Why US forces can’t crack Al-Qaeda

NEW YORK, 7 December 2002 — The Americans take them shackled and hooded onto transport aircraft to Kandahar. They live in pens of eight or ten men. They are given cots with blankets but no privacy. They are forced to urinate and defecate publicly because the Americans want to watch their prisoners at all times.

But United States forces have not only failed to hunt down Osama Bin Laden while they are preparing for war in Iraq: they are finding it almost impossible to crack the Al-Qaeda network because Bin Laden’s men have resorted to primitive methods of communication that cut individual members of Al-Qaeda off from all information.

This extraordinary, grim scenario comes from an American intelligence officer just back from Afghanistan who agreed to talk to the Independent — and to supply his own photographs of prisoners — on condition of anonymity. His prognoses were chilling and totally at variance with the upbeat briefings of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Even in Pakistan, he says, middle-ranking Pakistani army officers are tipping off members of Al-Qaeda to avoid American-organized raids.

“We didn’t catch whom we were supposed to catch,” the officer told me. “There was an overexpectation by us that technology could do more than it did. Al-Qaeda are very smart. They basically found out how we track them. They realized that if they communicated electronically, our Rangers would swoop on them. So they started using couriers to hand-carry notes on paper or to repeat messages from their memory and this confused our system. Our intelligence is high-tech — they went back to primitive methods that the Americans cannot adapt to.”

According to the American officer, there were originally “a lot of high-profile arrests”. But the Al-Qaeda cells didn’t know what other members were doing. “They were very adaptive and became much more decentralized. We caught a couple of really high-profile, serious Al-Qaeda leaders but they couldn’t tell us what specific operations were going to take place. They would know that something big was being planned but they would have no idea what it was.”

The officer, who spent at least six months in Afghanistan this year, was scathing in his denunciation of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord implicated in the suffocation of up to a thousand Taleban prisoners in container trucks. “Dostum” is totally culpable and the US believes he’s guilty but he’s ‘our guy’ and so we won’t say so.” Dostum uses Turkish military intelligence men as bodyguards. “There was concern in the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) that the Turks who run it would create ethnic problems — which is one reason the Turkish Army does not share their Kabul ISAF compounds with other ISAF troops. But one of the things we failed to do was create a real government. We let the warlords firmly entrench themselves and now they can’t be dislodged. They are the government now.”

According to the same officer, American security agents in Karachi were looking for the murderers of US journalist Daniel Pearl but there, as in many other cases, they would find their arrest “targets” had fled because of secret support within middle ranks of the Pakistani army. “We would go with the Pakistanis to a location but there would be no one there because once the middle level of the Pakistani military knew of our plans, they would leak the information. In the Northwest Frontier Province, the frontier corps is a second-rate army — they are a lot more anti-Western in sentiment than the main Pakistani Army. In the end we had to coordinate everything through Islamabad.”

As for the hundreds of prisoners taken in Afghanistan, the American officer insisted that none were beaten “now” although he claimed ignorance about earlier evidence that soldiers based in Kandahar had broken the bones of captives after their initial arrest. “Only prisoners who were likely to be violent or uncooperative are hooded and their hands are tied behinds their backs with plastic restraint bands. Sometimes we would take the hoods off prisoners when they were traveling in our helicopters, at other times not. In Kandahar, in what we call their living areas, the prisoners are given cots with blankets and Adidas suits and runners but they have no privacy. There are no sides to their living areas because we have to see them all the time. They have no privacy in the bathroom.

“When the interrogations take place, the prisoners are allowed to sit. I don’t want to get into specifics about the questions we ask them. There was noncooperation at the beginning. But they had a misconception that they were going to be treated the way they treated each other. When they are not tortured I think this has a lot to do with changing their opinion.”

But the Americans were even short of translators. “We recruited Farsi-speakers who can speak the local version of Persian in Afghanistan, Dari. They would be civilians hired in the US. But they had to go through full security procedures and out of every five, only one or two would be given security clearance.”

The American officer also had a low opinion of the Western journalists he met at Bagram. “They were easy for us. They just hung around our base all day. Whenever we had some special operation, we’d offer the journalists some facility to go on patrol with our Special Forces and off they’d go — you know, ‘we’re on patrol with the special forces’ — and they wouldn’t realize we were stringing them along to get them out of the way.” (The Independent)

Robert Fisk

Middle East correspondent for London’s Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media