Cold War style security measures are no match for the splintered cells characteristic of terrorist networks post-9/11. High time for a rethink, says Nigel West.
Among the many lessons learned from 11 September, 2001, two in particular have had a lasting impact on the Western intelligence community. Firstly, none of the nineteen terrorists made any effort to conceal their own identities, and only two ever attempted to acquire false documentation. Secondly, they were quite obviously undeterred by the certainty that cctv would assist in the forensic reconstruction of their movements prior to the atrocity.
Hitherto, of course, cctv had been regarded as a valuable deterrent to the kind of terrorism perpetrated by the Provisional IRA and the ETA Basque separatists, and the technology had been extended to encompass remote vehicle index recognition systems, now widely and overtly adopted in congestion-charging regimes. Originally, of course, the classified specification was to enhance clandestine surveillance in Northern Ireland, to remotely monitor and log the movement of suspected paramilitaries.
Codenamed ‘Glutton’, and linked to ‘Vengeful’ which provided automatic instant online access to computerised vehicle registration data, the hardware played a key role in defeating the Provisional IRA, and proved extremely useful in tracing retrospectively the activity of specific target vehicles before, for example, the Canary Wharf bombing.
Ringing the City of London’s famous square mile with a traffic system which physically required all vehicles to transit designated checkpoints that could be manned during an alert, but otherwise monitored by cctv, proved an effective deterrent for the Provisional IRA car-bombers who had destroyed the Baltic Exchange and deliberately sought to wreak havoc in the country’s main financial district.
But these measures evidently played no part when Mohammed Sidique Khan and his three suicide bomb companions came to London on 7 July, 2005. Like their 9/11 predecessors, the British jihadists didn’t acquire false identification, and were found to have their own authentic credit cards, drivers’ licenses and video club and gym cards.
There are implications for this change, particularly for the money-laundering regulations intended to inhibit the use of false identity documentation for the opening of new bank accounts and the purchase of airline tickets. These counter-measures, while an obstacle to other terrorists, are of no deterrent value to the suicide bomber using genuine credit cards of his own.
Analysts seeking to develop useful profiles, have latched on to some common denominators. Disaffected youth; visits to madrassas in Pakistan; a switch from praying at a liberal mosque; radicalisation by influential mullahs extolling extremism; adventure weekends for planning, ideological indoctrination and training; loans of literature and video material from religious bookshops; links to other suspects; and visits to internet cafes to access pro-jihad websites can often be components in a forensic scenario, as can involvement in petty crime and foreign travel. One or more of these characteristics can be found in almost all post-9/11 examples of suicide terrorism. However these clues are not always present.
The ideal, of course, would be to develop a profile that could assist in early interdiction, but the problems implied are manifest. Using more conventional counter-intelligence methodology would have sorted the wheat from the chaff, and identified potential targets by technical and physical surveillance on known premises. But whereas during the Cold War such measures were accepted, there are cultural and political issues to be considered when contemplating coverage of a religious site such as a mosque. Blowback from a failed or exposed Cold War operation was usually accompanied by some temporary diplomatic repercussions, but certainly did not risk disaffection within an entire community or threaten domestic social disorder.
If it is going to be difficult to single out potential suspects, there remain two other alternatives. Most terrorists require explosives, and limiting access to the ingredients for homemade explosives is one route which, if enforced efficiently, could drive planners to buy from abroad and risk smuggling the material in. However, given the availability of some potentially volatile chemicals and solvents, for instance from hairdressing wholesalers, such measures are hardly an obstacle.
Another alternative is the obvious pattern in repetition, with suicide bombers returning to much the same targets, such as public transport, aeroplanes, nightclubs and strategically-important bridges and tunnels. The introduction of handbag searches and restrictions on liquids which could be components for a binary device is probably effective, but may just have the effect of shifting the terrorists’ attention to a softer target. However, the advantage clearly remains with the terrorist planner who can always conduct a reconnaissance on a high-value prestige target because, by its nature, it is likely to be open to the public as a tourist attraction. As a Provisional IRA tactician remarked, ‘We only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky all the time.’
A noteworthy characteristic of post-9/11 incidents is the degree to which they appear to have been autonomous in their planning and execution, and largely self-financed. Prior to 9/11, events in Paris, Manila and East Africa were carefully synchronised and tended to consist of simultaneous incidents, a clear and deliberate manifestation of sophisticated schemes, coordination and extensive reconnaissance, if not central control.
Of course, any past acknowledgment that al-Qaeda ever amounted to a distinct command-and-control organisation, as recognised by a counter-intelligence agency, is presently redundant. Indeed, while it previously may have been able to offer training and technical expertise, it has morphed, either voluntarily or by coercion, into a franchise, more like an intellectual pool available to offer spiritual, but not financial or material support, to adherents who have adopted any number of international radical causes.
Thus, as a conventional counter-intelligence target, it has largely been dispersed. Instead, individual jihadists fund their own activities, often through drugs (as occurred with the 2004 Madrid train bombers), motor insurance and credit card fraud, and other petty crime that occasionally will surface a potential suspect in the regular criminal justice system. The challenge therefore is to give law enforcement the detailed briefing that will empower the frontline on the street to recognise possible links to terrorism.
A really important lesson learned in Northern Ireland was the need to engage all levels of government service, from the local environmental health inspector, social services, post office and public housing staff, to the constable on the beat, and share sufficient knowledge to transform them into valuable conduits of intelligence. The introduction, in the US, of ‘fusion centers’ is just such an effort to co-ordinate activity and exchange information at low level.
