Intelligence April 2005

Inside Out

Why it's so hard to infiltrate al-Qaeda
More

The reason we didn't prevent 9/11 is simple: neither the CIA nor its intelligence allies, Western or Muslim, had a spy or an informant inside al-Qaeda's command structure. And the stark reality is that our human intelligence against al-Qaeda and other Sunni militants will probably never be as good as what we had against the Soviet system during the Cold War.

Why is this the case? In the Soviet Union the people most difficult for Western intelligence agents to recruit were found at the entry level of the Communist system—young men and women who were moving from youth groups and school systems into the military, the KGB, Party organizations, or the diplomatic corps. At this stage these people were steeped in Marxism-Leninism, believed that socialism worked, had faith in the USSR, and were hostile toward the United States. The ideologically committed are always the toughest to recruit for intelligence services.

But on those occasions when the West could develop an informant at this level, the Soviet system unwittingly assisted in that development. With each promotion in the Communist ranks, the potential informant would see more clearly that socialism delivered nepotism, tyranny, and corruption, rather than fairness and equity. Non-Russians (those hailing from the Soviet republics and satellite states) would quickly realize that ethnic discrimination dominated the world in which they worked. In short, the further up the Soviet hierarchy our would-be informant progressed, the more likely the system was to disillusion him, making him more vulnerable to the Western intelligence services.

Here's the challenge that al-Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups pose: In such organizations the old Soviet scenario is exactly reversed—the militants who are least ideologically committed (and therefore most easily recruited by our spy agencies) are found at the edges of the groups, among the ranks of those who perform gunrunning, human smuggling, and narcotics trafficking. Once we've recruited these people, their value to us increases as they move toward the center of al-Qaeda. The problem is that the higher a would-be spy rises in al-Qaeda's ranks, the greater the ideological and theological commitment of his associates; Sunni leaders are often (though certainly not always) the devout and courageous men their media organizations claim them to be. Career advancement in al-Qaeda tends to wash away much of the mercenary hypocrisy found at the entry level—and therefore, in effect, to unrecruit those cultivated by our intelligence agencies. The odds of our ever having an informant among the senior al-Qaeda decision-makers are remote.

Michael Scheuer headed the Osama bin Laden group at the CIA, where he worked in HUMINT-collection operations for more than twenty years. He is the author (as "Anonymous") of Through My Enemies' Eyes and Imperial Hubris.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In