Bin Ladin’s Location Reveals Limits of Liaison Intelligence Relationships
May 01, 2011
For decades, U.S. counterterrorist operations in the Middle East and South Asia have been built on the foundation of liaison relationships with other country’s police, intelligence and security forces. No matter what the popular conception of the role of organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the truth is that the bulk of the actual work of intelligence collection against terrorist targets is completed by foreign services cooperating with the U.S. government. The CIA may provide funds, training and other assistance, but they do not run the sources.
The attractions of such a methodology are obvious: it is the officers of the foreign service who run the physical risk of meeting with often dangerous and unpredictable agents. There is no need to worry about language qualifications or other considerations involved with deploying American officers on the street. There are no dicey issues of national sovereignty to navigate and no danger of messy diplomatic flaps.
The ultimate example of this type of relationship is that between the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and the CIA. In many ways, this relationship has become the template against which all others are measured. Across an entire region, therefore, Washington has focused most of its energy not on expanding the collection of its own human intelligence on terrorist targets, but on creating and supporting foreign services to do the bulk of this work.
Yet along with the death of Usama bin Ladin, much of the U.S. counterterrorist modus operandi perished with him. This article reveals why liaison relationships cannot be overly relied upon for U.S. intelligence collection, focusing on the case of Pakistan. It argues that the future of counterterrorism must focus more on direct, unilateral action when U.S. national interests are at stake.
The Disadvantages of Foreign Liaison Relationships
U.S. foreign liaison relationships will remain vital to counterterrorism intelligence gathering and operations. Yet there are a number of disadvantages of being overly reliant on foreign intelligence agencies for gathering information or conducting counterterrorist operations.
Intelligence is power, and he who possesses it can better control outcomes. He who does not is blind and easily manipulated. Even assuming that a foreign intelligence service has information wanted by the United States, that does not necessarily imply that they will provide that data. They may withhold it to shape American perceptions or out of fear for how Washington will react if aware of an impending threat. They may choose to shade the truth or “cherry pick” the facts, telling Washington those details they want it to know and hiding those that they do not.
Beyond this, reliance on foreign liaison services necessarily means, even assuming complete transparency, that U.S. collection efforts are only as good as theirs. The best that can be hoped for is to know what they know. If they are efficient, professional and aggressive, collection may be good. If they are lazy, incompetent, or only devoting limited resources to a problem Washington considers important, then U.S. intelligence will suffer from a wide range of blind spots.
Washington’s overreliance on its relationship with the Jordanian GID came into stark focus in December 2009 with the attack on the CIA base at Khost in Afghanistan. The double agent who perpetrated that attack and murdered seven serving CIA officers had been recruited and was being run not by U.S. intelligence personnel, but by the Jordanians. Washington accepted the Jordanians’ judgment as to the agent’s trustworthiness in lieu of conducting its own operational testing and evaluation. The Jordanians assured Washington of the source’s reliability. They were wrong, and American officers paid the ultimate price for that miscalculation.
The Case of Pakistan
Pakistan is one of the starkest examples of the limitations and dangers associated with excessive reliance on the capabilities of foreign intelligence services in the realm of counterterrorism. The United States has spent the better part of the past decade working with the Pakistani government and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to capture or kill al-Qa`ida operatives in that country and to end the use of Pakistani territory as a safe haven by Taliban forces engaged against U.S. and allied military units in Afghanistan.
The results of this cooperation have been limited and uneven. Cooperation, when extended, has produced some incremental gains, but it has never reached a level that was even arguably satisfactory. Recent events have shown that the already unsatisfactory relationship is deteriorating rather than improving and that even Washington’s guarded assessment of the intentions and capabilities of its erstwhile allies may have been far too optimistic:
- In April 2011, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen acknowledged, publicly, that the ISI had a relationship with and supported the Haqqani network, one of the components of the coalition of insurgent forces engaged against the U.S. military in Afghanistan. According to Mullen, “The ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network. That doesn’t mean everyone in the ISI, but it’s there.” In other words, not only was Pakistani intelligence not doing everything it could to combat the use of its territory by the Taliban, but it was actively assisting at least one element of the enemy.
- For almost two months earlier this year, Pakistani authorities held an alleged CIA operative in custody despite repeated U.S. requests for his release and despite the assertion of diplomatic immunity on his behalf by the U.S. government.
