No doubt, terrorist organizations use all means to boost their capacities. Part of this is the great importance they pin to security and intelligence, as basic rules of their work. The war waged by the Islamic State (IS/Daesh) and al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations have been turned in the first place into and intelligence war, rather than field confrontations.
These groups are very keen on their own security, and on news and information gathering as essential to their activities, to learn about the powers of their target enemies, and maybe planting agents and spies among them, if possible. This can also help them take pre-emptive steps to identify, and avoid potential enemies.
As part of the declared war between these organizations and certain countries, hardly can one find an Arab or a Western intelligence agency that is not planning, or not already working hard to penetrate terrorist groups worldwide. This can be achieved through recruiting agents and spies, and using traditional and modern techniques. Such activities are conducted in absolute secrecy, and can only be revealed through leakage, announcement or in cases of defection.
This the typical approach of al-Qaeda which has managed to plant agents inside many security and spy apparatuses such as the Central Intelligence of America (CIA) and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Al-Qaeda inspired by CIA operations
Several security agencies believe that the Central al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan was more powerful than the intelligence bodies in some countries in terms of information gathering, technological professionalism, and surveillance capabilities. For them, the central body enjoys more cohesion and secrecy in comparison with its own local and regional branches, despite the group’s confrontational “weaknesses” and fewer operations.
The local and regional groups work under the umbrella of the Central al-Qaeda, and adopt its administrative structure, yet they lack the level of its secrecy, and suffer a sort of chaos and security vulnerability.
Al-Qaeda had studied in detail the CIA formations which the group’s commanders learnt about during the years of Afghan Jihad against the Soviet invasion to the country in the 1980s. Apparently, al-Qaeda commanders adopted the CIA methods of information gathering, and employing it to identify an enemy’s weaknesses.
Al-Qaeda has also benefited a lot from intercepting and neutralizing drones, and facing information piracy, as well as penetrating maps and targets. The group does not at all hesitate to use former intelligence officers among its elements. A former Egyptian officer, Seif-Eddin Al-Adl, headed the central organization’s operations.
Opposite to al-Qaeda branches in certain regions, the Central al-Qaeda’s activities is based on information warfare, double game, and perusal of the enemy’s plans.
Al-Qaeda relies mainly on an internal security apparatus, responsible for fighters’ security, subjecting them to audits and surveillance. The organization also has a series of administrative intelligence references responsible for information and individuals’ security, besides approving intelligence efforts, that is gathering, analyzing information and using them.
Due to the rarity of information a researcher could find credible on the intelligence activities of al-Qaeda, they can only be found through overt operations, the organization’s statements, or counter-operations from enemies and impact on the ground.
Khost blast and the double agent
The Khost attack carried out by a Jordanian doctor, Humam al-Balawi in Afghanistan in December 2009, reflected an advanced stage of al-Qaeda intelligence, namely planting an agent at the heart of an enemy.
The December 30 suicidal blast at a US base in Khost, in southeastern Afghanistan, killed seven CIA operatives, including two from private security firm Xe, formerly known as Blackwater. The eighth victim was Jordanian Army Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a cousin of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Other six people were injured.
Al-Balawi, or Abu Dujana Al-Kharasni, was a “double agent” working for four agencies at the same time, the CIA and the Jordanian Intelligence on one hand, and al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani Taliban on the other.
The Jordanian intelligence service had arrested al-Balawi in 2008 for promoting Jihadi thoughts. He was later released and recruited to work with Pakistani Taliban and to try to reach al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri.
According to US sources then, Humam was recruited to work for the Jordanian service , then he was an informant for the CIA, but he never dropped allegiance to al-Qaeda.
A Taliban leader told the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi that they had used Humam to deliver misleading information to the Jordanian intelligence.
He added that the game went on for a whole year, before the CIA agents decided to bring Humam to Khost to discuss with him certain details.
In Khost, Humam was provided with an explosive belt and he managed to enter the CIA.’s Forward Operating Base Chapman thanks to the high confidence they vested in him. While CIA and Jordanian intelligence officers were celebrating his birthday, Humam blew himself up, in a major and dangerous security and intelligence penetration from an organization to top spy agencies, the CIA and the Jordanian service.
It was a horrible setback for the two agencies, and their bilateral relations between them. The CIA had relied on the Jordanian spy agency for tracking al-Qaeda elements.
