Terrorism and U.S. Intelligence (1970-2004)

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For more information, see: Director of National Intelligence.
For more information, see: Central Intelligence Agency.
For more information, see: Terrorism.

While the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had been the lead foreign intelligence agency, as well as having coordinating role over the entire United States intelligence community (IC), it is impossible to understand US counterterrorism by looking at the CIA alone. A series of articles have been split out to cover when the Director of Central Intelligence was in charge covers activities through 2004, when the Director of National Intelligence was given control of the IC. Additional articles focus on the DNI environment.

The US has a different counterterrorist structure than other close allies, such as Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. Each has a structure that fits its particular legal system and culture; there is no ideal solution. A continuing issue is whether there needs to be a domestic intelligence service separate from the FBI, which has had difficulty in breaking away from its law enforcement roots and cooperating with other intelligence services[1]. Nevertheless, few would disagree that within the US system, the CIA cannot and must not take on a domestic intelligence role, although it can work with information gained by domestic agencies.

Coordinating structures have been created by each president to fit his administrative style and the perceived level of threat. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)[2] is no longer in the CIA proper, but is in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). NCTC, however, contains personnel from the CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the Department of Justice, and other members of the IC. A counterterrorism center did exist in the CIA before the NCTC was established.

Given the restrictions of the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA but strictly forbade it from having any domestic police authority, the role of the CIA still has multiple dimensions. The National Clandestine Service (NCS) of the CIA can infiltrate or otherwise gain human-source intelligence (HUMINT) from terrorist organizations, their supporters, or from friendly foreign intelligence services (FIS). The NCS has a covert operations capability that, possibly in combination with military units from the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), may take direct action against terrorist groups outside the United States.

Above all, the key CIA counterterror partner is the FBI, which has the domestic operational responsibility for counterterrorism, both domestic intelligence collection and domestic police work. In the highly decentralized police system of the United States, the FBI also provides liaison and operates cooperatively with state and local police agencies, as well as with relevant Federal units. For example, the United States Coast Guard has an important role in preventing terrorist infiltration by sea. Military units have a specialized Counterintelligence Force Protection Source Operations capability to protect their personnel and operations.

Intelligence Community view of terrorism

Contrary to popular belief, the US intelligence community was dealing with aspects of terrorism long before the 9-11 attack. Those aspects included the support of guerrillas against the Soviets, in Southeast Asia, and other places where the guerrillas' methods may have included terror. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the US worked with government to suppress terror. While government research suggests personality traits that may be common to a substantial number of terrorists, terror has few other constants. It certainly is not restricted to Muslims. It has taken place on every continent except Antarctica.

In all these cases, intelligence support clearly was necessary. In some of them, clandestine intelligence collection and covert action, by CIA personnel or those they sponsored, dealt with both sides of the terrorist and counterterrorist roles.

Many studies of the analysis of, and countermeasures to, terrorism remain are classified information. Unclassified CIA documents on terrorism go back at least into the late 1970s. At that time, Western Europe often had opposing terrorist groups in the same conflict, such as nationalists and separatists in Northern Ireland, Spanish nationalists and Basque separatists, Turkey, [3] Transnational terrorism was still unusual, with the report noting that the Basque ETA group was active in France as well as Spain.

There are relevant observations from government reports by researchers who have various levels of access into the IC, including the Federal Research Division (FRD) and Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. A 1999 FRD study examined some changes from terrorists of the past, especially the emergence of terrorist acts carried out by individuals and members of small, ad hoc groups largely unknown to security organizations.[4] Tactics, as well as sources, had changed, with the greater use of suicide attacks and attacks by women and children. A very significant concern was the possible use, by terrorists, of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


Suicide attacks

Many terrorist organizations employ attacks in which the death of the attacker or attacker is not a risk, but is a certainty if the attack is carried out. The 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Africa and numerous other operations have used trucks loaded with explosives and driven into the target. The driver either manually set off the explosives, causing his own death as well as deaths in the target, or the explosives went off when the driver was incapacitated and let go of a dead man switch. The 9-11 attack involved the deaths of both the hijackers that took control of the aircraft, and those that flew it into the target.

