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Deception and Intelligence

Attack on CIA Base in Khost

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The CIA recently concluded an investigation into the suicide attack on FOB Chapman, near Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, which has cost the lives of seven CIA officials, including two contractors, a staff member of the Jordanian General Intelligence Division and an Afghan driver. On the basis of news releases and press statements by the DCI it's possible to read the story through the use of stratagems.

This analysis is solely based on what appeared on American newspapers, mainly The Washington Post and The New York Times. The mechanism of the attack against the CIA officials, who managed the planning of the UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) sorties against the tribal areas on the eastern border of Afghanistan, can be obtained according to two scenarios: in the first scenario, the bomber, Abu-Khalil Humam Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician from Zarqa, the same city where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, was born, had been arrested by Jordanian security services and converted to a Jordanian General Intelligence Division informant. According to what has been written, his task was to provide information on the organization of the Taliban and al-Qaida networks on the Afghan eastern border, including their links with the Haqqani clan in north-western Pakistan. In this first case, the double-cross is revealed to his fellow Islamic extremists and he becomes a triple agent, who provides properly packaged information so as to earn his Jordanian controllers trust and use them to get in touch with the CIA. At that point, his real islamist controllers prompt him to seek a direct meeting with the American agents who manage the Chapman base near Khost. Once the meeting is accepted, the triple agent, wearing a disguised explosive jacket under his clothing, blows himself up just seconds before being searched inside the base, about thirty meters from his American guests, among whom was also Jennifer Matthews, head of the CIA operations at Forward Operating Base Chapman. The points on which the American press has focused the public attention are fairly obvious: How could this happen? Who failed to check? In a word, now much abused: intelligence failure. The CIA director, Leon E.Panetta, issued a press release on October 19, 2010 focused on these aspects, and revealing some of the results of two investigations - one internal and one "independent" - has set out some measures to enhance security procedures, in particular suggesting a deeper standardization (see the section “Deception and Security” on this website for some considerations on counterproductive aspects of standardization in security procedures) and the usual increase in 'information sharing', a concept that goes by now mandatory for all discussion on intelligence and on counterterrorism. Specifically, the points raised are:

  • Enforce greater discipline in communications, ensuring that key guidance, operational facts, and judgments are conveyed and clearly flagged in formal channels.

  • Strengthen our attention to counterintelligence concerns while maintaining a wartime footing.

  • Apply the skills and experience of senior officers more effectively in sensitive cases.

  • Require greater standardization of security procedures.

  • More carefully manage information sharing with other intelligence services.

  • Maintain our high operational tempo against terrorist targets, even as we make adjustments to how we conduct our essential mission.

The most interesting part of his speech, however, concerns the establishment of certain organs of control and coordination, which could add additional levels of bureaucracy to the already monumental American intelligence apparatus:

  • EEstablishing a War Zone Board made up of senior officers from several components and chaired by the Director of the National Clandestine Service. It will conduct a baseline review of our staffing, training, security, and resources in the most dangerous areas where we operate.

  • Assembling a select surge cadre of veteran officers who will lend their expertise to our most critical counterterrorism operations.

  • Creating an NCS Deputy within the Counterterrorism Center, who will report to the Director of the Counterterrorism Center and ensure a more integrated effort across Agency offices.

  • Conducting a thorough review of our security measures and applying even more rigorous standards at all our facilities.

  • Expanding our training effort for both managers and officers on hostile environments and counterintelligence challenges.

  • Creating an integrated counterintelligence vetting cell within our Counterterrorism Center that focuses on high-risk/high-gain assets, evaluates potential threats, assesses “lessons learned,” and applies the latest technology and best practices to counterterrorism operations.

  • Designating a senior officer to ensure that all the recommendations are indeed implemented.

The remarkable aspect of this list is that it never mention the term 'deception', nor the term counterdeception. In short, the CIA does not believe it opportune, quite understandably, to admit that she had been deceived by its (and our) enemies, and outwitted. We may note, however, that the last three points relate to training and improved capacity of counterintelligence, which you could read as 'counterdeception'.

