Counter-Terrorism: Getting Inside al Qaeda


March 17,2008: After seven years of intense effort, Western counter-terror organizations appear to have developed a growing network of spies within al Qaeda, and other Islamic terrorist organizations. There are two primary reasons for this (aside from persistence). First, there was the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq. The 2004 al Qaeda decision to undertake a massive terror campaign in Iraq did much to reduce al Qaeda's stature throughout the Arab world. Many al Qaeda members, and supporters became demoralized at the slaughter of so many Moslems, and the inability to kill many infidels (non-Moslems). Opinion surveys throughout the Moslem world clearly show al Qaeda popularity declining as the number of Moslem terror victims in Iraq increased. The same pattern could be seen on pro-al Qaeda web sites. Much of this chatter never got much exposure in the West, because most of it was in Arabic, and rarely monitored and translated by news organizations. But the number of Islamic radicals, unhappy with how Islamic terrorists have been operating, just keeps growing. This provided opportunities for Western intel agencies to get inside the terror networks.

To find and recruit the spies, much help was received from Israel. While many European nations are openly hostile to Israeli counter-terror techniques, Western intelligence agencies are usually eager to work with their Israeli counterparts. The Israelis defeated a Palestinian terror campaign, begun in 2000, by recruiting a wide network of informants inside the Palestinian population. They did this using techniques similar to any police organization (bribes, blackmail, favors), but did it with a knowledge of, and sensitivity to, Arab culture. About a third of the Israeli Jewish population are descended from Jews chased out of Arab countries in the late 1940s. These Jews look like Arabs because they, like the original Jews, part of a Semitic population. These Sephardic Jews can speak Arab dialects like a native, and often still know many of the cultural customs of their non-Jewish Arab neighbors from the old country. This cultural knowledge, and ability to pass as a Moslem Arab, made it possible for the Israelis to more effectively recruit among the Palestinians, and get a constant stream of good information on what the terrorist organizations were up to. Israel showed the Western intel agencies, especially the ones in Europe, how to seek and recruit informants from among their Moslem populations.

The key was to get informants who were involved in Islamic radical activities. That has apparently been happening with increasing frequency. The chatter on Islamic radical websites is increasingly about traitors within the ranks of the "brothers." The results of this can be seen in the increasing number of terror plots that are aborted, by arrests of the participants, before they can be carried out.

Interestingly, this development has been least useful in the United States. There, a culture of acceptance (especially compared to the rest of the world) has created a larger proportion of Moslem-Americans willing, and often eager, to pass on any terrorist related information. But in Europe, where Moslems are more often likely to feel like outsiders, even after generations of living there, the need to recruit informants was more crucial.




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