The Bin Laden Operation: Tapping Human Intelligence

Since May 2, when U.S. special operations forces crossed the Afghan-Pakistani  border and killed  Osama bin Laden, international media have covered the raid from virtually  every angle. The United States and Pakistan have also squared off over the U.S.  violation of Pakistan’s sovereign territory and Pakistan’s possible complicity in hiding the al Qaeda leader. All this  surface-level discussion, however, largely ignores almost 10 years of  intelligence development in the hunt for bin Laden.

While the cross-border nighttime raid deep into Pakistan was a daring and  daunting operation, the work to find the target — one person out of 180 million  in a country full of insurgent groups and a population hostile to American  activities on its soil — was a far greater challenge. For the other side, the  challenge of hiding the world’s most wanted man from the world’s most funded  intelligence apparatus created a clandestine shell game that probably involved  current or former Pakistani intelligence officers as well as competing  intelligence services. The details of this struggle will likely remain  classified for decades.

Examining the hunt for bin Laden is also difficult, mainly because of the  sensitivity of the mission and the possibility that some of the public  information now available could be disinformation intended to disguise  intelligence sources and methods. Successful operations can often compromise  human sources and new intelligence technologies that have taken years to  develop. Because of this, it is not uncommon for intelligence services to try to  create a wilderness of mirrors to protect sources and methods. But using  open-source reporting and human intelligence from STRATFOR’s own sources, we can  assemble enough information to draw some conclusions about this complex  intelligence effort and raise some key questions.

The Challenge

Following the 9/11 attacks, finding and killing bin Laden became the primary  mission of the U.S. intelligence community, particularly the CIA. This mission  was clearly laid out in a presidential “finding,” or directive, signed on Sept.  17, 2001, by then-U.S. President George W. Bush. By  2005 it became clear to STRATFOR that bin Laden was deep inside Pakistan.  Although the Pakistani government was ostensibly a U.S. ally, it was known that  there were elements within it sympathetic to al Qaeda and bin Laden. In order to  find bin Laden, U.S. intelligence would have to work with — and against — Pakistani intelligence services.

Finding bin Laden in a hostile intelligence environment while friends and  sympathizers were protecting him represented a monumental intelligence challenge  for the United States. With bin Laden and his confederates extremely conscious  of U.S technical intelligence abilities, the search quickly became a  human-intelligence challenge. While STRATFOR believes bin Laden had become tactically  irrelevant since 9/11, he remained symbolically important and a focal point  for the U.S. intelligence effort. And while it appears that the United States  has improved its intelligence capabilities and passed an important test, much  remains undone. Today, the public information surrounding the case illuminates  the capabilities that will be used to  find other high-value targets as the U.S. effort continues.

The official story on the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s Abbottabad  compound has been widely reported, leaked from current and former U.S.  officials. It focuses on a man with the cover name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a  Pakistani Pashtun born in Kuwait who became bin Laden’s most trusted courier.  With fluency in Pashto and Arabic, according to media reports, al-Kuwaiti would  be invaluable to al Qaeda, and in order to purchase bin Laden’s property and run  errands he would also need to be fluent in Urdu. His position as bin Laden’s  most trusted courier made him a key link in disrupting the organization. While  this man supposedly led the United States to bin Laden, it took a decade of  revamping U.S. intelligence capabilities and a great deal of hard work (and  maybe even a lucky break) to actually find him.

The first step for U.S. intelligence services after Bush’s directive was  focusing their efforts on bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership. Intelligence  collection against al Qaeda was under way before 9/11, but after the attacks it  became the No. 1 priority. Due to a lack of human intelligence in the region and  allies for an invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA revived connections with  anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan and with Pakistan’s Inter-Services  Intelligence (ISI) directorate in order to oust the Taliban government and  accrue intelligence for use in disrupting al Qaeda. The connections were built  in the 1980s as the CIA famously operated through the ISI to fund militant  groups in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet military. Most of these links were  lost when the Soviets withdrew from the Southwest Asian state and the CIA  nominally declared victory. Pakistan, left with Afghanistan and these militant  groups, developed a working relationship with the Taliban and others for its own  interests. A coterie of ISI officers was embedded with different militant  groups, and some of them became jihadist sympathizers.