Suicide attacks have both a psychological and a practical effect. Going back to the World War II Japanese kamikaze, who used suicide attacks against purely military targets, the recipients of the attacks were impressed, and to some extent demoralized, by the determination of the enemy. Kamikazes were the first large-scale use precision-guided anti-shipping missiles, if one does not distinguish between a human brain and a guidance computer. Japan selected the crash-diving attacks as a means of penetrating strong air defenses with pilots of limited skill. Current terrorists use the suicide attacker's brain as an equivalent to high-technology precision-guided munitions not available to them, and obtain psychological benefits as a result.

Weapons of mass destruction

Terrorists have already made attacks using WMD. This is not a hypothetical fear, but it also must be assessed in terms of possible damage. A 1996 CIA presentation reviewed the history to date. [5] Researchers for a 1999 General Accounting Office study had classified access.

...except if using toxic industrial chemicals, terrorists would need a relatively high degree of sophistication to successfully and effectively process agents, improvise a device or weapon, and disseminate the agents to cause mass casualties...Effectively disseminating both forms of agent [dry or liquid] can pose technical challenges in that the proper equipment and energy sources are needed.[6]

Terrorists by ideology and region

Terrorism is not a recent phenomenon. The Zealots of the first century assassinated both Romans, and Jews who did not want to revolt against the Romans. In the modern world, there are several categories of terrorists, including guerrillas who use terror as one of their weapons, groups that principally use terror alone, and individuals. Terrorists may be motivated by a political ideology of extremism, nationalism, religion, or combinations of all.

  • Marxist
  • Japanese Red Army
  • Italian Red Brigades
  • Baader-Meihof Gang
  • Red Army Faction
  • Assorted Nationalist
  • Irish Republican groups
  • Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
  • Basque Fatherland and Freedom (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna—ETA)
  • Religions Cults
  • Aum Shinrikyo

Collection approach


One of the most challenges in dealing with relatively small terrorist groups is that the members are usually known one another, or at least there is a chain of individuals that can vouch for a recruit. These social bonds have led to the refinement of the clandestine cell system in such groups. The combination of familiarity and compartmentalization make it extremely difficult to introduce human agents to the groups; it is more likely that human intelligence can be gained by subverting someone who is already a member, or perhaps is indirectly associated (e.g., a banker or arms dealer).

Efforts to use HUMINT operations with non-official cover, especially in the areas outside the groups' staging areas, have been disappointing.[7] Stepped-up efforts to use non-official cover, especially in Europe, began by creating covers in investment banks and consulting firms. Only several years later was it realized that terrorists would have little to do with such organizations. Another realization is even with excellent cover, the HUMINT successes would be unlikely to recruit people deep inside the terrorist cells.

Where HUMINT had more potential, and where the cover organizations needed to change to help find appropriate targets, was on the fringes of the terrorist organizations, either groups from which the group would need goods or services, or from people with awareness of the groups but not supporting them. Even if a group such as al-Qaeda had its own ships, there are reports that 15 cargo ships are linked to al-Qaeda.[8] the activities of those ships, at ports, might draw the attention of security officials, or even low-level dockworkers or craftsmen. .[9]

Another potential target could be moderate Muslims that do not want to take up an overt role against jihadists, but could supply information. The cover for approaching such persons could be any of a wide range of businesses and institutions.

Foreign specialists in explosives, WMD, and other warfare methods might come to CIA notice in their countries of origin. By tracking their movements, the specialists-for-hire might lead to trusted persons within the groups. Once a member is identified, other intelligence collection methods could be directed at his communications, surveillance of his home and place of work, etc.

There has been significant controversy, without there being classified Congressional views, of black sites for interrogating suspects, as well as the Guantanamo base. A separate role is played by regional Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers.


While some information was gained, early in campaigns against terror groups, from SIGINT (communications intelligence), groups have realized that threat and will often give up the speed of electronic communications for the security of messengers, who may carry encrypted messages they do not know how to read, or perhaps have memorized messages.

