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Security Weekly : The Bin Laden Operation: Tapping Human Intelligence

Released on 2012-03-01 00:00 GMT

Email-ID 363803
Date 2011-05-26 11:01:12
Stratfor logo
The Bin Laden Operation: Tapping Human Intelligence

May 26, 2011

Readers Comment on STRATFOR Reports

By Fred Burton

Since May 2, when U.S. special operations forces crossed the
Afghan-Pakistani border and killed Osama bin Laden, international media
have covered the raid from virtually every angle. The United States and
Pakistan have also squared off over the U.S. violation of Pakistan's
sovereign territory and [IMG] Pakistan's possible complicity in hiding
the al Qaeda leader. All this surface-level discussion, however, largely
ignores almost 10 years of intelligence development in the hunt for bin

While the cross-border nighttime raid deep into Pakistan was a daring
and daunting operation, the work to find the target - one person out of
180 million in a country full of insurgent groups and a population
hostile to American activities on its soil - was a far greater
challenge. For the other side, the challenge of hiding the world's most
wanted man from the world's most funded intelligence apparatus created a
clandestine shell game that probably involved current or former
Pakistani intelligence officers as well as competing intelligence
services. The details of this struggle will likely remain classified for

Examining the hunt for bin Laden is also difficult, mainly because of
the sensitivity of the mission and the possibility that some of the
public information now available could be disinformation intended to
disguise intelligence sources and methods. Successful operations can
often compromise human sources and new intelligence technologies that
have taken years to develop. Because of this, it is not uncommon for
intelligence services to try to create a wilderness of mirrors to
protect sources and methods. But using open-source reporting and human
intelligence from STRATFOR's own sources, we can assemble enough
information to draw some conclusions about this complex intelligence
effort and raise some key questions.

The Challenge

Following the 9/11 attacks, finding and killing bin Laden became the
primary mission of the U.S. intelligence community, particularly the
CIA. This mission was clearly laid out in a presidential "finding," or
directive, signed on Sept. 17, 2001, by then-U.S. President George W.
Bush. By 2005 it became clear to STRATFOR that bin Laden was deep inside
Pakistan. Although the Pakistani government was ostensibly a U.S. ally,
it was known that there were elements within it sympathetic to al Qaeda
and bin Laden. In order to find bin Laden, U.S. intelligence would have
to work with - and against - Pakistani intelligence services.

Finding bin Laden in a hostile intelligence environment while friends
and sympathizers were protecting him represented a monumental
intelligence challenge for the United States. With bin Laden and his
confederates extremely conscious of U.S technical intelligence
abilities, the search quickly became a human-intelligence challenge.
While STRATFOR believes bin Laden had become tactically irrelevant since
9/11, he remained symbolically important and a focal point for the U.S.
intelligence effort. And while it appears that the United States has
improved its intelligence capabilities and passed an important test,
much remains undone. Today, the public information surrounding the case
illuminates the capabilities that will be used to find other high-value
targets as the U.S. effort continues.

The official story on the intelligence that led to bin Laden's
Abbottabad compound has been widely reported, leaked from current and
former U.S. officials. It focuses on a man with the cover name Abu Ahmed
al-Kuwaiti, a Pakistani Pashtun born in Kuwait who became bin Laden's
most trusted courier. With fluency in Pashto and Arabic, according to
media reports, al-Kuwaiti would be invaluable to al Qaeda, and in order
to purchase bin Laden's property and run errands he would also need to
be fluent in Urdu. His position as bin Laden's most trusted courier made
him a key link in disrupting the organization. While this man supposedly
led the United States to bin Laden, it took a decade of revamping U.S.
intelligence capabilities and a great deal of hard work (and maybe even
a lucky break) to actually find him.