U.S. intelligence budgets were severely cut in the 1990s in light of the “peace dividend” following the fall of the Soviet Union, as some U.S. leaders  argued there was no one left to fight. Intelligence collection was a dirty,  ambiguous and dangerous game that U.S. politicians were not prepared to stomach.  John Deutch, the director of the CIA from 1995 to 1996, gutted the CIA’s sources  on what was known as the “Torricelli Principle” (named after then-Rep. Robert  Torricelli), which called for the removal of any unsavory characters from the  payroll. This meant losing sources in the exact kind of organizations U.S.  intelligence would want to infiltrate, including militants in Southwest Asia.

The CIA began to revive its contacts in the region after the 1998 U.S.  Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. While the U.S.  intelligence community was looking for bin Laden at this time, he was not a high  priority, and U.S. human-intelligence capabilities in the region were limited.  The United States has always had trouble with human intelligence — having people  sitting at computers is less of a security risk than having daring undercover  operatives running around in the field — and by the end of the 1990s it was  relying on technological platforms for intelligence more than ever.

The United States was in this state on Sept. 12, 2001, when it began to ramp  up its intelligence operations, and al Qaeda was aware of this. Bin Laden knew  that if he could stay away from electronic communications, and generally out of  sight, he would be much harder to track. After invading Afghanistan and working  with the ISI in Pakistan, the United States had a large number of detainees who  it hoped would have information to breach bin Laden’s operational security. From  some mix of detainees caught in operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan  (particularly with the help of the ISI), including Khalid  Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Farj al-Libi, came  information leading to an important bin Laden courier known by various names,  including Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. (His actual identity is still unconfirmed,  though his real name may be Sheikh Abu Ahmed.)

The efficacy  of enhanced interrogation and torture techniques is constantly debated — they may have helped clarify or obfuscate the courier’s identity (some reports  say Mohammed tried to lead investigators away from him). What is clear is that  U.S. intelligence lacked both a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of al  Qaeda and, most important, human sources with access to that information. With  the United States not knowing what al Qaeda was capable of, the fear of a  follow-on attack to 9/11 loomed large.

Anonymous U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters the breakthrough came when  a man named Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq in 2004 by Kurdish forces and  turned over to the United States. Little is known about Ghul’s identity except  that he is believed to have worked with Abu  Musab al-Zarqawi and to have given interrogators information about a man  named “al-Kuwaiti” who was a courier between al-Zarqawi and al  Qaeda operational commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ghul was then  given over to the Pakistani security services; he is believed to have been  released in 2007 and to now be fighting somewhere in the region.

While U.S. intelligence services got confirmation of al-Kuwaiti’s role from  al-Libi, they could not find the courier. It is unknown if they gave any of this  information to the Pakistanis or asked for their help. According to leaks from  U.S. officials to AP, the Pakistanis provided the National Security Agency  (NSA), the main U.S. communications interception agency, with information that  allowed it to monitor a SIM card from a cellphone that had frequently called  Saudi Arabia. In 2010, the NSA intercepted a call made by al-Kuwaiti and began  tracking him in Pakistan. Another U.S. official told CNN that the operational  security exercised by al-Kuwaiti and his brother made them difficult to trail,  but “an elaborate surveillance effort” was organized to track them to the  Abbottabad compound.

