Al Qaeda and the Taliban are executing suspected U.S. informants in Pakistan in a campaign to terrorize potential spies and reinforce the authority of the militant organizations across the country’s vast and volatile tribal belt.
Most of the murders take place after accused informants have confessed to spying for the Americans. Some suspects were caught with satellite telephones and global positioning devices identical to equipment provided by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Dour men in traditional clothing sell the videos at markets in the tribal region for as little as $1 each. The images are astonishingly brutal. The camera never flinches as the executioners – one, a sweet-faced boy who looks 12 or 13 – sever the heads of helpless men to chants glorifying God.
No one knows how many suspected spies have been killed this way. Some experts said in interviews that they estimate as many as 35 Pakistani and Afghan men accused of working for U.S. intelligence were murdered last year – and the trend continues.
In a brazen episode in June, two accused U.S. informants were executed before thousands of cheering people in northwestern Pakistan. In late July, the body of woman discovered with a satellite telephone was dumped in a sewer, with a note identifying her as a U.S. spy. In some cases, the militants’ suspicions may have been groundless and false confessions likely induced by torture. But intelligence and military officials acknowledged that some victims were indeed working for the Americans.
The killings underscore the Pakistani authorities inability to police the vast tribal areas and the CIA’s failure to mount a serious effort to find Osama bin Laden and neutralize Al Qaeda and the Taliban holed up there.
Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, said in late May that the agency is winning the fight against Al Qaeda and continuing its push to find bin Laden. CIA spokesman George Little said more recently that any suggestion the agency is not fully committed to capturing bin Laden is wrong.
Yet a month of reporting in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan and interviews with dozens of counterterrorism experts reveals a darker picture of the search for bin Laden. Not only has the CIA been unable to find the most wanted man on earth — no one is certain where he is hiding.
Current and former U.S. intelligence and military officers acknowledged in interviews that the CIA has been unable to develop a reliable network of informants in Pakistan. This was true even in the days when President Pervez Musharraf granted Americans more freedom than they have under the new government.
The officers, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the information, cited a variety of reasons for the failure: the diversion of key intelligence assets to the Iraq war; poor cooperation from Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and the reluctance of CIA agents to volunteer for dangerous duty in Pakistan.
Even when the agency increased the number of agents there in 2006, most lacked experience in the region and many were private contractors. “The people sent had none of the skills required,” said a former senior intelligence officer who refused to allow his name to be used because the matter remains classified. “The initiative only amounted to throwing bodies at a problem, with no plan and no strategy.”
This is a far cry from President George W. Bush’s words after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he promised that bin Laden would be found “dead or alive.” Now, as the seventh anniversary of the attacks approaches, bin Laden has nearly disappeared — both physically and from the American political discourse. The presidential candidates rarely mention him.
Bin Laden disappeared from Tora Bora in Afghanistan into northwestern Pakistan at the end of 2001. Since then, U.S. intelligence had hard evidence of his location in Pakistan’s tribal region only twice, according to military and intelligence officers involved. Both times, he was gone before the information reached the Americans.
Milt Bearden, who ran the CIA station in Pakistan in the 1980s, said the failure to capture or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora may have been the last chance to find him. “My sense is nobody has any idea where he is,” Bearden said. “I’m not sure he’s in the tribal areas. If he’s anywhere in Pakistan, he has disappeared into a city.
But bin Laden has been neither silent nor idle. He has issued a series of messages taunting the West and inspiring adherents. More recently, U.S. military counterterrorism experts say bin Laden has been working to reassert his control over Al Qaeda and his influence over associated movements.
Meanwhile, his followers have carried out successful attacks in Europe, Africa and Asia. Extremists trained at camps in Pakistan have been linked to eight plots in Europe, including the 2005 London subway bombings. So far, nothing has approached the scale of Sept. 11. But U.S. intelligence agencies warned a year ago that Al Qaeda was using an uninterrupted flow of money and recruits to plan major attacks against the United States from Pakistan.
