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Feb 18, 2005 | 00:15 GMT

4 mins read

United States: The Threat of 'Sleeper' Cells

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 16 that a possible al Qaeda "sleeper" cell, or cells, could attempt to use weapons of mass destruction in an attack against the United States. His testimony confirms STRATFOR's analysis that sleeper cells present a major threat to domestic security. A sleeper cell is a small group of agents operating under very deep cover, sometimes waiting years before activating operations against the host country. In June 2004, STRATFOR commented on the arrest in Tyler, Texas, of a Pakistani man accused of plotting to carry out attacks against the West Coast. In this case, the man had been in the United States for 14 years before he was discovered. Mueller's testimony begs the question, if there are sleeper cells in the United States, why have they not attacked? Beyond the obvious answer that they are "sleeping," there are several possible reasons for this: The extremely high level of vigilance in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks has made it difficult — if not impossible — for militants to remain undercover, much less to carry out attacks. Although a certain degree of complacency and routine has set in since 2001, vigilance remains higher than before the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The cell or cells that Mueller referred to might not have been found, but their movements and ability to operate have been made exceedingly difficult. If such a cell exists inside the United States, it likely is made up of only a few individuals — since the smaller the cell, the easier it can operate and evade surveillance efforts. Like a traditional sleeper from the Cold War period, it is building up its network slowly, making sure potential cohorts can be trusted before they are included in operational plans. Like any sleeper cell, this one is lying low — trying to not attract attention. In light of Mueller's statements, this might become even more of a challenge, as we can expect to see an increased law enforcement effort to detect sleeper cells. In fact, this might have been Mueller's intent: to cause the cell to panic in hopes of scuttling any plot it might be hatching. The attack cycle — the process of recruiting operatives, planning the mission and acquiring the necessary funds and materials — is longer now than before Sept. 11, due, of course, to the increased security. Before Sept. 11, groups were able to form quickly and did not have to be as cautious. Cell leaders could make contact with a support network almost as soon as they arrived in the United States. This was done primarily through mosques and Islamic associations within the U.S. Muslim community. Of course, no one was scrutinizing these people and places at that time. When Ramzi Yousef arrived in New York in September 1992, for example, he went to the "Brooklyn Jihad Office" (formally known as the al-Kifah Refugee Center) and quickly cobbled together the cell that helped him with the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, law enforcement — with the cooperation of local Muslim clerics and the Muslim community as a whole — has penetrated mosques in the United States. As a result, radical clerics and other elements have been deported or are under intense surveillance. These actions combine to complicate any cell's operations and increase the possibility of detection. Recent events might be pressuring the sleeper to act sooner, rather than later. Al Qaeda might feel it has to pull off a spectacular attack in order to maintain its international credibility, which has been declining under the weight of the war on terrorism. In addition, now that the FBI director has gone public with the likely existence of a cell, the sleeper might be forced to move sooner rather than risk getting caught before it can act. The pressure to act, therefore, might flush it out for law enforcement to catch. Once the cell surfaces and begins making final preparations for an attack, it likely will leave a "rabbit trail" of telltale indicators for law enforcement to follow. On the other hand, these same developments could cause the cell to burrow deeper. In that case, it might be able to escape detection for the time being, depending on whether the cell leader is disciplined enough to resist the pressure to act. In the end, it depends on the leader's personality, experience and ability to move discreetly.

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