May 9, 2012

CIA penetration of al-Qa'idah - how about "need to know?"

Bombmaker Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri

The news channels are touting the Central Intelligence Agency's recent success in penetrating al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and preventing a potential devastating attack on a commercial passenger flight bound for the United States.

An agency asset was not only able to stop a bomb plot but fingered one of the key planners of the operation. That is what led to last Sunday's (May 6) drone-launched missile attack on Fahd al-Qus'u. (See my article on that operation, Wanted Al-Qa'idah leader killed in Yemen.)

This represents stellar work by the American intelligence service and good news in the war on terrorism - I assume that war is still going on despite Obama Administration claims to the contrary.

A disclaimer before I continue - I was a case officer trained by the CIA. Having done this for a living, I know first hand the danger and difficulty in working against these terrorist organizations. This operation shows that it can be done.

Regardless of the criticisms levied against the CIA and overall U.S. intelligence community, American intelligence services remain among the best trained, best-equipped, focused and operationally capable organizations in the world. If there is any doubt, captured documents from Usamah bin Ladin's Abbottabad compound reveal a respect for the decimation of the al-Qa'idah organization at American hands.

This operation is just another success story. My concern - why are we reading about it in such detail? This is similar to the "data dump" of operational details that followed the raid that killed bin Ladin a year ago. Rather than "spiking the football in the end zone" again, perhaps a little reticence would have better served the greater good.

This is not the first time we have unwittingly assisted our enemies through our zeal to tout our successes. When so-called "underwear bomber" Nigerian-born 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalib failed to detonate a bomb secreted in his underwear aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, 2009, the Obama Administration chose to release specific information about why the device malfunctioned.

That device used the explosive compound PETN, the major ingredient of Semtex - the terrorists' preferred plastic explosive. The amount was more than enough required to destroy an airliner in flight. However, the acid-based detonator was not powerful enough to ignite the PETN which had gotten damp from perspiration during the flight.

PETN requires the use of a strong detonator and dry PETN. I have lit Semtex with a match (don't ask) - it burns very hot but does not explode. In effect, by releasing such details, we told al-Qa'idah's principal bomb maker, Saudi national Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri, how to correct his design flaws. I hope we are not going to release similar details of the second generation bomb acquired by the CIA asset.

Then there are problems created by openly acknowledging that the would-be bomber was a CIA asset. Now AQAP is certain that they had been penetrated. A better way to handle this would have been to stop the operation in a way that preserved the secrecy of that critical fact.

It would have been far better to have a security service or airport screener "discover" the bomb and make an arrest. AQAP might then have believed that their "bomber" was simply caught and that their bomb design was subject to detection by current screening techniques and scanners. Maybe they would suspect that their bomber was a double agent but they could not be certain, Instead, we have eliminated that uncertainty and called into question our ability to detect this type of explosive device.

In the end, AQAP or another al-Qa'idah affiliate will attempt another attack, most likely using this type of device. The best defense we have against this is to continue the excellent intelligence work as was done in this penetration of the terrorist organization, identify key leaders and operations personnel, kill them before they can mount an attack, and then not release operational details about it.

I applaud the CIA's intelligence efforts on this case and I applaud the President's decision to expand the use of drone-launched missile attacks on al-Qa'idah operatives. However, the Administration needs to remember that when it publicly acknowledges these victories and reveals significant operational details, it only helps al-Qa'idah refine its offensive capabilities.

When White House officials such as counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan make arrogant statements like, "We had confidence that we had control, that that [bomb] was not a threat, was not an active threat at that time," it only aids al-Qa'idah - it does not make us safer.

Stop talking.