The actual interception of messages probably is not done by the CIA, but by NSA or possibly Service Cryptologic Elements (SCE): tactical SIGINT detachments attached to military tactical units. Important communications intercepts have been achieved, with the results clearly available to CIA. There are cases, however, where a joint CIA-NSA organization places clandestine intercept equipment. [10] The National Security Archive commented, "In 1987, Deputy Director for Science and Technology Evan Hineman established... a new Office for Special Projects. concerned not with satellites, but with emplaced sensors – sensors that could be placed in a fixed location to collect signals intelligence or measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) about a specific target. Such sensors had been used to monitor Chinese missile tests, Soviet laser activity, military movements, and foreign nuclear programs. The office was established to bring together scientists from the DS&T’s Office of SIGINT Operations, who designed such systems, with operators from the Directorate of Operations, who were responsible for transporting the devices to their clandestine locations and installing them.

While communications intercepts are usually highly classified, they have come up in US Congressional testimony on terrorism. For example, an FBI official testified with regard to the bombings of embassies in Kenya, and Tanzania, which took place so closely in time that the terrorist teams can reasonably be assumed to have coordinated their operations in near real-time. [11]

There was independent proof of the involvement of Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and EIJ Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the bombings. First, the would-be suicide bomber, al-Owhali, ran away from the bomb truck at the last minute and survived. However, he had no money or passport or plan by which to escape Kenya. Days later, he called a telephone number in Yemen and thus arranged to have money transferred to him in Kenya. That same telephone number in Yemen was contacted by Osama Bin Laden's satellite phone on the same days that al-Owhali was arranging to get money.

They have also been revealed in legal proceedings against terrorists, such as United States vs. Osama bin Laden et al, indictment, Nov. 4, 1998, and updates. [12]


The sort of imagery intelligence ((IMINT), often from satellites, used against nation-states is of limited use in tracking the movement of groups of small size and little physical infrastructure. More success has come from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which are hard to see and hear, to do such things as follow cars, or loiter above a building, photographic traffic in and out, often with low-light or infrared sensors that work in apparent darkness.

The CIA experimented with a small remote-controlled reconnaissance aircraft, the MQ-1 Predator, to try to spot Bin Laden in Afghanistan. A series of flights in autumn 2000, overseen by CTC officials and flown by USAF drone pilots from a control room at the CIA's Langley headquarters, produced probable sightings of the Qaeda leader.[13]


Financial intelligence -- "following the money" -- often can trace the organization behind a particular attack. Once that organization is identified, value [14] transfers from it can point to other operational cells. The United States Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has the power to "freeze" the accounts of organizations suspected of funding terrorist activities.

Terrorist groups use three types of financing, which are increasingly difficult to track by U.S. intelligence including CIA:

  1. Charities, which use conventional financial institutions and value transfer,
  2. Informal value transfer systems such as hawala and hindi
  3. "Commodities- or trade-based money laundering includes the smuggling of bulk cash and the evasion of federal reporting requirements used to track money laundering with commodities such as diamonds, precious metals, gold, and tobacco."[15] CIA is most likely to gain awareness of commodities and trade transfers outside the United States.

According to the Center for Defense Information, intelligence agencies help OFAC build its "freeze list" by sending it lists of individuals and organizations believed to be associated with terror. [16] Not all such suspects go onto the freeze list, since the intelligence community can use financial transactions as a means of tracking them.

One of the challenges of anti-terrorist FININT is that surveillance of transactions only works when the value transfers go through conventional, regulated banks and other financial institutions. Many cultures use informal value transfer systems, such as the hawala widely used in the Middle East and Asia, where value is transferred through a network of brokers, who operate with funds often not in banks, with the value transfer orders through personal communications among brokers. The brokers know one another and operate on a paperless honor system.

A study from the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis [India] describes "narco-terrorism" as "the nexus between narcotics and terrorism...It is recognized as one of the oldest and most dependable sources of terrorist financing, primarily because of the magnitudes of finance involved in both the activities."[17] The study indicates that informal value transfer systems, known "... [in] India it is known as hawala, in Pakistan as hundi, in China fei qian (flying money), in Philippines as black market peso exchange" are important means of transferring funds to terrorist organizations.

