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Al Qaeda Infiltration May Not Be So Difficult After All


Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2002

The circus spectacle that surrounded the trial of John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban," has finally ended through a plea bargain. In exchange for pleading guilty to two felonies, Lindh faces up to 20 years in prison and must cooperate fully with terrorism investigators.

It was wise of the government to bring this episode in our war against terrorism to a close. Perhaps now it can focus on the more important lesson of the Lindh case - how a young man so easily infiltrated al Qaeda.

Last December, the public was shocked to learn that an American had been found in Afghanistan among al Qaeda forces fighting against our country. At 20 years old, Lindh had managed to infiltrate enemy forces with apparently great ease.

During just a six month period, Lindh trained at al Qaeda's terrorist training camps; participated in terrorist exercises; and learned how to use explosives and poisons, and - chillingly - to act inconspicuously in airports and evade police attention. More importantly, he met with visiting al Qaeda leaders. Lindh even apparently met the great Satan - Osama bin Laden - himself.

Infiltrating al Qaeda: Easier Than It Looked

Who would have thought that infiltrating al Qaeda was so simple? One would hope the CIA would have.

Yet fighting modern day terrorism has never been perceived as a simple task, often for good reason.

In the good old days of the Mafia, and the American Communist Party, infiltration was easier. Indeed, the FBI was so successful at infiltrating the Communist Party that oftentimes every person in attendance at a particular meeting was a government spy.

In contrast, present day terrorists are more sophisticated in their operations. They operate in small cells, often involving family members or close friends. The terrorist participants may never even meet their leaders. Instead, they are typically controlled by handlers disassociated from one another. That means catching one member does not necessarily destroy the cell and its planned activities.

The Rule Against Recruiting Unsavory Sources: Without It, Might Lindh Have Become A Spy?

One must question what stopped Lindh from becoming a hero rather than a traitor. Perhaps we can blame the 1996 restraints imposed upon the CIA's ability to recruit sources and agents.

Following public revelation of its involvement with human rights abusers in Guatemala, the CIA was generally forbidden from recruiting terrorists as their agents. The rules provided that CIA officers could only recruit unsavory sources if special permission was obtained from superiors.

As Jim Woolsey, who served as CIA Director during President Clinton's first term, once testified before Congress, that policy "had a substantial deterrent effect" on the recruiting of sources. The U.S. lost an edge in the battle against terrorism.

September 11th demonstrates that the current policies against using unsavory informants simply do not comport with winning the war against terrorism.

Could Lindh or Someone Like Him Have Prevented September 11's Attacks?

Moreover, recruitment of a known terrorist and sending in a mole are two different things.

One year ago, Lindh was not a member of al Qaeda. He was a young Californian who moved to Pakistan to practice Islam. Somewhere along the way, Lindh decided the Taliban and ultimately al Qaeda was what he wanted to be, and they apparently embraced him openly and without hesitation. How simple and successful a plan. Now, why did the CIA not think to do the same using an individual who fit Lindh's profile? Lindh has taught us a lesson, a very costly lesson.

To be fair, it may well be that the CIA did infiltrate al Qaeda (and, of course, there are other U.S. military and intelligence agencies who certainly have a role to play and blame to share). Our operatives may still, in fact, be among them and if that is true, we may never know it. Indeed, let us hope that is the case, for infiltration is much more likely to predict and prevent future attacks than surveillance and the monitoring of "chatter" ever could be.

If the CIA has indeed infiltrated al Qaeda, it should be lauded for its ingenuity. However, in the interim, the perceived lack of infiltration is still an issue deserving of public debate. At the very least, it should be the topic of intense scrutiny behind closed doors by the relevant Congressional oversight committees.

For all we know, Lindh might have been just one step away from being a hero who could have sealed bin Laden's fate prior to September 11th. Attempts to persuade Lindh, or recruit someone like him, to infiltrate al Qaeda could have worked.

Tragically, we may never know. Instead, Lindh is off to prison for the next two decades and we are left to ponder the scenario that could have been.

Mark S. Zaid is a Washington, D.C. attorney who handles national security cases and represents victims of terrorism.

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