Widespread dissemination of the external indicators, and the indoctrination of low-echelon personnel proved successful in Ulster, where the risk of compromising conventional sources and methods was deemed low. Thereafter, once suspects have been ‘housed’ and their premises placed under surveillance, orthodox investigation techniques can be applied to develop a wiring-diagram of links to other suspects, in order to monitor communications and funding, interdict atrocities and penetrate and disrupt the organisation once its order-of-battle has been established.
However, easier said than done. During the Cold War considerable resources were devoted worldwide to identifying and penetrating operations, with only marginal results (most of which were derived from voluntary walk-ins and not active recruitments). Also, the number of targets with potentially useful access was very large indeed – Warsaw Pact intelligence rezidenturas were present in most major capitals, and operated from easily recognisable sites – whereas al-Qaeda is not quite so obliging.
Given the very limited opportunities for defectors from a movement with few key planners but with an unprecedented ideological commitment – in contrast to the steady trickle of line-crossers choosing to abandon Marxism in favour of capitalist materialism during the period of superpower confrontation – access to such individuals is likely to be very limited. Other techniques, such as special rendition, black sites for interrogation, monitoring swift bank transfers in Brussels and the so-called warrant-less wiretaps, have been restricted through political interference, leaving the authorities somewhat hamstrung, and international cooperation severely undermined.
These handicaps place Cold War counter-intelligence at a considerable disadvantage, and in some ways make such bodies potentially vulnerable because they represent the attractive, high-value permanent fixtures that are repositories of top-grade information on such topics as precautions, long-term strategies, current operations and vulnerable sites. Why bother undertaking extensive research into the location and weaknesses of chemical plants in population centres when such exhaustive lists have been compiled by the local counter-terrorist organisation which doubtless is seeking recruits with appropriate language skills? Thus, paradoxically, some agencies may be lowering their security screening standards to attract linguists; indeed, the FBI, CIA and MI5 have all detected attempts at hostile penetration.
In one recent case where a conviction was obtained, the same woman used her Lebanese background to gain unauthorised access to current FBI and CIA files on Hezbollah suspects. Some 40 other cases have been declared in the US, but their British counterparts have not released any actual figures, and there have been no prosecutions.
Nevertheless, it is clear that significant problems are associated with accepting recent immigrants as candidates for intelligence careers. In the example of Nada Nadim Prouty’s penetration on behalf of Hezbollah, she was able to pass polygraph tests when she entered the CIA in June 2003, a criterion that otherwise would exclude an applicant. Her abuse of the system highlights the problem of intelligence sharing, of a low-echelon official trawling numerous databases for potentially harmful information.
The Prouty case raises many questions which will have to be answered as part of her guilty plea bargain. Did she deliberately penetrate the FBI when she was first hired in April 1999? What prompted her transfer to the CIA three years later? How was she able, four months after leaving the FBI, to access information about investigations conducted by the FBI’s Detroit field office? Why did it take 23 months to arrest her after the FBI had become aware, in December 2005, that its systems had been compromised? What are the implications for the vetting procedures which provided Prouty her Top Secret/Secret Compartmented Intelligence security clearances and enabled her to join the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and work in Baghdad, reportedly as an interrogator? Did her fluency in Arabic, and her willingness to undergo a Farsi language course influence managers to reduce their security standards?
Another concern is the exact circumstance of Prouty’s original identification as a potential mole inside the American intelligence community. Her case is inextricably mixed up with, and may have originally come to light through, her family’s criminal activities in Detroit where her Shia Muslim brother-in-law, Talal Khalil Chahine, the owner of a chain of fifteen restaurants, had been linked to drug-dealing, money-laundering and employing illegal aliens. Indeed, his son, Khalil, the youth leader of a Hezbollah mosque, was convicted of murdering a Maronite Christian, Paul Hallis, who had dated his girlfriend..
The FBI investigation found that Prouty had been married three times, firstly to an unemployed student so she could remain in the US. Her most recent, following a divorce in 2000, was to Gordon Prouty, a State Department official who has served in Cairo and Islamabad.
In such circumstances the obvious expedient would be to adopt policies not dissimilar to MI5 before World War II, when the then director general, Sir Vernon Kell, declined to employ any Roman Catholics on the grounds that, ‘The Pope has the best intelligence service in the world, and I’m not going to improve it.’ Similarly, the post-war cryptographers at Government Communications Headquarters would not use White Russians as interpreters and preferred to teach British-born candidates without émigré backgrounds rather than risk penetration.
But could such overt religious discrimination ever be tolerated by today’s risk-averse politicians? Such a solution would be no remedy for current employees who would resent such discrimination, and doubtless the exclusion of such individuals from certain compartmented intelligence might be unlawful.
Another downside of such a scenario would be the further alienation of the Muslim community, the very group whose trust the security authorities seek to gain. Playing into the hands of the zealots, who already claim that Islam is the victim of Western discrimination, would probably be considered an unacceptably high price to pay for imposing a new set of security clearances designed to exclude a particular religion, even if overall security would benefit.
However, given the ease with which Nada Prouty traversed the US intelligence community, and the possibility that Hezbollah penetrated FBI offices in Washington and Detroit, as well as the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, there may be a need to re-impose some Cold War security procedures. Whether 2008’s politicians, gun-shy after disclosures of water-boarding, special renditions and telephone-tapping, would be willing to take the likely flak is rather less certain.