From then on, the NSA monitored all of the cellphones used by the couriers  and their family members, though they were often turned off and had batteries  removed when the phones’ users went to the Abbottabad compound or to other  important meetings. The compound was monitored by satellites and RQ-170  Sentinels, stealth versions of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which were  reportedly flown over the compound. According to The Wall Street Journal, the  National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) even built a replica of the  compound for CIA Director Leon Panetta and other officials. The NGA is the  premier U.S. satellite observation agency, which could have watched the  goings-on at the compound and even spotted bin Laden, though it would have been  difficult to confirm his identity.

Some of these leaks could be disingenuous in order to lead the public and  adversary intelligence agencies away from highly classified sources and methods.  But they do reflect long-believed assessments of the U.S. intelligence community  regarding its advanced capability in technology-based intelligence gathering as  well as the challenges it faces in human-intelligence collection.

The Utility of Liaison Relationships

Historically, U.S. intelligence officers have been white males, though the  CIA has more recently begun hiring more minorities, including those from various  ethnic and linguistic groups important to its mission (or at least those who can  pass the polygraph and full-field background investigation, a substantial  barrier). Even when intelligence officers look the part in the countries in  which they operate and have a native understanding of the cultures and  languages, they need sources within the organizations they are trying to  penetrate. It is these sources, recruited by intelligence officers and without  official or secret status, who are the “agents” providing the information needed  back at headquarters. The less an intelligence officer appears like a local the  more difficult it is to meet with and develop these agents, which has led the  United States to frequently depend on liaison services — local intelligence  entities — to collect information.
Many intelligence services around the world were established with American  support or funding for just this purpose. The most dependent liaison services  essentially function as sources, acquiring information at the local CIA  station’s request. They are often made up of long-serving officers in the local  country’s military, police or intelligence services, with a nuanced  understanding of local issues and the ability to maintain a network of sources.  With independent intelligence services, such as Israel’s Mossad, there has been  roughly an equal exchange of intelligence, where Israeli sources may recruit a  human source valuable to the United States and the CIA may have satellite  imagery or communications intercepts valuable to the Israelis.
Of course, this is not a simple game. It involves sophisticated players  trying to collect intelligence while deceiving one another about their  intentions and plans — and many times trying to muddy the water a little to hide  the identity of their sources from the liaison service. Even the closest  intelligence relationships, such as that between the CIA and the British Secret  Intelligence Service, have been disrupted by moles like Kim  Philby, a longtime Soviet plant who handled the liaison work between the two  agencies.
Since most U.S. intelligence officers serve on rotations of only one to three  years — out of concern they will “go native” or to allow them to return to the  comfort of home — it becomes even more challenging to develop long-term  human-intelligence sources. While intelligence officers will pass their sources  off to their replacements, the liaison service becomes even more valuable in  being able to sustain source relationships, which can take years to build.  Liaison relationships, then, become a way to efficiently use and extend U.S.  intelligence resources, which, unlike such services in most countries, have  global requirements. The United States may be the world’s superpower, but it is  impossible for it to maintain sources everywhere.