Robert L. Grenier, a former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, told Congress in April that Al Qaeda’s renewed capabilities increased the likelihood of a spectacular attack on U.S. soil. “Indeed,” said Grenier, “it is somewhat surprising that it has not done so yet.”
Finding a man hiding in some of the world’s most rugged territory – or in a teeming city filled with a hostile population – was never going to be easy. But the Bush administration made a difficult task harder by reducing the resources available to the CIA inside Pakistan and relying on private contractors. In tangible ways, the search has been downgraded and outsourced.
“The reason we didn’t get bin Laden so far is that we’ve tried to do it on the cheap,” said Michael Scheuer, who helped direct the search for the Al Qaeda leader from 1996 until he left the CIA in 2004. “We are spread very thin. We are more and more contracting with people who are former agency people, and people who have never had any relationship with the agency.”
The Pakistan-Afghan border is one of the world’s most dangerous and inhospitable frontiers. The view from a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter patrolling the Afghan side showed rugged mountains punctuated by austere valleys and scattered mud-walled compounds that seemed relics from the Middle Ages.
Most intelligence experts believe Bin Laden is living in a similar mud-walled compound on the Pakistani side. There, he is sheltered by a cadre of bodyguards and a sympathetic ethnic Pashtun population that dominates the region.
The U.S. search for him relies heavily on sophisticated technology — Predator drones, spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping. Bin Laden thwarts his pursuers by abandoning satellite phones and email in favor of layers of trusted couriers to dispatch his messages and orders.
Whether he is in the tribal area or a city like Karachi, counterterrorism experts say the best way to find him is the oldest method in the business – bribing locals for information. But cultivating and protecting sources is the hardest work in espionage, particularly in a place as dangerous as Pakistan.
“It’s not just a matter of people,” Grenier, now a managing director of Kroll Associates, said in an interview. “It’s experienced people. You don’t build up that kind of experience overnight.”
The transfer of CIA and military experts from the region to the Iraq war is well established. Less well known is the level to which resources assigned to the hunt plunged. At one point, the CIA had only about a dozen agents in the tribal region, an area the size of South Carolina that stretches nearly 400 miles along the Afghan border.
In late 2005, senior CIA officers gathered at “The Farm,” the agency’s training facility near Williamsburg, Va. During the session, the CIA chief in Pakistan was asked why bin Laden remained free. He responded that he had fewer case officers covering the tribal areas than the CIA had in its counterterrorism squad in Rome, according to a former CIA officer who would not allow his name to be used because the session was classified. There were about a dozen agents in Rome at the time.
Porter Goss, then-CIA director, responded by dispatching roughly 60 more operatives to Pakistan. Most were inexperienced recruits or private contractors. The majority remained in the relative safety of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, according to agents involved in counterterrorism at the time.
“These guys don’t speak Urdu,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA undercover officer and frequent critic of the agency. “They don’t go to Peshawar. They find a local taxi driver and say, ‘Go up to Waziristan and report back.’ They don’t have a network.”
Pakistanis from many walks of life scoff at the notion the CIA can’t find bin Laden. One night, over bootleg beer and ice cream in an affluent section of Islamabad, an ISI officer from the tribal region told me: “They want to keep him alive. They want to keep a symbolic figure there. It is not possible for them not to find him.”
Case officers are the CIA’s frontline troops, working alone for extended periods under dangerous conditions. They recruit and pay sources, and vet their information.
When Goss asked for volunteers, Arthur Keller raised his hand. A case officer for counter-proliferation, Keller spoke neither Pashto nor Urdu, the languages of the tribal region. He had no experience in Pakistan. Yet within weeks, he was in a Pakistani military base, in the heart of the tribal area. “There was no time, in the desperation to get people to go to these places, to be choosy,” Keller, who has since retired, said in an interview.
Other factors hampered Keller as well. CIA operatives are shackled by a Pakistan restriction requiring them to work under its ISI directorate, according to Keller and other former agents. CIA and ISI relations have been marred by mutual distrust in recent years. U.S. intelligence is particularly concerned that ISI elements are sympathetic to the Taliban — if not Al Qaeda.
