Beware of 'Kramer': Tradecraft and the New Jihadists

13 MINS READJan 19, 2006 | 05:35 GMT
Items confiscated from so-called
(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Items confiscated from Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an airliner with a bomb concealed in his shoe.

In a recent article, we discussed the ongoing devolution of al Qaeda from what could be termed "al Qaeda the group" — a distinct group of individuals with a clear political aim — to "al Qaeda the movement," a wider network of groups and individuals who have thrown in with al Qaeda's "Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders." The shift, we noted, lends greater geographic and operational reach to the entity or brand name of al Qaeda, but — as a movement — also renders it shallower in a sense: The new al Qaeda will lack the operational depth and expertise exhibited by the core group and its well-trained leadership.

In practical terms, this shift has many implications — one of which will become more evident in an area intelligence professionals refer to as "tradecraft." That's the set of skills needed to conduct clandestine activities in a hostile environment without discovery. Through the years, the jihadists on the whole have exhibited sloppy tradecraft, and we expect that trend will intensify with al Qaeda's further devolution. This should not be taken, in any way, to imply that the ability of the jihadists to cause death and destruction will dwindle or that they can be dismissed as harmless goofs by those with an appreciation of "the craft" — quite the opposite. It does, however, represent a potential advantage for intelligence and security forces seeking to pre-empt attacks by an amorphous and shadowy enemy.

Intrinsic to this discussion is the shift in the way al Qaeda is making propaganda and tactical guidance available to sympathizers around the world. For decades, militant groups and lone wolves have relied on army field manuals and other printed resources, like the well-known "Anarchist's Cookbook," as sources of technical data. Al Qaeda printed what is known as its "encyclopedia of jihad" — titled "Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants" — in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and of course provided other forms of practical training in physical camps in Afghanistan and Sudan.

Obviously, the Internet has dramatically increased the amount of technical data available to aspiring practitioners of terrorism. There are now thousands of Web sites that contain how-to information on topics that range from preparing improvised explosive mixtures and timing devices to formulating biological toxins such as ricin. As a side note, we must issue this caution to any aspiring terrorists among our readership: While some of the information on these sites is quite accurate, some of it is very wrong — and when it comes to mixing volatile substances like TATP, directions that are even "a little wrong" can kill you. Having said that, we return to our regular programming.

The Internet has proven a valuable tool to al Qaeda as well. Though in many ways jihadists spurn the corruption and sinfulness they perceive in the modern world, they have been quick to adopt new technologies and adapt them to their cause. This is not as surprising as it might seem when you consider that, by and large, the professional cadre of al Qaeda and its sister organizations, such as Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah, are educated men — many of them with backgrounds in engineering, medicine and other scientific fields that are friendly to innovation and technology. As a result of this serendipity, Web sites such as sprang up to spread the jihadists' ideology and to recruit fighters and raise funds.Through such means, al Qaeda has lost its distinctiveness as an identifiable group and is now taking on the characteristics of a decentralized, global "movement" instead.

Technical Education vs. Tradecraft

There is a downside for al Qaeda in this. While some basic skills and concepts — we will call this "technical information" — can be learned in a classroom or over the Internet, taking that information and applying it to a real-world situation, particularly in a hostile environment, can be exceedingly difficult. The application often requires subtle and complex skills that are difficult to master simply by reading about them: The behaviors of polished tradecraft are not intuitive, and in fact frequently run counter to human nature. That is why intelligence and security professionals require in-depth training and many hours of practical experience in the field.

Let's put this another way: Would you prefer to put your life in the hands of a brain surgeon who learned everything he knows about his craft from visiting Web sites, or one who graduated from a prestigious medical school, served internships under the guidance of established surgeons and had successfully completed similar operations before he took his scalpel to your head? Certainly, not all terrorist operations are as intricate and complex as brain surgery. But they are complicated, and in either case, one minor slip can lead to catastrophic failure. The technical skills of terrorism (bomb-making, targeting, deployment) are important, but tradecraft — those subtle skills needed to maintain secrecy and operations in a hostile environment — are crucial to both the individual jihadist and his network.

