Couri­ers en­abled bin Laden to hide for so long

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

Track­ing ter­ror­ist mes­sag­ing sys­tems and clan­des­tine couri­ers be­came a crit­i­cal U.S. in­tel­li­gence mis­sion years be­fore an al Qaeda courier led U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces to Osama bin Laden’s hide-out in Pak­istan.

Al Qaeda turned more to pony-ex­press-style com­mu­ni­ca­tions af­ter bin Laden learned that his ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, where he evaded cap­ture, had been in­ter­cepted by the U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency. The United States never heard his voice again, un­less it was on one of his re­leased au­dio mes­sages aimed at fol­low­ers and en­e­mies alike.

“They re­treated to couri­ers af­ter Tora Bora, which is why it took as long as it did to track UBL down,” said for­mer CIA of­fi­cer Bart Bech­tel, re­fer­ring to the CIA’s code name for bin Laden.

A mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence source said the Tal­iban is so aware that the United States can eaves­drop that com­man­ders some­times mock Amer­i­cans dur­ing ra­dio and phone calls.

Find­ing couri­ers be­came as im­por­tant to U.S. in­tel­li­gence as in­ter­cept­ing a crit­i­cal email or cell­phone call.

A for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said find­ing couri­ers be­came stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure be­cause they could lead the U.S. to the top-rank­ing in­sur­gents.

Tac­tics in­cluded in­ter­ro­gat­ing sus­pects, cap­tur­ing cell­phones and com­puter thumb drives, and mon­i­tor­ing In­ter­net cafes where couri­ers some­times stop to send quick coded mes­sages.

It was at an In­ter­net cafe near Bagh­dad that in­tel­li­gence iden­ti­fied a courier tied to Abu Musab Zar­qawi, a ruth­less al Qaeda op­er­a­tive in Iraq. This go-be­tween led track­ers to Zar­qawi’s spir­i­tual ad­viser, who was fol­lowed to Zar­qawi’s hide-out near Baqouba. A U.S. F-16 airstrike killed the ter­ror­ist mas­ter in 2006.

“Couri­ers are a huge pain and usu­ally are smart enough to min­i­mize their foot­print and time on the phone or in a cafe,” the for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer said. “It is re­ally hard to pick them up.”

In track­ing down and killing bin Laden, the CIA first learned of the ex­is­tence of a spe­cial mes­sen­ger from in­ter­ro­ga­tions of al Qaeda cap­tives. It was not un­til 2007 that the agency learned his name and then, last year, tracked him to the walled com­pound in Ab­bot­tabad. There, in the early hours of May 2, U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden.

A se­nior in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told re­porters at the Pen­tagon that bin Laden re­lied heav­ily on a courier net­work.

“That’s pre­cisely what led us to the com­pound,” he said. “So it is prob­a­ble that the couri­ers at the com­pound were sup­port­ing his com­mu­ni­ca­tions with other mem­bers of al Qaeda. I’m not go­ing to com­ment on specifics. We’re ob­vi­ously in­ter­ested in any al Qaeda fa­cil­i­ta­tor, to in­clude couri­ers.”

For­mer Rep. Peter Hoek­stra, Michi­gan Repub­li­can and one- time chair­man of the House Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, said track­ing mes­sen­gers be­came a prime mis­sion early in the war on terrorism.

The CIA be­gan col­lect­ing hu­man sources in­stead of re­ly­ing on phone in­ter­cepts preva- lent in the 1990s when the in­tel­li­gence bud­get was slashed.

“Track­ing couri­ers has been an im­por­tant part of the in­tel­li­gence gather­ing for quite some time,” Mr. Hoek­stra said.

“In 2001, the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity was to­tally un­pre­pared for the chal­lenge that we saw from al Qaeda. In the nine or 10 years since then, they have sig­nif­i­cantly trans­formed them­selves. [. . . ] They are lightyears from where they were on 9/11.”

He sug­gested that couri­ers have led the United States to

“Couri­ers are a huge pain and usu­ally are smart enough to min­i­mize their foot­print and time on the phone or in a cafe,” said a for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is re­ally hard to pick them up.” In track­ing down and killing Osama bin Laden, the CIA first learned of the ex­is­tence of a spe­cial mes­sen­ger from in­ter­ro­ga­tions of al Qaeda cap­tives. It was not un­til 2007 that the agency learned his name and then, last year, tracked him to the walled com­pound in Ab­bot­tabad. There, in the early hours of May 2, U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden.

other ter­ror­ist bosses.

“The dead­li­est job in the world for a while was be­com­ing the No. 3 guy for al Qaeda,” said Mr. Hoek­stra, re­fer­ring to the killing of the group’s op­er­a­tions chief, Mo­hammed Atef, and then the demise of oth­ers who suc­ceeded him.

“We got the No. 3 guy about ev­ery three or four months. [. . . ] Part of our strat­egy was go­ing af­ter their com­mand-and-con­trol struc­ture. Go­ing af­ter their hi­er­ar­chy. That’s been a pri­or­ity. The in­tel com­mu­nity uses its full range of tools to go af­ter these guys.

“I can’t get into which one is the most efficient in terms of iden­ti­fy­ing and get­ting ac­tion­able in­tel­li­gence. But, clearly, whether it’s elec­tronic or whether it’s couri­ers the way they pass in­for­ma­tion, if you can pen­e­trate the com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work, it’s a great tool in iden­ti­fy­ing who the de­ci­sion-mak­ers are and where they are so that you can act on it.”

An in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said that in the hunt for bin Laden, the most dif­fi­cult task was the gumshoe de­tec­tive work.

“The hard work is find­ing the courier once he has been iden­ti­fied,” the of­fi­cial said.

“This would in­clude the po­si­tion­ing of the best and the most un­ob­tru­sive sur­veil­lance team, mean­ing peo­ple who look and talk like peo­ple in Pak­istan.

“It would mean find­ing a safe house with­out rais­ing sus­pi­cions. It would in­clude the best in clan­des­tine pho­tog­ra­phy as well. A re­ally good surveil­lant is hard to find.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Pak­istan army sol­dier stands on top of the house where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lived in Ab­bot­tabad, Pak­istan.

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