Rahman, many experts have long suspected, was allowed to enter the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency in an effort to infiltrate Al-Qaeda -- a high-stakes intelligence gamble that backfired spectacularly
“We have an expression in Arabic”, the blind Egyptian cleric who ran al-Qaeda’s networks in the United States once told an interviewer, “everybody sings for those he loves”.
On February 26, 1993, a fifteen hundred kilogramme improvised explosive device went off in the underground parking garage of the World Trade Centre in New York -- the very building that, eight years later, would be brought down by the Al-Qaeda. Six people were killed, and 1,042 injured. Investigators rapidly determined that the operation had been funded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged operational chief of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Its perpetrators were linked to the Brooklyn-based blind cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman.
Rahman, many experts have long suspected, was allowed to enter the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency in an effort to infiltrate Al-Qaeda -- a high-stakes intelligence gamble that backfired spectacularly.
Ever since news broke that Lashkar-e-Taiba clandestine operative David Headley had been a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, speculation has grown that the Pakistani-American jihadist may also have worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The evidence for the claim is thin. Headley’s links with the Lashkar, Federal Bureau of Intelligence detectives say, was only detected in July, 2009, when he posted inflammatory messages in an internet chat-room. Even at the time of his arrest, they claim, no evidence was available to suggest he had carried out pre-attack reconnaissance in Mumbai. For its part, the CIA has flatly denied any association with Headley.
But the Headley rumours offer an opportunity to examine the efforts of intelligence services around the world to infiltrate the global jihadist movement -- and what sometimes happens when their assets turn out to have been double agents, singing the enemy’s song.
Imprisoned by Egyptian authorities until 1986, Rehman initially travelled to the United States each year after his release, using funds provided by Saudi Arabia. He was later, however, placed on a terrorism watch-list. But in 1990, Rehman succeeded in securing a visa from the United States embassy in Khartoum. The visa, it turned out, was issued by an undercover CIA officer. The decision was officially characterised as a mistake. “In fact,” journalist Tim Weiner recorded in his book Legacy of Ashes, “CIA officers had reviewed seven applications by Abdel Rehman to enter the United States -- and said yes six times.”
Declassified State Department documents suggest United States intelligence officials had begun meeting with Rehman’s followers in the summer of 1989, in what appears to have been an effort to build alliances with the Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya against groups like Al-Qaeda. Many experts believe Rehman, who is reputed to have taken charge of al-Qaeda’s United States networks, was granted his visa to capitalise on that dialogue. It is possible the CIA believed their relationship with him would help monitor those networks, and provide protection to the United States against attack.
For that reason, authorities in the United States may have overlooked Rehman’s open calls to violence. His sermons to his followers, the researcher Evan Kohlman has recorded, included one condemning Americans as the “descendants of apes and pigs who have been feeding from the dining tables of the Zionists, Communists, and colonialists”. He called on Muslims living in the west to “cut the transportation of their countries, tear it apart, destroy their economy, burn their companies, eliminate their interests, sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air, or land.” Language like this, after all, would have been precisely why the CIA granted Rehman a visa in the first place: to allow him to attract followers whom he could then betray.
Ahmed Syed Omar Sheikh -- the British jihadist who was released from a jail in New Delhi in return for the lives of passengers on board an Indian Airlines flight hijacked by the Jaish-e-Mohammad in 1999 -- is believed to have had an even more complex relationship with intelligence services. Pakistan’s former President, General Pervez Musharraf, charged in his autobiography In the Line of Fire that Sheikh was recruited by the British intelligence service MI6 to infiltrate jihadist groups operating in the Balkans. “At some point”, General Musharraf claimed, “he probably became a rogue or double agent”. But there is also credible evidence that Sheikh was closely linked to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence -- and the Al-Qaeda.