Keller depended on ISI officers, whom, he says, routinely showed no interest in cooperation. “As long as the militants were attacking across the border, they didn’t give a damn,” he said.
Still, he managed to develop a Pakistani source operating independently of ISI. For the source’s security, Keller had to meet him away from the Pakistani military outpost. Still, he worried about the man’s safety and monitored the almost-weekly discovery of corpses of suspected informants.
Most of those murders, Keller said, were to intimidate locals into complying with the Taliban’s strict religious laws. But he acknowledged that some deaths were linked to U.S. intelligence gathering.
Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, estimated that at least 35 Pakistanis and Afghans were killed in 2007 for allegedly working with the Americans. Sipping tea in his office in an apartment building in Islamabad, Rana said, “You cannot be sure they all were CIA spies, but the deaths send a powerful message about who is in charge within the tribal areas.”
A second senior Pakistani intelligence officer, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press, said Rana’s figure squares with his own unofficial count.
A Western military officer who has spent several years working alongside the CIA in Pakistan and Afghanistan was dubious about Rana’s estimate. He said the toll was not that high because the CIA has so few informants. He conceded, however, that some victims were likely working for U.S. intelligence. The officer insisted on anonymity because he feared jeopardizing his relationship with the CIA.
The confessions and grizzly murders are memorialized in the extremists’ videos. In one, a Pakistani admits selling information to the Americans that led to the killing of a Taliban commander. Moments later, the boy executioner cuts off the man’s head. The use of the boy drew wide condemnation when an edited version of the video appeared on YouTube last spring.
In another video, a blindfolded man confesses that he was part of a network of eight Pakistanis who spied for the Americans. “I was given 60,000 rupees,” he says, a princely sum equal to almost $1,000, in a region where the average person earns $250 a year. His head is hacked off with a knife and placed on the corpse’s back. Money is stuffed into the mouth, the age-old sign of betrayal.
In a video that seems to tie its victim closest to the CIA, a captive confesses to spying for the Americans. As he offers his admission, the camera pans to a Thuraya satellite phone and a global positioning device – standard CIA-issued equipment. His headless body was later found in a sack with a note identifying him as an American spy.
There are those who say bin Laden no longer matters, dead or alive. Their argument is that he is isolated and weak, unable to dispatch orders because he is without phones or computers. Equally important, this school of thought says, Al Qaeda has been transformed into a global movement that needs no leader.
The opposing argument contends that bin Laden should be the primary target because he plays several critical roles. His messages motivate new recruits and raise money from the Al Qaeda “donor community” of wealthy Arabs. Plus, he continues to direct planning for major operations.
Maj. Reid Sawyer, director of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, falls in the second group. He said military intelligence shows that bin Laden is working to increase his hold on Al Qaeda and the worldwide movement it spawned. “The extent of bin Laden’s operational control is unknown,” said Sawyer. “At a minimum we can expect that he is providing strategic guidance to the associated movement.”
Peter Bergen, author of two books about bin Laden and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that capturing or killing bin Laden is as vital today as it was in the aftermath of Sept. 11. “I can’t imagine one single thing we could to that would be more important,” Bergen said.
There is even mild optimism now about catching bin Laden — though it has nothing to do with U.S. strategy. Last year’s wave of suicide bombings stoked widespread anger in Pakistan. A respected poll found that bin Laden’s popularity dropped by half nationwide from August 2007 to February 2008. In the critical Northwest Frontier Province, which borders the tribal region and was hard hit by suicide attacks, his popularity plunged to 4 percent from 70 percent.
This opens the possibility that bin Laden could be turned in by someone fed up with the deaths of civilians. There is precedent. In March 2003, a disillusioned Al Qaeda operative who said he was fed up with the deaths of civilians fingered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Wherever bin Laden is hiding, informants offer the best hope of finding him. Developing and protecting a network of assets is a delicate and dangerous job, made more difficult by the brutal propaganda campaign waged by Al Qaeda and its associates. But first these prospective sources would have to be persuaded that the CIA can keep them alive.