Al-Balawi’s operation was “the biggest deception in the history of the CIA and the Jordanian service.”
Egyptian Ali Abul-Saoud
Al-Balawi was not the only double-agent al-Qaeda managed to plant in one of the world’s chief spy agencies. He was preceded by the Egyptian Ali Abul-Saoud, who tried to penetrate America’s FBI after al-Qaeda planted him, seeking a post of a translator.
Abul-Saoud, who was known as the “spy of many names”, joined the US army and served at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. He was promoted until he became an instructor of the special forces on the Arab and Islamic cultures. He quit in 1898.
According to his file at the FBI, Abul-Saoud, a former Egyptian military officer, had various names in dealing with al-Qaeda, the most known of which was “Abu Omar.”
After he was arrested, he pleaded guilty at a federal court in New York in 200, for playing a key role in planning the attacks that targeted the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1997. He was also accused of planning with late al-Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden the killing of American citizens.
Other charges against Abul-Saoud included an attempt to penetrate the FBI as he applied for a translator there in 1993. He also lied to the FBI denying his role in training al-Qaeda elements that carried out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, for which Jamaa Islamiya late leader, Omar Abdul Rahman, was convicted and received a life sentence.
Abul-Saoud’s file of investigations revealed how he had managed to enter Kenya with a false Egyptian passport on January 23, 1994. Ten days later, he entered the US embassy campus in Nairobi using an American passport.
Being interrogated, he confessed that he had trained al-Qaeda elements in Afghanistan on bomb-making, and intelligence work. He said that bin Laden had sent him to Djibouti to gather information on the US embassy there.
After the explosions of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he intended to travel to Egypt, then to Afghanistan to meet bin Laden. But he was arrested and brought to stand trial in New York.
Al-Qaeda intelligence was founded by Ibrahim Mohammed Saleh al-Banna a former Jihadi leader in Egypt, also known as “Abu Ayman Al-Masri.”
Joining al-Qaeda at very beginning of the terrorist organization, at the hand of bin Laden, Al-Masri was considered one of the veteran fighters in Afghanistan. He was the media officer of al-Qaeda and bin Laden nicknamed him “the Legend” for his great capabilities.
In Yemen, he was considered the founder of “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, and was the security official of the group. He started working on establishing the intelligence body, as assigned by al-Qaeda second man then, Ayman al-Zawahri. He trained al-Qaeda elements on spying and undercover work, and was brilliant at forging passports.
Thanks to his ability to forge official documents, al-Qaeda operatives traveled smoothly to world countries.
In January 2017, the US State Department designated al-Banna and Hamza bin Laden, son of late al-Qaeda leader, on terrorists’ list. Al-Banna and Hamza were subject to a US government reward of up to USD 5 million.
Earlier in 2014, Washington designated al-Banna as one of the most dangertous and wanted world terrorists.
Daesh and institutional intelligence
According to a Washington Times report, Daesh did not confine its recruitment efforts to the impoverished or people from remote areas. Huge numbers of educated people joined the terrorist group, lawyers, doctors, police and military officers, engineers, technicians and IT experts.
On the security level, Daesh is one of the groups that mostly counted on intelligence. It was described as having an ” intelligence ferocity” and had a strong spy apparatus thanks to the former intelligence who joined the organization.
Daesh practiced intelligence activities in an institutional way. Lectures and courses were organized for Daesh elements under supervision of military experts.
The group’s foundation goes back to Samir Abd Mohammed Al-Khulifawi, a Colonel in the Iraqi Air Force Intelligence under late President Saddam Hussein, and was also known as ‘Hajji Bakr.”
In April 2015, German Der Spiegel magazine published documents on plans and deigns showing Daesh strategy for seizing parts of Syria thanks to most complicated methods of an “intelligence state.”
‘Hajji Bakr joined the group in 2004, and went to Syria in 2012, as he was in charge of the regions Daesh seized, and was finally killed there in 2014.
Daesh used to send spies posing as preachers to the target villages and towns north of Syria. Bakr was assisted by a large number of former intelligence officers, and the once Iraqi Republican Guard and military commanders.
In May 2017, the New York Times wrote on documents that Daesh had established a special intelligence apparatus working on gathering information and recruiting new elements in Europe and Asia, saying the group branches had planted hundreds of sleeper cells in both regions.