Intelligence: June 26, 2002


: The Twilight War- The War on Terror, it is said, has entered a new phase. Actually, it did so several months ago, as US attacks on Afghanistan drove the first al Qaeda members out of that country. US intelligence agencies have been searching for these uncaptured terrorists and signs of their movement. It's a daunting task. The NSA listens into millions of telephone conversations every day, most of which are recorded and never heard by anyone. Computers sift the most likely of them looking for keywords and patterns, and calling the attention of overworked and understaffed translation groups to apply a human ear to them. Once an actual terrorist conversation is detected (perhaps by means other than intercepted messages, such as the interrogation of a captured terrorist or a report by a spy), more computers go to work, looking for the recordings of every call to and from that number. Each of these is translated and analyzed, and the numbers they called are also evaluated. Entire networks have been found by this method. And it works for more than just phone calls. Bank records are also sifted for patterns and when terrorist funds are found, the account they moved from (and to) is studied and money that went to and from those accounts is also tracked. The same thing goes for travel records. Once a given terrorist is identified, computers search travel records looking for where else that terrorist has been. Local agents in each city can then try to find traces of his passing, who he spoke to and where he stayed. 

These methods were used to identify, and then investigate, and then find and arrest, Jose Padilla (Abdullah al Muhajir). Padilla had been in Afghanistan and slipped out of that country with top al Qaeda deputy Abu Zubaydah and hundreds of others. Zubaydah's mission had been to rebuild al Qaeda, it's training and command structure anyway, in the cities of Pakistan, where they would be hidden by Pakistani extremists (some of them in the government or intelligence services). Zubaydah and his top staff went to Peshawar, but foreigners were easily spotted there, so he moved on to Lahore. Zubaydah set up shop there in January, spending entirely too much time on his satellite telephone. Padilla, also in a Lahore safe house, spent time on the Internet researching ways to build a "dirty bomb". Zubaydah moved on in late February to Faisalabad, where his top staff lived in a small house with a large fence. Zubaydah spent his time (on his satellite phone) supervising the recruitment of more troops and the creation of cells in many Pakistani cities. This made it too easy for him to be located, and on 28 March Pakistani security forces with US observers raided a dozen safe houses, gathering thousands of al Qaeda documents and dozens of prisoners. Zubaydah was captured, badly wounded, and was handed over to the US. He has been talking to his interrogators, although nobody knows if he is giving up small-time independent agents like Padilla, or if that kind of agent is the only kind there is.

In early March, Padilla had gone to Zubaydah with is plan to build a "dirty bomb" and received sanction to go ahead. Padilla asked the US consulate for a new passport, and they flagged him as terrorist threat because he was an American Hispanic in Pakistan with an adopted Arabic name. When Zubaydah identified Padilla as a terrorist, the US set about finding him. (Here, again, that would be simple if Zubaydah had only given up data on one agent. He has in fact given data on dozens, some of whom may not exist and others of whom may not have been as important to al Quada as Zubaydah tried to convince his interrogators.) Padilla was on the move, traveling from Karachi to Zurich, then a side trip to Cairo and back, and finally he got on a flight to the US on 8 May. What Padilla did not know is that two intelligence teams (one Swiss, one FBI) were on the plane with him, surrounding him (a few rows up or back) so he could not try to seize the plane. (Coordination between agencies is still not what it should be. Several adult males all booking last-second tickets on a plane to the US triggered a CIA computer program and a brief alert.) By all accounts, Padilla's "dirty bomb" plot was just an idea he had and was trying to get working; he may not have actually committed any criminal act beyond the conspiracy to do something in the future.

Politics and public relations play a role in these affairs. Some in the FBI wanted to trail Padilla and see where he went and who he talked to, but the Justice Department (embarrassed by too many reports of known terrorists tracked entering the country and then lost) could not afford another such incident. He was arrested in the jetway a few yards from the plane. The constant stream of alerts has less to do with actually stopping an attack than it does with not being caught holding unreleased information about an attack that was actually carried out. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid this is to release every report of every plot, even if it is of doubtful accuracy.

Several top terrorists are in custody and undergoing strenuous interrogation. The US insists that it does not use torture, but does use duress such as sleep deprivation and making them stand in cold water. On the other hand, Pakistani, Turkish, and Moroccan intelligence officials are not at all squeamish about torture. Mohamed Zammar left Germany (which could not arrest him on secret intelligence data alone) and flew to Morocco, where he disappeared into the custody of an unknown country. 

The interrogation of Zubaydah leaves one overriding question: Is al Qaeda really so incompetent that the only thing they have for a "second wave attack" was a half-baked idea that one member of the group came up with months after the 11 September attacks? If al Qaeda was run by professional military officers, the dirty bomb squad would have been in place with their materials in hand before 9-11 and would have used it long before now.

Padilla's plans for such a bomb were vague at best He would need some kind of radioactive material, perhaps industrial X-ray sources. Without time to work his way into a job where he might have access, he would have to steal them, something not all that difficult but likely to trigger an FBI manhunt. These would then be combined with explosives, perhaps stolen dynamite or perhaps the traditional mix of fertilizer and fuel oil, and detonated in a highly-populated area (for maximum body count) or a highly symbolic area (such as the capital mall). Deaths would be relatively few and many of them would not happen for years, but the target area would be uninhabitable for a century unless the topsoil was replaced. Even worse, all concrete, stone, and masonry would also have to be replaced as Cesium-137  bonds to such things.--Stephen V Cole




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