Liaison and Unilateral Operations in the Hunt for Bin Laden

In recent years, U.S. intelligence has worked with Pakistan’s ISI most  notably in raids throughout Pakistan against senior al Qaeda operatives like Abu  Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Farj al-Libi. We  can also presume that much of the information used by the United States for UAV  strikes comes through sources in Pakistani intelligence as well as those on the  Afghan side of the border. Another example of such cooperation, also to find bin  Laden, is the CIA’s work with the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, an  effort that went awry in the Khost  suicide attack. Such is the risk with liaison relationships — to what extent  can one intelligence officer trust another’s sources and motives? Nevertheless,  these liaison networks were the best the United States had available, and huge  amounts of resources were put into developing intelligence through them in  looking for major jihadists, including bin Laden.
The United States is particularly concerned about Pakistan’s intelligence  services and the possibility that some of their officers could be compromised  by, or at least sympathetic to, jihadists. Given the relationships with  jihadists maintained by former ISI officers such as Khalid Khawaja and Sultan  Amir Tarar (known as Colonel Imam), who were both held hostage and killed by  Pakistani militants, and most famously former ISI Director Hamid Gul, there is  cause for concern. These three are the most famous former ISI officers with  links to jihadists, but because they were (or are) long retired from the ISI and  their notoriety makes them easy to track to jihadists, they have little  influence on either group. But the reality is that there are current ISI and  military officers sympathizing or working with important jihadist groups.  Indeed, it was liaison work by the CIA and Saudi Arabia that helped develop  strong connections with Arab and Afghan militants, some of whom would go on to  become members of al Qaeda and the Taliban. The ISI was responsible for  distributing U.S.- and Saudi-supplied weapons to various Afghan militant groups  to fight the Russians in the 1980s, and it controlled contact with these groups.  If some of those contacts remain, jihadists could be using members of the ISI  rather than the other way around.
Due to concerns like these, according to official statements and leaked  information, U.S. intelligence officers never told their Pakistani liaison  counterparts about the forthcoming bin Laden raid. It appears the CIA developed  a unilateral capability to operate within Pakistan, demonstrated by the Raymond  Davis shooting in January as well as the bin Laden raid. Davis was a  contractor providing security for U.S. intelligence officers in Pakistan when he  killed two reportedly armed men in Lahore, and his case brought the CIA-ISI  conflict out in the open. Requests by Pakistani officials to remove more  than 300 similar individuals from the country show that there are a large number  of U.S. intelligence operatives in Pakistan. Other aspects of this unilateral  U.S. effort were the tracking of bin Laden, further confirmation of his identity  and the safe house the CIA maintained in Abbottabad for months to monitor the  compound.

The CIA and the ISI

Even with the liaison relationships in Pakistan, which involved meetings  between the CIA station chief in Islamabad and senior members of the ISI, the  CIA ran unilateral operations on the ground. Liaison services cannot be used to  recruit sources within the host government; this must be done unilaterally. This  is where direct competition between intelligence services comes into play. In  Pakistan, this competition may involve different organizations such as  Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau or Federal Investigation Agency, both of which  have counterintelligence functions, or separate departments within the ISI,  where one department is assigned to liaison while others handle  counterintelligence or work with militant groups. Counterintelligence officers  may want to disrupt intelligence operations that involve collecting information  on the host-country military, or they may simply want to monitor the foreign  intelligence service’s efforts to recruit jihadists. They can also feed  disinformation to the operatives. This competition is known to all players and  is not out of the ordinary.
But the U.S. intelligence community is wondering if this ordinary competition  was taken to another level — if the ISI, or elements of it, were actually  protecting bin Laden. The people helping bin Laden and other al Qaeda operatives  and contacts in  Abbottabad were the same people the CIA was competing against. Were they  simply jihadists or a more resourceful and capable state intelligence agency? If  the ISI as an institution knew about bin Laden’s location, it would mean it  outwitted the CIA for nearly a decade in hiding his whereabouts. It would also  mean that no ISI officers who knew his location were turned by U.S.  intelligence, that no communications were intercepted and that no leaks reached  the media.
On the other hand, if someone within the ISI was protecting bin Laden and  keeping it from the rest of the organization, it would mean the ISI was beaten  internally and the CIA eventually caught up by developing its own sources and  was able to find bin Laden on its own. As we point out above, the official story  on the bin Laden intelligence effort may be disinformation to protect sources  and methods. Still, this seems to be a more plausible scenario. American and  Pakistani sources have told STRATFOR that there are likely jihadist sympathizers  within the ISI who helped bin Laden or his supporters. Given that Pakistan is  fighting its own war with al Qaeda-allied groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,  the country’s leadership in Islamabad has no interest in protecting them.  Furthermore, finding an individual anywhere, especially in a foreign country  with multiple insurgencies under way, is an extremely  difficult intelligence challenge.
Assuming the official story is mostly true, the bin Laden raid demonstrates  that U.S. intelligence has come full circle since the end of the Cold War. It  was able to successfully collect and analyze intelligence of all types and  develop and deploy on-the-ground capabilities it had been lacking to find an  individual who was hiding and probably protected. It was able to quickly work  with special operations forces under CIA command to carry out an elaborate  operation to capture or kill him, a capability honed by the U.S. Joint Special  Operations Command (JSOC) in the development of its own capture-and-kill  capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA is responsible for missions in  Pakistan, where, like the JSOC, it has demonstrated an efficient and devastating  capability to task UAV strikes and conduct cross-border raids. The bin Laden  raid was the public proof of concept that the United States could collect  intelligence and reach far into hostile territory to capture or kill its  targets.
It is unclear exactly how the U.S. intelligence community has been able to  develop these capabilities, beyond the huge post-9/11 influx of money and  personnel (simply throwing resources at a problem is never a complete solution).  The United States faced Sept. 11, 2001, without strategic warning of the attacks  inspired by bin Laden, and then it faced a tactical threat it was unprepared to  fight. Whatever the new and improved human-intelligence capabilities may be,  they are no doubt some function of the experience gained by operatives in a  concerted, global campaign against jihadists. Human intelligence is probably  still the biggest U.S. weakness, but given the evidence of unilateral operations  in Pakistan, it is not the weakness it used to be.