The first step for U.S. intelligence services after Bush's directive was
focusing their efforts on bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership.
Intelligence collection against al Qaeda was under way before 9/11, but
after the attacks it became the No. 1 priority. Due to a lack of human
intelligence in the region and allies for an invasion of Afghanistan,
the CIA revived connections with anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and
with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate in order
to oust the Taliban government and accrue intelligence for use in
disrupting al Qaeda. The connections were built in the 1980s as the CIA
famously operated through the ISI to fund militant groups in Afghanistan
fighting the Soviet military. Most of these links were lost when the
Soviets withdrew from the Southwest Asian state and the CIA nominally
declared victory. Pakistan, left with Afghanistan and these militant
groups, developed a working relationship with the Taliban and others for
its own interests. A coterie of ISI officers was embedded with different
militant groups, and some of them became jihadist sympathizers.

U.S. intelligence budgets were severely cut in the 1990s in light of the
"peace dividend" following the fall of the Soviet Union, as some U.S.
leaders argued there was no one left to fight. Intelligence collection
was a dirty, ambiguous and dangerous game that U.S. politicians were not
prepared to stomach. John Deutch, the director of the CIA from 1995 to
1996, gutted the CIA's sources on what was known as the "Torricelli
Principle" (named after then-Rep. Robert Torricelli), which called for
the removal of any unsavory characters from the payroll. This meant
losing sources in the exact kind of organizations U.S. intelligence
would want to infiltrate, including militants in Southwest Asia.

The CIA began to revive its contacts in the region after the 1998 U.S.
Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. While
the U.S. intelligence community was looking for bin Laden at this time,
he was not a high priority, and U.S. human-intelligence capabilities in
the region were limited. The United States has always had trouble with
human intelligence - having people sitting at computers is less of a
security risk than having daring undercover operatives running around in
the field - and by the end of the 1990s it was relying on technological
platforms for intelligence more than ever.

The United States was in this state on Sept. 12, 2001, when it began to
ramp up its intelligence operations, and al Qaeda was aware of this. Bin
Laden knew that if he could stay away from electronic communications,
and generally out of sight, he would be much harder to track. After
invading Afghanistan and working with the ISI in Pakistan, the United
States had a large number of detainees who it hoped would have
information to breach bin Laden's operational security. From some mix of
detainees caught in operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan (particularly
with the help of the ISI), including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Farj
al-Libi, came information leading to an important bin Laden courier
known by various names, including Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. (His actual
identity is still unconfirmed, though his real name may be Sheikh Abu

The efficacy of enhanced interrogation and torture techniques is
constantly debated - they may have helped clarify or obfuscate the
courier's identity (some reports say Mohammed tried to lead
investigators away from him). What is clear is that U.S. intelligence
lacked both a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of al Qaeda and,
most important, human sources with access to that information. With the
United States not knowing what al Qaeda was capable of, the fear of a
follow-on attack to 9/11 loomed large.

Anonymous U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters the breakthrough came
when a man named Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq in 2004 by Kurdish
forces and turned over to the United States. Little is known about
Ghul's identity except that he is believed to have worked with Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi and to have given interrogators information about a man named
"al-Kuwaiti" who was a courier between al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda
operational commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ghul was then given
over to the Pakistani security services; he is believed to have been
released in 2007 and to now be fighting somewhere in the region.

While U.S. intelligence services got confirmation of al-Kuwaiti's role
from al-Libi, they could not find the courier. It is unknown if they
gave any of this information to the Pakistanis or asked for their help.
According to leaks from U.S. officials to AP, the Pakistanis provided
the National Security Agency (NSA), the main U.S. communications
interception agency, with information that allowed it to monitor a SIM
card from a cellphone that had frequently called Saudi Arabia. In 2010,
the NSA intercepted a call made by al-Kuwaiti and began tracking him in
Pakistan. Another U.S. official told CNN that the operational security
exercised by al-Kuwaiti and his brother made them difficult to trail,
but "an elaborate surveillance effort" was organized to track them to
the Abbottabad compound.

