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Aug 4, 2005 | 20:14 GMT

6 mins read

The Problem of HUMINT

By Fred Burton Several new words are beginning to be used in the public discourse about al Qaeda that point toward a subtle, but inexorable, shift in the way the war is being fought. Changes in the lexicon that are beginning to gain traction include such things as calls for use of the term "hirabah" — or "terrorism" — as opposed to "jihad," or "religious struggle," a term that moderate Muslim scholars and others feel conveys unwarranted legitimacy to the acts of Islamist militants. Much more recently, Bush administration officials have begun referring to the United States' own offensive as the "struggle against violent extremism," or SAVE, rather than the more familiar GWOT — global war on terrorism. Taken alone, these shifts in terminology (which, intriguingly, shift the emphasis on Washington's role in the war from that of chief antagonist to that of hero) amount to little more than a tardy, language-based attempt to affect the public psyche and attitudes about the post-9/11 war. But coupled with other changes that followed soon after the attacks in London — such as the fatwas against terrorism issued by Muslim leaders in Europe and the United States and recent speeches at mosques by FBI officials — it is apparent that the Bush administration is pursuing a new strategy to help fight terrorism, focusing efforts at the grassroots level rather than the global level. In keeping with that strategy, the linguistic campaign and other efforts can be viewed as a quite sophisticated tactic to help solve the human intelligence (HUMINT) problem that has plagued intelligence agencies since long before the Sept. 11 attacks. As discussed in our last Terrorism Intelligence Report, intelligence failures almost always boil down to two crucial factors: failure to perform tactical analysis of information and data that has been gathered, and failure to collect crucial bits of information that frequently come from HUMINT sources. These factors are closely intertwined but also are independent of each other — creating something of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, much media attention was devoted to deficiencies in the U.S. counterterrorism community's tactical analysis, but little has been said — at least publicly — about the obstacles in collecting HUMINT, particularly in connection with an insular group such as al Qaeda. These obstacles, however, are well recognized. For one thing, the federal security services are not exactly replete with the types of officers who could easily win the trust of sources in Muslim communities or infiltrate particular organizations. Al Qaeda, like the Mafia, is a very insular organization, and it is further protected, at least in the West, from infiltration by barriers of language, culture and (to some extent) ethnicity. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States had very few Arabic-speaking security operatives, and stringent requirements that must be met to obtain security clearances continue to limit the recruiting pool. These are, in fact, among the reasons why some metropolitan police departments, whose makeup reflects local communities and where clearance procedures are looser, have been more effective in some cases than federal agents in gathering intelligence. The ethnicity and language barriers are perhaps the most obvious of myriad reasons that federal agents have been incapable of infiltrating al Qaeda as they've been able, at times, to infiltrate the mob. These difficulties merely add to the importance of recruiting HUMINT sources, who can be invaluable in helping authorities figure out who — among the thousands or millions of people who make up the pool of potential suspects — actually warrants attention. It's seldom a straight connection from initial source to suspect, but the right nuggets of HUMINT frequently help tactical analysts piece together puzzles built from many bits of disparate information. Ultimately, the purpose of HUMINT is to identify the innermost workings of the cell. Who is going to pull the trigger? When? How will the attack be carried out? The United States can — and has — collected valuable information from signals and electronic sources, but these will only go so far in terms of getting inside a terrorist's mind and actually pre-empting an attack. Given that raw intelligence from inside a terrorist cell — such as that which brought down Ramzi Yousef — is as rare as hens' teeth, authorities find other ways of recruiting sources. Informants can be tempted by money, motivated by fear (such as that of becoming a suicide bomber without consent), or — in cases where prior crimes have been committed — manipulated with offers of plea bargains or other deals. However, these methods are not without their own problems, and, even in the best-case scenario, flipping an informant so that he not only will go out and collect the information you need but come back and report to you is both time-consuming and extremely difficult. The recent changes in the language of the war on terrorism — as well as the new condemnations from Islamic organizations — speak of efforts to recruit new sources from within the mainstream Muslim community. Authorities have begun appealing to ideology, to conscience and, in the words of one State Department official, to "a common humanity" in an attempt to open up new channels of communication. It should be emphasized that the focus of this campaign is not the radicals themselves, who could be expected to carry out attacks regardless of how they are labeled, but others with whom they might interact. It is something of a divide-and-conquer strategy. As Stella Remington, a former head of MI5, put it in January, "Individual operations are planned and prepared much closer to where they are carried out. So we are more likely to get hold of the end of a planned terrorist attack if we have our ear to the ground in the right places — and that means human sources of information, not in the caves of Afghanistan but the Islamic bookshop in downtown New York, the extremist mosque in North London or perhaps the college in Paris." This approach, which was under way in the United States but gained urgency and prominence after the July 7 attacks in London, already has yielded some successes in the United States. For example, an informant at a mosque identified an Iraqi man as a suspect who wanted to buy weapons to attack Jewish targets in Nashville, Tenn., resulting in an arrest in October 2004. Another informant at a mosque gave police the identities of two men — one a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent — who allegedly were planning to bomb a subway station in New York City last year. Whether the grassroots campaign will yield numerous or significant leads for government intelligence agencies remains a question. But the fact that authorities in the United States, Britain and elsewhere are now courting Muslims on their own soil as valuable partners in the war on terrorism — rather than solely exerting political pressure abroad to encourage or coerce intelligence cooperation — speaks volumes about the current state of the war and perceptions of the threat.

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