There has been an upsurge of activity — both by coalition military forces and jihadists — along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent days. This is partly due to the spring thaws, which traditionally mark the beginning of the combat season in the region — and indeed, U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have launched a fresh offensive, Operation Mountain Lion, in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. But more seems to be afoot in the region than the anticipated military offensives. Specifically, several men have been murdered recently — at least four of them beheaded — on the belief that they were collaborating with the Americans, and some of the bodies had notes pinned to their clothing labeling them as American spies.
On the whole, the rhythm of activity this year seems to have a different beat; a sense of pressure is building for combatants on both sides of the U.S.-jihadist war, and this pressure seems to be coming from a variety of sources.
Warfare, of course, is an evolutionary process. The United States entered the war — and Afghanistan — in 2001 with a heavy reliance on signals intelligence, surveillance and some military forces. These certainly have had their uses, but the jihadists have been able to adapt to the known risks. For example, following Osama bin Laden’s narrow escape at Tora Bora in late 2001, there were revelations in the press that his location had been tracked from signals sent by his satellite phone; it is believed that he may have escaped capture by sending the phone with a bodyguard who traveled in the opposite direction from bin Laden. Similarly, the United States and its coalition partners appear to have had some success in tracing the recordings released by bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri back toward the source — and the intelligence gleaned from this process may have triggered operations intended to kill or capture al Qaeda leaders. The number and frequency of recordings, particularly by al-Zawahiri (who was targeted in a Hellfire missile strike in Damadola, Pakistan, in January and had been the most often seen face of al Qaeda since 2004) appear to have dropped off dramatically as a result of such operations.
All in all, the evolutionary cycle of measures and countermeasures has forced the United States to rely ever more heavily on human intelligence (humint) — which historically has been one of the weaknesses of the U.S. intelligence system in fighting a non-state actor. And there clearly have been signs that the humint capabilities of the Americans and their allies are improving.
The First Source of Pressure
The human intelligence battle between the Americans and al Qaeda is not new; it dates back to the days before the “Bin Laden Unit” was established at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. However, for the first several years, human intelligence efforts targeting al Qaeda were far from robust. The 9/11 attacks changed all that. The United States and its allies began serious efforts to develop human sources within or close to al Qaeda, but establishing such a network takes time — especially when such a difficult target is in question. It is little wonder, then, that the United States relied heavily on technical intelligence methods in the early years of the war, and al Qaeda learned how to counter them.
The battle now appears to be joined on the humint front, however.
As American and allied intelligence services have expanded humint networks in the region where al Qaeda’s leadership is believed to be hiding, they have begun to offer even larger quantities of cash and visas to potential recruits. (Yes, visas. An opportunity to move one’s entire family to the United States, Britain or Australia, with all expenses paid, is a powerful motivator to work for a time as an informant.) As a result, the jihadists now are finding it necessary to counter this new Western “offensive.”
Judging from the press reports about recent killings of suspected spies, it appears they are following through. Incidents that have surfaced in recent days include the beheading of a villager in North Waziristan agency who supplied food to American forces. The headless body of another man was found in Madakhel — where Pakistani forces have been fighting with Taliban and al Qaeda supporters — with a note saying that “all those working as U.S. spies will face the same fate.” Perhaps the most widely noted incident, however, was the death of an al Qaeda suspect — killed in a shootout with Pakistani forces — in Bajaur agency April 20. Officials said that Marwan Hadid al-Suri, who was wanted by the United States, was an explosives expert who also worked as a “bag man,” delivering funds to the families of al Qaeda supporters.
Clearly, both sides have developed their own lists of “most likely suspects” in the humint campaign. As the pressure mounts, the incentives offered for working as a source for the Americans will increase — as will the penalties for those who are caught or who raise the suspicion of the jihadists.
Politics: Fueling the Pressure
For the United States, the pressure is due in some part to the current political cycle and the state of the presidency.
Certainly, the search for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri — and the failure to locate them — is not a new theme. But it has been used by the Democrats in criticisms of the Bush administration since the 2004 presidential campaign, and it is beginning to resonate with growing numbers of Americans who have other reasons for turning sour on the president’s leadership.
One of the tools used to recruit informants is the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program, which has publicly offered up to $25 million (and relocation) for those providing information that leads to the arrest or death of key al Qaeda figures. The bounty approach has been successful in the past; the U.S. government paid out large rewards to informants in Pakistan who aided in the capture of Mir Amal Kansi and Abdel Basit — who was snagged for a mere $2 million reward. Despite the dramatic increase in the bounty offer, though, the program has yet to bear fruit in the case of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.
