Thursday, May 05, 2005

Window of Opportunity

Like all bloggers, I enjoy hearing from readers; if you don't want to leave your comments on the blog, then send me an e-mail ( In yesterday's e-mails, I came across this interesting question regarding the search for Osama bin Laden:

"After today's capture of Al-Qaida's #3 man, intelligence officials are expressing hope that he can lead them to bin Laden. But we've heard this before, and we never seem to get any closer to UBL. Based on the information this guy may provide, how will it affect the search for bin Laden, and how much time do we have to act on his leads?"

Excellent questions.....first of all, it's worth noting that the search for UBL and his top lieutenants never stops. We spare no effort (or expense) in the hunt for Al-Qaida's senior leaders. We don't hear much about the search because (a) the public and the news media are more concerned with issues like the Michael Jackson trial; (b) intelligence and law enforcement officials don't want to over-publicize their efforts, to avoid tipping off the bad guys, or create unrealistic expectations for capturing terrorist leaders.

The recent arrrest of Al-Qaida's operations director does not guarantee the capture of Osama bin Laden. But it does provide fresh leads that may generate new information on Al-Qaida's planning efforts, it's revised leadership structure, communications channels and the whereabouts of senior leadership. Abu Farraj al-Libbi was apparently one of the few individuals who could communicate directly with UBL; and while they probably relied on written messages and runners, tracing that network could give us new insights into Al-Qaida's recent activities, plans for new attacks, and the location of UBL himself. In short, al-Libbi is a potential goldmine.

But I must add a cautionary note. Al-Qaida leaders sometimes employ counter-interrogation techniques in interviews with intelligence officers. Information provided by al-Libbi must be carefully vetted by other intel sources, a process that is often time-consuming. Additionally, some Al-Qaida figures simply try to stonewall American interrogators, realizing that we don't use torture, and figuring that life in an American prison is a small price to pay for advancing the jihadist cause. That may explain why al-Libbi is still in Pakistani hands, since their interrogators are not bound by our constraints. But even that approach poses certain risks. Pakistan's intelligence services still have Taliban and Al-Qaida sympathizers in their midst; I would imagine that American agents are observing the interrogations with their own translators, to ensure that we get an accurate account of the information al-Libbi provides.

Finally, the debriefing of any senior Al-Qaida operative is a race against time. Bin Laden and his organization have proven capable of adapting to losses of personnel and other resources. Within hours of al-Libbi's capture, Al-Qaida leaders were probably on the move, and the group's procedures changed again. Safe houses were discarded; cell phone sim cards were swapped, and communications methods shifted. Given these capabilities, we probably have just a few days--or weeks at the outside--to translate information provided by al-Libbi into the "actionable" intelligence that might lead to bin Laden. Keep your fingers crossed....

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