Intelligence: June 15, 2002


Suspected al Qaeda member Jose Padilla was put under surveillance after captured al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah recognized Padilla's passport photo. Why was Abu Zubaydah shown Padilla's picture? Because Padilla is a U.S. citizen, and uses his U.S. passport to travel. Every time he leaves the United States, he leaves a record of those travels. Those records are available to the government. At the moment, any U.S. citizen who has traveled to countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen in the past few years, is on a list of people to watch. But what do you watch for? It's simple, you look for lifestyle patterns similar to known terrorists. This is nothing new. It's called psychographics, and was developed by American marketers in the 1950s. Psychographics, otherwise known as "life style demographics", studies the patterns of peoples lives to more accurately predict what products should be sold to which segments of the population. It's not a new idea. In police work, suspects have long been identified by their MO ("Modus Operendi" or method of operation). In the 1970s, when Germany was faced with a wave of deadly terrorist activity by several small groups, Horst Herold of Germany's BKA (Federal Crime Office), developed psychographics techniques to sift through existing databases on things like traffic tickets issued, car rentals, travel agency records, and many other sources to develop a profile of terrorist suspects. Using the leads generated, the terrorist organizations were systematically taken apart. But so efficient was that effort, and so frightened were the German voters of such a powerful police tool, that the BKA psychographics operation was shut down in the early 1980s. 

But if you want to round up most al Qaeda members before they set off a dirty bomb, a chemical weapons attack or some similar mass murder operation, something like the BKA techniques will have to be used. Old fashioned methods, like the FBI's effort to interview 5,000 men of Middle Eastern origin living in the United States, take a lot longer and yield fewer results. Unfortunately, the CIA has better analytical and computer tools for this kind of work than does the FBI, but is not allowed to use it within the United States. The CIA has long been a leader in the use of computer technology to develop techniques for sifting through masses of data to find something useful. The FBI is way behind. For example, you have a better search tool available in Internet search engines like, than the FBI has for looking through their own databases. 

Catching someone like Jose Padilla was easy compared to finding those thousands of al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers who have not been identified by an al Qaeda leader. Terrorist groups like al Qaeda have a "fast, cheap and out of control" type of organization. The members are "out of control" in that they come up with attack plans on their own. Using real or forged travel documents, al Qaeda members can move around quickly. Al Qaeda doesn't keep a list of members, nor does it direct all it's members from a central headquarters. These terrorists are hard to keep track of. The al Qaeda leadership (a loose group itself) tries to promote it's ideas to likely candidates for membership, and then provide training and technical assistance to groups of adherents who have developed promising attack plans. Al Qaeda members are expected to raise most of their own funds, the organization doles out money only to plots that are already underway and likely to succeed. Thus a lot of terrorist operations can be developed cheaply.

With the Afghanistan training camps gone, there is less opportunity to train and evaluate new recruits. But many of the al Qaeda technical experts and trainers are still on the loose throughout the world. The faster someone identifies and captures these people, the safer everyone will be. But at the moment, the FBI hasn't got the tools and the CIA hasn't got permission to find these people. Reorganizations and improvisations are trying to fill the gaps in America's investigative capabilities. But at the moment, it's often a struggle between doing the right thing, or doing the legal thing.




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