The craft is equally crucial to intelligence officers, who must be able to operate in similarly hostile environments without detection and to spy on others, while appearing to outside observers to be doing nothing out of the ordinary. For instance, the skills required to run a surveillance detection route without tipping off anyone following that you are trying to flush them out do not come easily. Intelligence agencies spend hundreds of hours on the streets, teaching their officers these skills and critiquing them heavily in real-world practicums.

Poor tradecraft, as history shows, has long been the Achilles' heel of the jihadists and frequently has helped to pre-empt plots. In fact, it could be argued that poor tradecraft has caused the jihadists as much, if not more, grief than have penetrations by the intelligence services that hunt them. This is a weakness that is difficult to overcome with technology: Online training manuals and other instructional materials discuss the importance of surveillance work and even go so far as to tell jihadists what kinds of information to gather, but the texts do not teach how to gather the information without being detected. It is this omission — this dearth of street skills or tradecraft — that has produced vulnerabilities in the jihadists' attack cycle.

From 'Dumb and Dumber' to 'Kramer' and 'Ronald McDonald'

The history of the past decade is replete with examples of busted jihadist operations that were triggered by failures in tradecraft. In September 1992, for example, Ahmed Ajaj attempted to enter the United States on a poorly altered Swedish passport and carrying a suitcase full of bomb-making instructions and other training manuals and videos. Both errors are mistakes that could be expected from a novice. Ajaj, as it happens, was en route from Osama bin Laden's Khaldan training camp alongside Abdel Basit (otherwise known as Ramzi Yousef). Basit also was stopped by an immigration inspector, but requested political asylum and — as he was not carrying a suitcase full of bomb-making manuals — he was later released pending a hearing on his asylum claim. (Had he remained in custody, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would not have been carried out.)

In another case of tradecraft error, Ahmed Ressam — the would-be millennium bomber — fell victim to "burn syndrome" while attempting to enter the United States from Canada in December 1999. Ressam completely lost his composure when he was approached by a U.S. Customs inspector, who was running a routine check of the ferry in which he was traveling. The Customs inspector had no idea that Ressam was an Islamist militant or that he was in operational mode — in fact, when he panicked, she assumed he was smuggling drugs rather than explosives.

"Burn syndrome" is a powerful psychological phenomenon that affects everyone conducting a covert activity: It is the irrational fear that a person observing you knows exactly what you are up to. This fear often causes people to make unnatural, frequently unconscious, movements — making them appear more rather than less suspicious. Thus, learning to fight "burn syndrome" is one of the key elements of tradecraft, and it is impossible to master simply by reading about it.

It is interesting to note that, despite the many tradecraft errors made in the past, the jihadists do not seem to have learned from their mistakes. It seems reasonable to assume that they have studied the report from the 9/11 commission, detailing the errors committed by the hand-picked crème de la crème of al Qaeda prior to hijacking the four aircraft. Those errors — ranging from Mohammed Atta's citation for driving without a valid license and subsequent failure to appear at a court hearing, to the fact that two operatives (Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar) who were known to the CIA as al Qaeda associates actually traveled to the United States under their own names — were all significant, and any one of them could have been enough to bring down the grand operation.

Al-Hazmi and al-Midhar, in fact, were publicly characterized as "Dumb and Dumber" by a flight instructor who said they were "clueless" would-be pilots. The commission's report on the failure of U.S. intelligence to seize upon and interpret such clues, and others, certainly paints as vivid a picture of the problems plaguing the United States as it does those plaguing al Qaeda. Of the two, al Qaeda's problems conceivably might be easier to address. Nevertheless, it appears that the jihadists have not done so. It is not clear whether they lack the expertise to make corrections, or the loss of physical training facilities has hurt them considerably. Either way, they continue to make mistakes in tradecraft that have led to the unraveling of numerous jihadist plots since Sept. 11.