- Throughout most of March and April 2011, a succession of Pakistani officials, from the prime minister to the army chief of staff, lodged official complaints against the CIA’s alleged covert drone campaign targeting al-Qa`ida and Taliban militants hiding in the tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The officials demanded an end to the campaign and bemoaned the “violation” of Pakistani sovereignty, but provided no alternatives and made no offers of concrete Pakistani action to address the use of the border region as a safe haven by militants. In contrast to previous rounds of complaints, which seemed intended primarily for domestic consumption, these comments appeared to reflect a great deal of genuine anger and a real desire to bring U.S. drone attacks to an end.
- Recent press reports and evidence developed as the result of an ongoing Indian investigation also now suggest strongly that the ISI may have had some connection to the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, in which 10 well-trained Pakistani militants coordinated a bombing and shooting attack at several Indian landmarks. At a trial slated for May 16, 2011, David Headley, the Pakistani-American accused of assisting in the reconnaissance for the attack, is expected to implicate the ISI.
- In late 2010, the name of an individual identified as the CIA station chief in Islamabad was publicly revealed in court documents, an unheard of occurrence in a society in which the security and intelligence services wield great power and routinely act to prevent the publication or disclosure of information they want to remain out of the public domain. That action was widely considered to have been a deliberate response by the ISI after it was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in New York regarding the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Death threats to the individual identified following this revelation prompted his recall. Less than six months later, the replacement CIA station chief in Islamabad also had their name aired in Pakistani media. U.S. officials believe that the latest disclosure was a deliberate action by the ISI in response to the raid in Abbottabad that killed Bin Ladin.
The preceding points, as well as the past 10 years of frustration on the ground in Pakistan, was just a preamble for the discovery that the world’s most wanted man, Usama bin Ladin, was hiding not in a remote mountain redoubt, but in a luxury home in Abbottabad, 30 miles from the capital city of Islamabad. Abbottabad, a pleasant hill town, is populated by large numbers of active and retired Pakistani military and is home to the country’s military academy. It is located well within what are referred to as Pakistan’s “settled areas” and is not in a “lawless region.” It is an area under the tight control of Pakistani authorities and as secure as anywhere in the country.
The enormity of the revelation that Bin Ladin was living at this location can hardly be overstated. Efforts to find him were at the heart of absolutely everything the United States did with the Pakistanis and consumed the energy of thousands of American personnel for a full decade. All of Washington’s cooperation with the Pakistanis was, ultimately, centered on the goal of finding Bin Ladin and either capturing or killing him.
After all of this effort, not only was Bin Ladin in Pakistan all along, but he was living in an area to where the ISI had ready access and where it enjoyed the support of a broad array of other Pakistani security services. How exactly Bin Ladin managed to reside unmolested at this location remains unclear. Perhaps he enjoyed the active protection of members of the ISI. Perhaps the ISI was not looking hard for him. Perhaps Pakistan’s intelligence agents are simply grossly incompetent.
Regardless, the lessons learned are the same. The U.S. intelligence community expended countless man-hours and billions of dollars working with the Pakistanis to find Bin Ladin. If this was the level of Pakistani assistance received in regard to Washington’s highest priority target, the United States cannot expect better assistance in the future regarding targets of less significance.
The war against al-Qa`ida is not over. Al-Qa`ida will move forward, plan future attacks and attempt to get revenge. In the face of this, the United States cannot afford to rely on the ISI and the Pakistani government. Bin Ladin’s death was the product of bold, decisive, unilateral action. Washington acquired the intelligence, put together the plan and executed it successfully. The Pakistanis played no role. In fact, in tacit recognition by the White House of the scope of the liaison problem, the Pakistanis were deliberately kept in the dark in the lead-up to the operation.
This is the future of counterterrorism, particularly in Pakistan. Liaison relationships serve an important purpose, but they are not a replacement to direct, unilateral action.
Charles S. Faddis is a retired Central Intelligence Agency operations officer and the former head of the CIA’s WMD terrorism unit. He spent 20 years as an operative in the Near East, South Asia and Europe and led the first CIA team into Iraq in advance of the 2003 invasion. He is the author of a recently released book on the CIA entitled Beyond Repair and the coauthor of a book on the actions of his team inside Iraq in 2002-2003, entitled Operation Hotel California. His latest book, Willful Neglect, is an examination of homeland security from an operator’s perspective and was released in 2010. He runs his own security consulting business, Orion Strategic Services, LLC.
 “Pakistan’s ISI Has Links with Haqqani Militants: U.S.,” Reuters, April 20, 2011.
 Jane Perlez, “Leak of C.I.A. Officer Name is Sign of Rift with Pakistan,” New York Times, May 9, 2011.