U.S. forces have gotten close to al-Zawahiri on a few occasions, most recently in Damadola, but when the target is missed, the voting public is not prone to giving the administration credit for the effort. Rather, it prompts al Qaeda’s leadership to emerge from the shadows, to prove to both their followers and the United States that they remain alive, well and in command. Within days of the Damadola strike, al-Zawahiri issued another videotape — taunting the United States for its failure.
Indeed, every time al Qaeda leaders issue a statement — such as the audiotape by bin Laden or the new video featuring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that came out this week — discussion of the administration and its failure to capture them is turned up a notch. Within hours of the latest bin Laden airing, for example, U.S. President George W. Bush’s critics were on television, charging that the decision to invade Iraq had deflected attention and resources away from the search for al Qaeda’s apex leadership.
With his public approval ratings still on the decline and midterm elections looming in the fall, the president is in need of a win. There are other measures at his disposal, but a successful operation resulting in the death of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri obviously would be a major boost. Such a score would be welcomed by the American public at any point, of course, but if the administration is to have a success Republicans can trumpet during the coming election campaign, it will need to act during the dawning combat season.
Al Qaeda: Fighting Attrition and Informants
Of course, the administration is not alone in sensing pressure; al Qaeda’s forces have been badly battered during the past four years. Senior operational leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, have been captured; others — including Mohammed Atef and Abu Hamza Rabia — have been killed. Regional affiliates have been able to carry out attacks since 9/11, but the core leadership is hiding in isolation and strategic capabilities have been severely degraded.
The military operations in Kunar province are another factor to consider. Past U.S. operations in that province have sparked tenacious resistance by the jihadists, indicating that there might be high-value al Qaeda targets there.
The logical safe haven, of course, is on the Pakistan side of the border. The Taliban, al Qaeda and affiliated militias long have used these areas as a rest and refit base, knowing that U.S. forces cannot or will not chase them into Pakistani territory. There are very public Taliban locations here, with large billboards touting Taliban slogans. Moreover, tribal ties and other relationships mean that many of the residents in this region are at least sympathetic toward the Taliban and jihadist cause.
However, Pakistani forces have been continuing operations in the areas corresponding with Kunar province, and there have been a series of strikes involving U.S. Predator drones along the border region as well. The last of these was at Damadola — which, though it didn’t kill al-Zawahiri, did result in the deaths of four others believed to have been al Qaeda operational leaders. The strike likely disrupted al Qaeda plans just preceding Bush’s trip to Pakistan on March 4.
Clearly, the challenges for coalition troops in this region are great, but they do not appear to have been insurmountable. Military operations have been designed to ring in and restrict the movements of al Qaeda suspects, and the support of human intelligence sources — who can provide targeting information — is key, particularly in such rugged terrain.
Thus far, al Qaeda has held its own in the humint war, but the Americans now seem to be gaining ground — and the jihadists must counter the new threat to their lives with brutal efficiency.
Fear and Psychology
The web of protection that al Qaeda leaders have spun around themselves has varied and nuanced threads. There are shared religious convictions, cultural and religious obligations to protect guests, ties of friendship and intermarriage with locals, and other factors that would make one loathe to betray their locations.
But significantly, there is also fear — a double-edged sword.
We cannot know if any or all of the alleged collaborators who have recently been murdered were indeed providing intelligence to the Americans, but their deaths and the warnings sent with them vividly illustrate al Qaeda’s reaction to the increasing human intelligence pressure. In essence, they have upped the ante for Americans attempting to recruit sources and the stakes for those who might be tempted to provide information.
However, the very fact that the Americans are attempting to ramp up their humint network also might force al Qaeda to step up operational security measures, and perhaps even instill an added measure of paranoia. Tactically, this could make it somewhat harder for the United States to get a source in close — something that is already incredibly difficult to accomplish — but it may also result in the leadership becoming even more isolated and unable to take part in operational planning.
Paranoia also adds to the odds that al Qaeda members or sympathizers might target and kill an innocent person — and in so doing, possibly anger a family member (or clan). Revenge is sometimes a stronger motivator than money, particularly among certain cultures that emphasize the concepts of tribe, family and honor.
We believe, then, that the human intelligence war along the Afghan-Pakistan border will intensify as the year progresses. The Americans need to get to the al Qaeda leadership and — with their targets leery of U.S. technical intelligence capabilities — human sources will be the critical factor in success. Al Qaeda, obviously, will move to counter this pressure.
More carnage along the border is likely to ensue.