Imagine the odds of a scoop like this appearing in WaPo smack dab in the middle of the White House’s debate over whether to pursue counterinsurgency in Afghanistan or counterterrorism in Pakistan. Who, oh who, could be responsible?
Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective — destroying al-Qaeda — can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.
The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain’s overseas counterterrorism operations.
Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaeda.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization.”
The real scoop here is that this isn’t a scoop. If you follow the news about U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan even casually, as we do at HA, you know that something unusual’s been going on over the past 18 months. Check out the graph Bill Roggio put together over the summer, then scroll down and examine the dates on which most of the big jihadi fish were caught. Virtually all of them are from January 2008 or later, and Roggio’s list doesn’t even include now-liquidated Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was iced in August. Part of this can be explained by a command decision to simply use drones more often — the more bullets you fire, the more targets you’re likely to hit — but the U.S. isn’t in the habit of firing haphazardly in Pakistan given the concerns about a popular backlash, which can only mean that something dramatic has changed on the ground in terms of intelligence. In fact, here’s something I wrote all the way back in February:
The pace is remarkably consistent: Every two months or so for fully a year now, one of the AQ illuminati has gotten a ticket to meet Allah. Something profound’s happened to our intel capabilities over there but I can only marvel at what it might be. More informants, sure, but how many and how close are they to the top? The more big fish we kill, the more paranoid AQ must be, yet somehow they still haven’t caught whoever it is that’s ratting them out. A French analyst told the LA Times as far back as last May that he suspected the U.S. is using better technology too, a point the NPR story supports in touting the advantages of the new Reaper drones over Predators. And yet … it seems like there’s something bigger going on.
I guess now we know what that “something bigger” is. Given all the above, I have no objection to intel agents leaking to WaPo that we have spies in place — surely AQ has figured that out by now — and frankly, I wish they’d do more of it as psyops to sow paranoia among the jihadist elite about turncoats in their midst. There are, reportedly, rifts inside Al Qaeda that a shrewd strategist could exploit. (Imagine if the U.S. decided to target a single faction inside the group for, say, six months; that faction would inevitably suspect that the other faction was ratting them out and the odds of an AQ civil war would skyrocket.) Let’s start exploitin’.