From then on, the NSA monitored all of the cellphones used by the
couriers and their family members, though they were often turned off and
had batteries removed when the phones' users went to the Abbottabad
compound or to other important meetings. The compound was monitored by
satellites and RQ-170 Sentinels, stealth versions of unmanned aerial
vehicles (UAVs), which were reportedly flown over the compound.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the National
Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) even built a replica of the
compound for CIA Director Leon Panetta and other officials. The NGA is
the premier U.S. satellite observation agency, which could have watched
the goings-on at the compound and even spotted bin Laden, though it
would have been difficult to confirm his identity.

Some of these leaks could be disingenuous in order to lead the public
and adversary intelligence agencies away from highly classified sources
and methods. But they do reflect long-believed assessments of the U.S.
intelligence community regarding its advanced capability in
technology-based intelligence gathering as well as the challenges it
faces in human-intelligence collection.

The Utility of Liaison Relationships

Historically, U.S. intelligence officers have been white males, though
the CIA has more recently begun hiring more minorities, including those
from various ethnic and linguistic groups important to its mission (or
at least those who can pass the polygraph and full-field background
investigation, a substantial barrier). Even when intelligence officers
look the part in the countries in which they operate and have a native
understanding of the cultures and languages, they need sources within
the organizations they are trying to penetrate. It is these sources,
recruited by intelligence officers and without official or secret
status, who are the "agents" providing the information needed back at
headquarters. The less an intelligence officer appears like a local the
more difficult it is to meet with and develop these agents, which has
led the United States to frequently depend on liaison services - local
intelligence entities - to collect information.

Many intelligence services around the world were established with
American support or funding for just this purpose. The most dependent
liaison services essentially function as sources, acquiring information
at the local CIA station's request. They are often made up of
long-serving officers in the local country's military, police or
intelligence services, with a nuanced understanding of local issues and
the ability to maintain a network of sources. With independent
intelligence services, such as Israel's Mossad, there has been roughly
an equal exchange of intelligence, where Israeli sources may recruit a
human source valuable to the United States and the CIA may have
satellite imagery or communications intercepts valuable to the Israelis.

Of course, this is not a simple game. It involves sophisticated players
trying to collect intelligence while deceiving one another about their
intentions and plans - and many times trying to muddy the water a little
to hide the identity of their sources from the liaison service. Even the
closest intelligence relationships, such as that between the CIA and the
British Secret Intelligence Service, have been disrupted by moles like
Kim Philby, a longtime Soviet plant who handled the liaison work between
the two agencies.

Since most U.S. intelligence officers serve on rotations of only one to
three years - out of concern they will "go native" or to allow them to
return to the comfort of home - it becomes even more challenging to
develop long-term human-intelligence sources. While intelligence
officers will pass their sources off to their replacements, the liaison
service becomes even more valuable in being able to sustain source
relationships, which can take years to build. Liaison relationships,
then, become a way to efficiently use and extend U.S. intelligence
resources, which, unlike such services in most countries, have global
requirements. The United States may be the world's superpower, but it is
impossible for it to maintain sources everywhere.

Liaison and Unilateral Operations in the Hunt for Bin Laden

In recent years, U.S. intelligence has worked with Pakistan's ISI most
notably in raids throughout Pakistan against senior al Qaeda operatives
like Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu
Farj al-Libi. We can also presume that much of the information used by
the United States for UAV strikes comes through sources in Pakistani
intelligence as well as those on the Afghan side of the border. Another
example of such cooperation, also to find bin Laden, is the CIA's work
with the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, an effort that went
awry in the Khost suicide attack. Such is the risk with liaison
relationships - to what extent can one intelligence officer trust
another's sources and motives? Nevertheless, these liaison networks were
the best the United States had available, and huge amounts of resources
were put into developing intelligence through them in looking for major
jihadists, including bin Laden.

