The National Journal has an excellent story in this week’s edition on “The Hunt for Osama.” The story is behind the site’s subscription wall, but hopefully they’ll make it publicly available sometime this week.
It looks at the current status of efforts to find Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and provides an interesting window into Al-Qaeda’s means of communications and the methods by which they could potentially be rooted out. An excerpt:
“We say they’re anti-modern, but they love the tools of modernity and they’re very good at using them,” said Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit and author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. And nowadays, he added, even small towns on the Pakistani frontier are “full of Internet cafes.”
In Al Qaeda, however, it is only the low-level wannabes and fellow travelers who chatter casually on jihadi Web sites. Real field operatives use phones and e-mail more cautiously. Middle managers — men like 9/11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, captured in 2003, and computer engineer Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, captured in 2004 — seem to shuttle between major Pakistani cities, such as Karachi and Lahore, which have international airports and good communications, and the tribal badlands where bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are believed to be hiding. Those most-senior leaders themselves rely almost entirely on face-to-face meetings, having learned from leaks and from the mistakes of men like terrorist Abu Nidal and drug lord Pablo Escobar about America’s ability to trace electronic communications.
“They’re very careful about how they use the Internet and satellite phones,” said retired Army Col. Patrick Lang, the former chief of human intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “If they weren’t careful, we’d have got them by now.” Eavesdropping might pick up lower-level operatives, but to reach the senior leaders, he said, “there’s only one way to find them: start with an American who speaks some Islamic language, then recruit a ‘daisy chain’ of agents, one leading to another, until you get to someone who can tell you where these high-value targets are.” It means befriending drug runners, ranting clerics, shady businessmen, and ordinary, innocent Muslims concerned about their radical relative’s trip to Pakistan, until you find someone with the right contacts and the right human weakness to exploit.
“You have to start way out in the periphery,” agreed Fred Burton, a former counter-terrorism agent for the State Department who worked with the Pakistanis to capture Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, plotter of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, in Islamabad two years later. The process is less James Bond than The Sopranos. “I’ve worked informants,” Burton said. “They usually do this out of self-preservation. They’re tired, they’re fearful, they want out, and they realize they can’t just walk away.”
As U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani pressure mounts — more military sweeps, more air strikes, more money seized — life for bin Laden’s network of subordinates becomes more intolerable, and snitching more attractive. “Eventually, something’s got to give,” Burton said. “It would probably happen very, very fast and be very, very violent.”
Every explosion turns up the heat. Four strikes in the Pakistani border district of Waziristan this winter and spring — one by Pakistani troops and three attributed to U.S. missiles — reportedly killed three midranking Qaeda officers: a regional commander, a suspect in the 1998 African embassy bombings, and an aide to bin Laden deputy Zawahiri, although Zawahiri himself escaped.
“Violence is one of the greatest ways to collect intelligence,” Scheuer said. Strikes panic survivors into fleeing or calling for help in ways that cameras and antennas can pick up. “I’m sorry to say this, but if you’re not willing to inflict an enormous amount of collateral damage, you’re going to lose,” Scheuer added.
Overall, a very interesting article – I’ll provide an updated link here if/when it becomes publicly available.