There is a second scenario by which you can read the story of the attack in Khost, which would be even more interesting in terms of a competent and smart use of deception. The New York Times reports that Humam Mulal Khalil Abu-al-Balawi was known as an animator for jihadist forums - by the name of Abu Dujana al-Khorasani - and he was interviewed by Al-Fajr Media, linked to al-Qaida, and published in the online magazine "Vanguards of Khorasan." It is possible then to imagine that when he was eventually captured by Jordanian security services, he was actually used as a bait to lure them. Moreover, the Washington Post reveals that at least one member of the Jordanian intelligence services had invited the Americans to be wary of Balawi. His Jordanian handler, however, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was not just a thirty-four year-old captain of the intelligence service, but also a member of the royal family, being first cousin of the king and great-grandson of the first King Abdullah. The fact that the thirty-six year-old Balawi was a doctor, like al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's number two, might have favored his choice by his true jihadist handlers. It could appear as the packaging of a very attractive bait, successfully offered to the attention of those who had to swallow it through some visibility on the web, quite the sort of gameboard on which the Americans like to believe they excel. The fact that his Jordanian handler had a very significant personal profile may have made the assessment procedures on the side of the Jordanian security services far easier and swifter. In addition, the information Balawi provided has probably been particularly worthwhile, so as to label him as a reliable source of great value. The XXXIII ruse: "The (false) spy converted" could have been used to access the Jordanian intelligence, together with the XVII stratagem: "Hurl the brick and receive back the jade”, i.e. providing some truthful information to gain credibility and suggest possible objectives of much greater value, which would have required Jordan to contact the CIA. This could be described as a version of the XXVI stratagem: "To point to the mulberry and curse the Sophora" because Balawi has being speaking to the Jordanians in order for the Americans to listen. Once he came into contact with the CIA, Balawi offered information (again, the XVII stratagem) and targets. In allowing him to do this, its jihadist handlers resorted to the XXXIV ruse: "The suffering flesh", accepting to suffer some losses in order to strengthen their bait's credibility. But it cannot be ruled out that some of the targets could be internal enemies, so they could have used the Americans to have them eliminated, without running the risk of triggering dangerous feuds. In this case they would also have employed the III stratagem: "To kill with a borrowed dagger." Once Balawi's reliability had been established, while his true intentions and real targets remained well concealed, using the X stratagem: "Hide the knife behind a smile", it was necessary to lure the Americans into the trap. This could be done by offering them the opportunity of capturing a prestigious prey: al Zawahiri. In revealing his provisional hideout to them, he induced the Americansto accept an impromptu meeting, not properly planned, on December 30th. The chance to capture or eliminate al-Qaida's number two evoked a powerful image: this is a version of the XIV stratagem: "Borrow a corpse for the soul's return." Actually, some of the CIA officials were exceptionally flown in to Khost from Kabul. This is an application of the VI stratagem: "Clamor in the East and attack in the West." Focusing their attention on the notional prey, they have not paid attention to real preys, i.e. Themselves. Moreover, the pressure U.S. intelligence officials of the highest grade are subjected to for years in order to close the game with al-Qaida's leaders, does not always contribute to a careful and thoughtful analysis of the information provided to them. This problem is directly or indirectly recognized in the of various officials' statements, provided anonymity is granted. Balawi, moreover, had been able to learn the rules of intelligence security procedures, since, on the basis of available records, he has been employed as an informant during over a year. At this point, the trap was sprung and the man blows himself up in front of his targets. To explain why his islamist handlers chose to attack the "talking heads" of U.S. selective targeting operations against the Taliban leaders and al-Qaida terrorists, we may again resort to the 36 stratagems, particularly to the XVIII stratagem: "To catch the bandits first capture their leader," and perhaps, once again, to the XXVI stratagem: they possibly wanted to persuade the Americans to stop the UCAV attacks.

It is difficult to say whether this modelling is responsive to the real course of events: it is a reconstruction based on a few open sources and should be further investigated. It is possible that the jihadist leaders did not actually know how to use the stratagem we mentioned, and maybe they have been planning their action on the basis of quite different reasoning. The decision to transform the fake double agent into an instrument of a suicide attack may have been the result of an override, rather than a deliberate plan laid down from the beginning of the operation, and it is possible that the whole dynamic has developed as a succession of moves and countermoves between GID, CIA and the jihadists, therefore following a far less clearly discernible progression than that we have reconstructed. All this, however, has a limited importance. Instead, we get some interesting information: such a description of the story, as is shown in the diagram above, enables us to realize that the modelling of deception using the 36 stratagems simplifies the architecture of strategic deception models, due to the fact that each stratagem is a small template of deceptive actions both complete in itself and easily integrated with the others. In addition, the suggested diagram avoids an excessively rigid description which is typical of conventional flowcharts: instead, it allows both to emphasize the sequence of moves that spells out the deception plan, and to show the evolution of the "wrapping" movement it takes, and, though indirectly, its adaptiveness to changing circumstances. Finally, this analysis points out that many intelligence officials - especially Americans - are not accustomed to thinking by way of deception. Instead, they continue to focus on superior technology and resources as their main competitive edge. The shrewdness of a clever deceiver can be a very economical resource, which does not require any huge intelligence apparatus, but rather a careful selection and proper training of a few human resources. In some ways, it's the same difference which exists between the regular forces and the special forces. The routine activities and large-scale operations can be conducted only by an extensive organizational apparatus which is permeated by an organizational culture that rewards the orderly and regular observance of procedures. The special operations, surprise attacks,and coups de main, however, require a more flexible, informal, reactive structure, which can quickly adapt to specific circumstances. It is in this context that the deception gives its most precious fruits.

Copyright © Daniele Zotti 2010 - All Rights Reserved

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