Some hawala brokers have placed some of their reserve funds in banks, where they have been frozen by OFAC. On Nov. 7, 2001, the Treasury Department made raids and freezes to shut down two hawala networks, Al Barakaat and Al Taqwa, both believed to be funneling millions of dollars from the United States to abroad to support terrorist activities. In addition to the placement of 62 people and groups associated with the two organizations on the asset freeze list, FBI and U.S. Customs agents raided the two networks' offices in six U.S cities.[16]

According to CDI,

The founder of Al Barakaat, Shaykh Ahmed Nur Jimale, is believed to be an associate of bin Laden who invested in and is still an owner of the organization. Al Barakaat is a financial, telecommunications and construction group headquartered in Dubai and operating largely out of Somalia. It was founded in 1989 and operates in 40 countries around the world. ... The Treasury Department said the raids on Nov. 7 resulted in the blocking of approximately $971,000 in Al Barakaat assets. [16]

Hawala plays an important role in the Afghan drug economy, and in drug trade worldwide.

Analytic approach

The National Security Archive makes the point that the US government and intelligence community did not suddenly come upon terrorism on September 11, 2001.[18] Understanding the IC and political perceptions of the past help predict the future, identify weaknesses, and develop strategies.

...at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced that opposition to terrorism would replace the Carter administration’s focus on advancing human rights throughout the world. Although opposition to terrorism never really became the primary focus of the Reagan administration or successor administrations, each of these paid significant attention to the issue and produced many important documents that shed light on the policy choices faced today. Terrorism has been the subject of numerous presidential and Defense Department directives as well as executive orders. Terrorist groups and terrorist acts have been the focus of reports by both executive branch agencies (for example, the State Department, CIA, and FBI) as well as Congressional bodies – including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Congressional Research Service. The General Accounting Office has also produced several dozen reports evaluating the U.S. government’s ability to prevent or mitigate terrorist strikes...

CIA's Directorate of Intelligence produces analytic products that can help identify terrorist groups, their structure, and plans. These may benefit from signals intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA), from imagery intelligence from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the Department of the Treasury, and from other specialized agencies.

Regular research

The Department of State, with CIA assistance, prepares an annual volume called Patterns in Terrorism. FBI reporting is more irregular, but does do problem descriptions as well as specific reports. [19]

While the Congressional Research Service technically is prohibited from making its reports automatically available to the public, several legislative efforts are underway to change this, and, in practice, its reports are often Internet-accessible within a few days of issue, typically on the Federation of American Scientists website.

Virtual station and cross-functional team research

While the initial implementation, Bin Laden Issue Station, did not work well, there has been an Intelligence Community effort to avoid the problems of stovepiping, especially where it involves lack of communication between analysts and operators. There is a continuing controversy on how to be sure Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) information gets to the analysts; the FBI culture has been extremely decentralized, so "dots to be connected" in two field offices were not shared, although they might have been a warning of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The overall problems of stovepiping and encouraging cross-functional teams, in the context of terrorism, has been addressed, among other groups, by the House Intelligence Committee.[20] One of their chief recommendations was:

FBI's main problem going forward is to overcome its information sharing failures. "Ensuring adequate information sharing" should be communicated throughout the Bureau as the Director's top priority, and a clear strategy incorporating the personnel dimension, the technical dimension, and the legal dimension of the information-sharing problem should be developed and communicated immediately.

Their recommendations for the CIA included:

CIA leadership must ensure that HUMINT collection remains a central core competency of the agency, and should develop additional operational tools, in conjunction with other appropriate agencies (FBI, etc,), penetrate terrorist cells, disrupt terrorist operations and capture and render terrorists to law enforcement as appropriate. More core collectors need to be put on the streets.

ClA should ensure that a management structure is in place to steward the multiyear investments needed to build new platforms to collect on terrorist targets. CIA must also ensure sufficient numbers of unilateral CT slots in field stations and bases.

CIA should lead an effort to improve watchlisting to ensure that all relevant agencies, including FBI, Homeland Security, and others, have access to a common database of up-to-date terrorist person-related data collected by US government agencies and other appropriate sources. The creation of a terrorism watchlisting unit at CIA may be a useful first step.

Require all new case officers and analysts to achieve a "level 3" language proficiency prior to initial deployment, and devise a mechanism for ensuring language skill maintenance is incentivized and directly tied to performance evaluation.

CIA should take immediate and sustained steps to dramatically improve all aspects of its CT training program. Establish structures in CTC (Counterterrorism Center) in such a manner that ensures a normal career path for these officers. Incorporate counterterrorism-related skill development in all appropriate training for case officers and analysts.