It can be easy, on this basis alone, for intelligence agents and security forces to dismiss the threat posed by aspiring jihadists — and, in fact, many have. Due to the errors in tradecraft (or, occasionally, personal quirks), jihadists frequently are characterized as bumbling fools of some sort or another:

  • Richard Reid, most widely recognized as the "shoe bomber," has been dubbed the "Kramer of al Qaeda" by some in the U.S. government — a reference to the quirky and clumsy character of "Seinfeld" fame.
  • Haroun Fazul, a key organizer of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, reportedly was referred to as "the black Ronald McDonald" by the wife of Osama bin Laden's personal assistant, Wadih el-Hage. April el-Hage said she had always viewed Fazul as "kind of goofy" and found it difficult to believe, as a result, that he could be a terrorist.
  • The jihadist cell that Abdel Basit linked up with in Brooklyn to conduct the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had been previously investigated by the FBI. The investigation was closed down after the FBI decided the operatives were a bunch of hot-headed "wannabes" who posed no real threat. It was only when operative Mohammed Salameh stumbled into the Ryder rental office looking for the refund of the deposit on the truck used in the bombing that a light went off. Once Salameh was identified, the FBI knew his circle of associates from the earlier investigation and was able to quickly round up the rest of the cell.
  • British authorities investigated Mohammed Siddique Khan, believed to be the ringleader of the July 7 London bombing cell, in 2004 in connection with foiled terrorist plots in the U.K. The MI5 investigation, however, reportedly was terminated after authorities decided he did not pose a direct threat to national security. Thus, the July 7 cell was able to pull off a successful strike, despite notably sloppy security practices surrounding the operation.

However "goofy," "harmless" or technically inept the operatives might have been, the fact that authorities or associates dismissed the potential threat on that basis had deadly or near-deadly consequences in every case. "Kramer," for example, was able to smuggle a powerful explosive device onto an aircraft after the post-Sept. 11 increase in airline security. Every "black Ronald McDonald" is a cautionary tale to intelligence agencies, for whom it is tempting to narrowly focus on the most commonly held concept of what a terrorist operative should look like. Authorities who are looking for the wrong threat — the fictional "super terrorist" or mythical "masterminds" — run the chance of missing the real and immediate dangers.

Intensifying Need for Craft

The failures, then — whether of craft or analysis — apply to both sides in the jihadist war. Poor craft has compromised more terrorist operations than have been successfully executed by al Qaeda, while technical mistakes have caused others to fail. But authorities in the West have made their own share of deadly mistakes, such as releasing Abdel Basit from custody or underestimating the threat posed by people like Mohamed Salameh and Mohamed Siddique Khan.

The old saying that "it is better to be lucky than it is to be good" certainly holds true for the jihadists — who, after all, only have to be lucky once to achieve significant results. The decentralization of al Qaeda, and its lack of concrete training camps like those it previously used in Afghanistan, will lead to further declines in tradecraft abilities. We believe this to be the case despite the practical combat training available to jihadists in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, combat experience does not necessarily translate into good tradecraft and street skills. Many of the busted operatives discussed above had combat experience in Afghanistan or Bosnia — and most of them received "advanced" training at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan — but they still made significant tradecraft errors.

Second, the skills that can be learned in insurgency situations have limited value when transferred to other settings. Just as fighting an insurgency is different from fighting a pitched battle or conventional war, it also different from conducting clandestine operations in a hostile environment, far from your base of support. The technical skills required to operate a rocket-propelled grenade or mortar system in hit-and-run attacks in Afghanistan or to function as a sniper in Ar Ramadi are very different from the skills needed to plan and execute a terrorist attack in New York or London.

Amid the chaos in combat zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, there are networks of local contacts that help to funnel militant jihadists and resources into the battle. The network provides arms, targeting guidance, intelligence and security functions for the militants. Thus, the individual militants do not need to learn or develop the skills to operate like a traditional "sleeper agent." The network that provides men and money to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan traditionally has extended into the United States, Europe, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Obviously, since Sept. 11, tremendous efforts have been made to disrupt that network in the West — with nearly daily reports emanating from Spain, Italy, France and other countries, pointing to arrests of people suspected of coordinating the flow of jihadists to Iraq. We believe that the disruption of this network has been a major factor in preventing al Qaeda from completing a follow-on strike on U.S. soil, and that ongoing counterterrorism operations will make it difficult for militants to operate in the West. But any existing "sleeper agents" already present in the United States or other Western countries would find it necessary to act more on their own — without the level of command, control and support that was available to the Sept. 11 operatives. As a result of network disruptions, jihadists planning strikes in Western countries will stand in even greater need of tradecraft skills — or suffer as a result of their deficiencies in this area.

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