The United States is particularly concerned about Pakistan's
intelligence services and the possibility that some of their officers
could be compromised by, or at least sympathetic to, jihadists. Given
the relationships with jihadists maintained by former ISI officers such
as Khalid Khawaja and Sultan Amir Tarar (known as Colonel Imam), who
were both held hostage and killed by Pakistani militants, and most
famously former ISI Director Hamid Gul, there is cause for concern.
These three are the most famous former ISI officers with links to
jihadists, but because they were (or are) long retired from the ISI and
their notoriety makes them easy to track to jihadists, they have little
influence on either group. But the reality is that there are current ISI
and military officers sympathizing or working with important jihadist
groups. Indeed, it was liaison work by the CIA and Saudi Arabia that
helped develop strong connections with Arab and Afghan militants, some
of whom would go on to become members of al Qaeda and the Taliban. The
ISI was responsible for distributing U.S.- and Saudi-supplied weapons to
various Afghan militant groups to fight the Russians in the 1980s, and
it controlled contact with these groups. If some of those contacts
remain, jihadists could be using members of the ISI rather than the
other way around.

Due to concerns like these, according to official statements and leaked
information, U.S. intelligence officers never told their Pakistani
liaison counterparts about the forthcoming bin Laden raid. It appears
the CIA developed a unilateral capability to operate within Pakistan,
demonstrated by the Raymond Davis shooting in January as well as the bin
Laden raid. Davis was a contractor providing security for U.S.
intelligence officers in Pakistan when he killed two reportedly armed
men in Lahore, and his case brought the CIA-ISI conflict out in the
open. Requests by Pakistani officials to remove more than 300 similar
individuals from the country show that there are a large number of U.S.
intelligence operatives in Pakistan. Other aspects of this unilateral
U.S. effort were the tracking of bin Laden, further confirmation of his
identity and the safe house the CIA maintained in Abbottabad for months
to monitor the compound.

The CIA and the ISI

Even with the liaison relationships in Pakistan, which involved meetings
between the CIA station chief in Islamabad and senior members of the
ISI, the CIA ran unilateral operations on the ground. Liaison services
cannot be used to recruit sources within the host government; this must
be done unilaterally. This is where direct competition between
intelligence services comes into play. In Pakistan, this competition may
involve different organizations such as Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau
or Federal Investigation Agency, both of which have counterintelligence
functions, or separate departments within the ISI, where one department
is assigned to liaison while others handle counterintelligence or work
with militant groups. Counterintelligence officers may want to disrupt
intelligence operations that involve collecting information on the
host-country military, or they may simply want to monitor the foreign
intelligence service's efforts to recruit jihadists. They can also feed
disinformation to the operatives. This competition is known to all
players and is not out of the ordinary.

But the U.S. intelligence community is wondering if this ordinary
competition was taken to another level - if the ISI, or elements of it,
were actually protecting bin Laden. The people helping bin Laden and
other al Qaeda operatives and contacts in Abbottabad were the same
people the CIA was competing against. Were they simply jihadists or a
more resourceful and capable state intelligence agency? If the ISI as an
institution knew about bin Laden's location, it would mean it outwitted
the CIA for nearly a decade in hiding his whereabouts. It would also
mean that no ISI officers who knew his location were turned by U.S.
intelligence, that no communications were intercepted and that no leaks
reached the media.

On the other hand, if someone within the ISI was protecting bin Laden
and keeping it from the rest of the organization, it would mean the ISI
was beaten internally and the CIA eventually caught up by developing its
own sources and was able to find bin Laden on its own. As we point out
above, the official story on the bin Laden intelligence effort may be
disinformation to protect sources and methods. Still, this seems to be a
more plausible scenario. American and Pakistani sources have told
STRATFOR that there are likely jihadist sympathizers within the ISI who
helped bin Laden or his supporters. Given that Pakistan is fighting its
own war with al Qaeda-allied groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the
country's leadership in Islamabad has no interest in protecting them.
Furthermore, finding an individual anywhere, especially in a foreign
country with multiple insurgencies under way, is an extremely difficult
intelligence challenge.