Internal policies, such as CTC's 'no threshold' threat reporting policy, should be reviewed and modified to ensure that consumers are getting the most reliable reporting and that sufficient analysis is applied to that product in advance of its wholesale dissemination, wherever possible.

The 1995 guidelines must be rescinded immediately, and replaced with new guidelines that balance concerns about human rights behavior and law breaking with the need for flexibility to take advantage of opportunities to gather information on terrorist activities, as required by law.

Under Porter Goss, for a variety of reasons including innovation, CIA has proposed moving its National Resources Division concerned with issues in the US, to Denver, letting it work more freely than under Headquarters bureaucracy. [21] Some officers believe this is a bad idea and would hurt information sharing, the critical problem with the FBI. With due regard to the prohibition on the CIA having any domestic law enforcement powers,

... FBI is having significant problems developing its own domestic intelligence branch and the CIA is generally viewed across the intelligence community as more experienced and skilled at handling foreign informants who eventually return abroad, where the CIA has the lead in intelligence gathering and operations.

Regional analytic operations

The CIA (and predecessors) has a long history of placing selected collection and analytic functions (e.g., Foreign Broadcast Information Service intercept locations) in places where they can coordinate with regional intelligence agencies, and also have access to people with native -level understanding of languages and culture.

Chronological sub-articles


  1. Fine, Glenn A., Inspector General of the US Department of Justice (November 5, 2003), Inspector General’s List of the Most Serious Management Challenges and Responses: Top Management Challenges
  2. National Counterterrorism Center
  3. National Foreign Assessment Center (April 1980), International Terrorism in 1979, Central Intelligence Agency, PA 80-10072U
  4. Hudson, Rex A. (September 1999), The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: who becomes a terrorist and why?, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
  5. Oehler, Gordon C. (March 27, 1996), Continuing Threat from Weapons of Mass Destruction: Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, CIA Nonproliferation Center
  6. General Accounting Office (September 1999), Combating Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessments of Chemical and Biological Attacks, GAO/NSIAD-99-163
  7. Miller, Greg (17 February 2008), "CIA's ambitious post-9/11 spy plan crumbles", Los Angeles Times
  8. Robinson, Colin (August 20, 2003). Al Qaeda's 'Navy' - How Much of a Threat?. Center for Defense Information.
  9. Frittelli, John F. (May 27, 2005). Port and Maritime Security: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.
  10. Central Intelligence Agency (July 21, 1988), Organization chart, mission and functions of the Office of Special Projects. Retrieved on 2007-10-07
  11. Caruso, J.T. (December 18, 2001), "Al-Qaeda International", Testimony of J. T. Caruso, Acting Assistant Director, CounterTerrorism Division, FBI Before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate
  12. Lumpkin, John (11 January 2006), "Osama bin Laden satellite phone calls Yemen", globalsecurity.org
  13. , chapter 6, "Afghan Eyes", National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, at pp.189-90
  14. the term "value" includes cash and negotiable documents, but also materials such as gems, opium and drugs, and precious metals
  15. Lehmkuhler, Sina (April 2003), "Countering Terrorist Financing: We Need a Long-Term Prioritizing Strategy", Journal of Homeland Security
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 CDI Terrorism Project (5 March 2002), The Financial War Against Terrorism, Center for Defense Information
  17. Jamwal, N.S., "Terrorist Financing and Support Structures in Jammu and Kashmir", Strategic Analysis: A Monthly Journal of the IDSA (Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis [India]) XXVI (1)
  18. Richelson, Jeffrey & Michael L. Evans (September 21, 2001), The September 11th Sourcebooks: Volume I, Terrorism and US Policy
  19. Federal Bureau of Investigation (1999), Terrorism in the United States 1998, The September 11th Sourcebooks: Volume I, Terrorism and US Policy
  20. Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, House Select Committee on Intelligence (July 2002), Counterterrorism Intelligence Capabilities and Performance Prior to 9-11: A Report to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Minority Leader
  21. Priest, Dana (May 6, 2005), "CIA Plans to Shift Work to Denver, Domestic Division Would Be Moved", Washington Post: A21