Educated at the exclusive Forest School in London and the Aitchison College in Lahore, Sheikh went on to study applied mathematics and economics at the London School of Economics. But he dropped out of university after his first year, after joining the Islamist student movement, and went on to serve with jihadist groups in Bosnia. Imprisoned in New Delhi from 1994 to 1999 for kidnapping western tourists, Sheikh is known to have met with British officials nine times at Tihar jail. The London Times later reported that the United Kingdom offered him a secret amnesty in exchange for information on his relationship with the Al-Qaeda. But after Sheikh was released by India -- and became the subject of international arrest warrants -- he was reported to have visited his parents in the United Kingdom in 2000 and 2001. The United Kingdom has never explained its failure to arrest Sheikh on his arrival in London.
It was only in the wake of the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States that Sheikh was charged by the United Kingdom with kidnapping its nationals in New Delhi -- a delay that his victims described as “a disgrace.” Former ISI Director-General Lieutenant-General Mahmud Ahmad was alleged to have used Sheikh to wire $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, a key member of the Al-Qaeda cell which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks. No hard evidence emerged to corroborate these accounts — but General Mahmud was indeed removed from office. Sheikh is now awaiting execution of a death sentence awarded for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
London-based Islamist cleric Omar Mahmoud Othman, spiritual mentor to the Al-Qaeda in Europe, is also alleged to have been a double-agent working for the United Kingdom’s domestic covert service, MI5. Known by the alias Abu Qatada, Othman’s followers included the chief suspect in the Madrid train bombings of 2004, and Al-Qaeda operative Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up a Paris-Miami flight with explosives. Nineteen audio cassettes of Othaman’s sermons were found in Atta’s apartments. For years before the Madrid attacks, MI5 resisted appeals from the European allies for Othman’s arrest. “Abu Qatada”, The Times later reported, “boasted to MI5 that he could prevent terrorist attacks and offered to expose dangerous extremists, while all along he was setting up a haven for his terror organisation in Britain.”
The costs of betrayal
Why, then, do intelligence organisations persist with the high-risk enterprise of cultivating agents who could betray them, sometimes with horrible consequences? The reason is simple. Even in an age of increasingly sophisticated electronic intelligence-gathering, there is no more effective source of information than an insider. For each embarrassing failure, agents have helped prevent dozens of attacks -- agents whose identities may remain secret for decades, or longer.
Had intelligence services succeeded in planting agents, several major terrorist strikes may have been averted. Last year, in November, India’s Research and Analysis Wing tracked satellite phone communications from the boat which carried the Lashkar-e-Taiba assault team to Mumbai, but lost the trial when the attackers hijacked a Gujarat-registered fishing boat for the final part of their journey. Deceived by the move, India’s intelligence services even cleared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to address a convention at the Oberoi Hotel scheduled for just one day after the carnage began.
Perhaps the most spectacular examples of the consequences of the lack of assets amongst the enemy emerged during investigations of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In January 2005, Al-Qaeda commander Tawfiq bin-Attash called a meeting of key operatives in Kuala Lumpur. Based on prior intelligence provided by the CIA, Malaysian police covertly photographed Ramzi Binalshibh, the logistical head of Al-Qaeda’s Hamburg cell, in the company of bin-Attash. His recruits Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, who were among the nineteen men 9/11 hijackers, were also at the Kuala Lumpur meeting. But without a source among the conspirators, the CIA was compelled to hold off targeting them, waiting for more information to emerge.
But the risk of betrayal is the inevitable price of attempting to infiltrate the enemy’s ranks. During World War II, John Cecil Masterman’s Twenty Committee -- which drew its name from the Roman numerals for twenty — put out a mixture of disinformation and credible military intelligence through German agents who were apprehended and put to work against their masters. For all practical purposes, the Twenty Committee ran the networks of Germany’s Abwehr and Sicherheitsdient. The Twenty Committee’s achievements included making trans-Atlantic military traffic safer, misdirecting German bombing attacks on the United Kingdom and easing the way for the eventual liberation of Europe.
No enemy has ever been so comprehensively vanquished in an intelligence war since. But victory and defeat in the struggle against terrorism, perhaps more than in any war before it, still rests in large part on the outcome of a high-stakes game of deceit and double-cross.
Deceit, double-cross and the intelligence war against Islamist terrorism.