al Qaeda's structure, but even a complete rupture of strategic communications between the apex and bottom tier of the pyramid would not, in our view, put an end to the wider war at the tactical level. For that, the key is going to be nothing more — and nothing less — than old-fashioned cooperation and human intelligence at the grassroots level.