Assuming the official story is mostly true, the bin Laden raid
demonstrates that U.S. intelligence has come full circle since the end
of the Cold War. It was able to successfully collect and analyze
intelligence of all types and develop and deploy on-the-ground
capabilities it had been lacking to find an individual who was hiding
and probably protected. It was able to quickly work with special
operations forces under CIA command to carry out an elaborate operation
to capture or kill him, a capability honed by the U.S. Joint Special
Operations Command (JSOC) in the development of its own capture-and-kill
capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA is responsible for
missions in Pakistan, where, like the JSOC, it has demonstrated an
efficient and devastating capability to task UAV strikes and conduct
cross-border raids. The bin Laden raid was the public proof of concept
that the United States could collect intelligence and reach far into
hostile territory to capture or kill its targets.

It is unclear exactly how the U.S. intelligence community has been able
to develop these capabilities, beyond the huge post-9/11 influx of money
and personnel (simply throwing resources at a problem is never a
complete solution). The United States faced Sept. 11, 2001, without
strategic warning of the attacks inspired by bin Laden, and then it
faced a tactical threat it was unprepared to fight. Whatever the new and
improved human-intelligence capabilities may be, they are no doubt some
function of the experience gained by operatives in a concerted, global
campaign against jihadists. Human intelligence is probably still the
biggest U.S. weakness, but given the evidence of unilateral operations
in Pakistan, it is not the weakness it used to be.

The Intelligence Battle Between the U.S. and Pakistan

The [IMG] competition and cooperation among various intelligence
agencies did not end with the death of Osama bin Laden. Publicity
surrounding the operation has led to calls in Pakistan to eject any and
all American interests in the country. In the past few years, Pakistan
has made it difficult for many Americans to get visas, especially those
with official status that may be cover for intelligence operations.
Raymond Davis was one of these people. Involved in protecting
intelligence officers who were conducting human-intelligence missions,
he would have been tasked not only with protecting them from physical
threats from jihadists but also with helping ensure they were not under
the surveillance of a hostile intelligence agency.

Pakistan has only ratcheted up these barriers since the bin Laden raid.
The Interior Ministry announced May 19 that it would ban travel by
foreign diplomats to cities other than those where they are stationed
without permission from Pakistani authorities. The News, a Pakistani
daily, reported May 20 that Interior Minister Rehman Malik chaired a
meeting with provincial authorities on regulating travel by foreigners,
approving their entry into the country and monitoring unregistered
mobile phones. While some of these efforts are intended to deal with
jihadists disguised within large groups of Afghan nationals, they also
place barriers on foreign intelligence officers in the country. While
non-official cover is becoming more common for CIA officers overseas,
many are still traveling on various diplomatic documents and thus would
require these approvals. The presence of intelligence officers on the
ground for the bin Laden raid shows there are workarounds for such
barriers that will be used when the mission is important enough. In
fact, according to STRATFOR sources, the CIA has for years been
operating in Pakistan under what are known as *Moscow rules* - the
strictest tradecraft for operating behind enemy lines - with clandestine
units developing human sources and searching for al Qaeda and other
militant leaders.

And this dynamic will only continue. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman
Bashir told The Wall Street Journal on May 6 that another operation like
the bin Laden raid would have "terrible consequences," while U.S.
President Barack Obama told BBC on May 22 that he would authorize
similar strikes in the future if they were called for. Pakistan, as any
sovereign country would, is trying to protect its territory, while the
United States will continue to search for high-value targets who are
hiding there. The bin Laden operation only brought this clandestine
competition to the public eye.

Bin Laden is dead, but many other individuals on the U.S. high-value
target list remain at large. With the bold execution and ultimate
success of the Abbottabad raid now public, the overarching American
operational concept for hunting high-value targets has been demonstrated
and the immense resources that were focused on bin Laden are now freed
up. While the United States still faces intelligence challenges, those
most wanted by the Americans can no longer take comfort in the fact that
bin Laden is eluding his hunters or that the Americans are expending any
more of their effort looking for him.

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