The Intelligence Battle Between the U.S. and Pakistan

The competition and cooperation among various intelligence agencies did not end  with the death of Osama bin Laden. Publicity surrounding the operation has led  to calls in Pakistan to eject any and all American interests in the country. In  the past few years, Pakistan has made it difficult for many Americans to get  visas, especially those with official status that may be cover for intelligence  operations. Raymond Davis was one of these people. Involved in protecting  intelligence officers who were conducting human-intelligence missions, he would  have been tasked not only with protecting them from physical threats from  jihadists but also with helping ensure they were not under the surveillance of a  hostile intelligence agency.
Pakistan has only ratcheted up these barriers since the bin Laden raid. The  Interior Ministry announced May 19 that it would ban travel by foreign diplomats  to cities other than those where they are stationed without permission from  Pakistani authorities. The News, a Pakistani daily, reported May 20 that  Interior Minister Rehman Malik chaired a meeting with provincial authorities on  regulating travel by foreigners, approving their entry into the country and  monitoring unregistered mobile phones. While some of these efforts are intended  to deal with jihadists disguised within large groups of Afghan nationals, they  also place barriers on foreign intelligence officers in the country. While  non-official cover is becoming more common for CIA officers overseas, many are  still traveling on various diplomatic documents and thus would require these  approvals. The presence of intelligence officers on the ground for the bin Laden  raid shows there are workarounds for such barriers that will be used when the  mission is important enough. In fact, according to STRATFOR sources, the CIA has  for years been operating in Pakistan under what are known as “Moscow rules” — the strictest tradecraft for operating behind enemy lines — with clandestine  units developing human sources and searching for al Qaeda and other militant  leaders.
And this dynamic will only continue. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman  Bashir told The Wall Street Journal on May 6 that another operation like the bin  Laden raid would have “terrible consequences,” while U.S. President Barack Obama  told BBC on May 22 that he would authorize similar strikes in the future if they  were called for. Pakistan, as any sovereign country would, is trying to protect  its territory, while the United States will continue to search for high-value  targets who are hiding there. The bin Laden operation only brought this  clandestine competition to the public eye.
Bin Laden is dead, but many other individuals on the U.S. high-value target  list remain at large. With the bold execution and ultimate success of the  Abbottabad raid now public, the overarching American operational concept for  hunting high-value targets has been demonstrated and the immense resources that  were focused on bin Laden are now freed up. While the United States still faces  intelligence challenges, those most wanted by the Americans can no longer take  comfort in the fact that bin Laden is eluding his hunters or that the Americans  are expending any more of their effort looking for him.
Fred Burton