Intelligence: Searching the Corner of No and Where


September 21, 2007: The war on terror is largely a struggle for information. Once you know exactly where terrorists are, there are plenty of resources for killing or capturing them. But first you have to find them. It's not that easy for people to disappear. That's because, while the world is a big place, it is generally well policed (if not well governed). To disappear, you have to be able to go someplace where you won't be noticed. You have to go off the grid, to an area where there are no nosy cops or local gangsters who will hassle you. If a major government is looking for you, they can put the word out to most of the world, and your chances of escaping detection are not very good. This is particularly difficult with large numbers of people trying to hide. Take al Qaeda, for example, or any large terrorist groups. The larger the group, the easier it is to detect some of them, and kill or capture them. Thus the loss of Afghanistan as a base has forced al Qaeda to seek other sanctuaries. Surprisingly, there are a lot of second or third best places to hide out, and use as a base.

These other base areas have shortcomings, either with regard to infrastructure, or vulnerability. For example, there are Sunni Arab areas in Iraq where Islamic terrorists will find refuge. The downside is that this only applies to certain areas of Central Iraq, and you are vulnerable to detection and attack by Iraqi or American security forces. There are other Middle Eastern countries where you can hide out, but with restrictions. Syria and Iran are a police states, and Jordan is well policed. So the authorities will know who you are. If you have permission to stay, it usually means you must agree to behave. Your access to weapons will be limited, and you may be easy to detect because communications are monitored in these countries. Most other Middle Eastern nations are hostile to Islamic terrorists, and well enough policed to worry illegal outsiders.

African contains large areas which are lawless, but some of these places are so chaotic that even well armed and badass Islamic terrorists have a hard time operating. Many of these areas have some form of tribal government, and most are Moslem. So Islamic radicals who come in saying the right things, and offering to pay for assistance, can hide out. But these areas are poor, and if you have a price on your head, there are those who will be tempted to let the nearest government authorities know who is hiding in the bush. And often there's not even much bush. The semi-arid belt of land (the "Sahel) just south of the Sahara desert is thinly populated and poorly policed. But there isn't much there there at the corner of no and where.

Some tribal leaders are more reliable than others. Some of the most dependable are pro-Taliban (that is, very conservative) Pushtun and Baluchi tribes in Pakistan, and Yemeni tribes along the Saudi border. One problem with the Yemeni tribes is that many of them are Shia. Since al Qaeda believes Shia Moslems are heretics, this creates problems. There are many parts of Africa, especially along both the Atlantic and Indian ocean coasts, where small Arab communities have settled, and control much of the local wholesale trade. Alas, these Arabs have different attitudes towards Islamic terrorism. If the wrong Arab knows you are there, the police, and probably the CIA, will soon know as well.

There are also several areas in South America where government is scarce. Many of Colombias border areas as chaotic because of the presence of well armed drug gangs, or leftist rebels. Southern Mexico is also rather lawless, and some border areas of other South American nations. Islamic radicals are known to be working in the Arab-descended communities in many Latin American countries, aided by the porous frontiers, such as in the notorious "three borders" region, where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet. The Islamic radicals have been able to raise some money from Latin American Arabs, often through bogus "charities." But the extent to which they have been able to recruit active supporters is harder to gauge. In some countries, such as Bolivia and Paraguay, recruiting efforts have been reported to the police, who have been able to take action. One factor hampering the Islamic radicals in the region is that many of the Arab immigrants to Latin America were Christians, and those who were Moslems often became secularized, in an environment where they found very few co-religionists.

There are parts of Indonesia that are both remote and lightly governed. But you are vulnerable to detection if you try to communicate from there. Not too many phone lines coming out of these areas, and these are easily monitored. Islamic terrorists should assume they are. Moslem immigrant communities in the West would appear to be good places to "hide in plain sight." But al Qaeda training manuals warn followers to be very careful in these places. Many of these Moslems left the old country to get away from Islamic radicals, and are quick to inform the authorities if any show up.

Meanwhile, SOCOM and the CIA are sending people to these out-of-the-way places, to shake the trees and grease the palms, to see if any terrorists are about. This is dreary, and dangerous, work, the kind of missions that never get mentioned in the movies, or CIA recruiting brochures. So far, there have not been many terrorists seeking shelter in the truly fringe areas. But in places like Somalia and the Pakistani tribal areas, there's plenty of action, and lots of potential in similar dismal localities.




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