Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Disbelieving the spy who came in from al-Qaeda

A story posted on the BBC today purports to be talking to an al Qaeda (AQ) mole called Aimen Dean handled by the British foreign intelligence agency MI6. The story is riveting and it's already gathering discussion across the internet.

But I’m not sure how much I believe his account. The last section of the interview was almost complete fiction in my estimation. Firstly, al-Zawahiri deciding to call off a potentially highly successful chemical attack on an isolated New York subway system because he was “afraid of the ramifications”? It's unbelievable in the extreme. 

Al Qaeda tried to do everything it could to attack Western targets, right down to encouraging grassroots-style strikes by incompetent armatures. 

If the group had a viable plan to strike New York again, there's absolutely no indication they would have hesitated. Mr Dean makes it appear that he foiled the plan, only to have it called off by al-Zawahiri at the last minute.

Secondly, why would AQ leaders trust a guy who was heading “back and forth” to the UK and Afghanistan? That’s a huge mistake in terrorist tradecraft. The whole problem in targeting AQ for Western intelligence was the group's high competence in conducting good terrorist tradecraft. The top operatives and leaders knew what they were doing, they knew how to conduct counterintelligence and they knew what to watch for. That’s why the group stayed hidden for so long. 

For a “close” member of AQ to be travelling between UK and Afghanistan almost at will - as Mr Dean wants us to believe - without being pulled up by intelligence would have set off alarm bells for AQ leadership. No one gets away with that, so why him? 

He just doesn’t fit the profile for any of his claimed “access”. This guy doesn’t even sound like he ever was a competent terrorist with any high training.  The skills needed for warfighting and terrorism are almost entirely different. Tradecraft training is rare and only given to the most loyal members, which he clearly wasn't.

And he says he gave up the militant job in his late teens after only a few years fighting in a war after he became “disillusioned”. That’s another reason AQ leaders wouldn’t have trusted him to look at their plans years later after he returned from the UK and Saudi Arabia. No one in high-level AQ positions shows doubt (and there weren’t many operatives in those positions). He would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

I suspect this guy was a low level wannabe jihadist with limited or infrequent access to top AQ members. The real question is why MI6 would release his name if he was at all important as a long term asset? 

Remember: if you're hearing or reading about a "black" intelligence operation in the media, then it's not black. You're simply reading well-placed public relations.

Either all the people who could kill him are dead (not true) and he’s safe from retaliation, or he’s embellishing his access, or this entire article is bogus. 

If MI6 had assets as a top level AQ agent acting as a mole throughout the 2000s, they would keep in place for as long as possible or hide his existence. That would be an enormous resource.

You don’t just throw that away. what would be the point in even letting AQ know that they had been penetrated like this? It makes no sense to blow his cover even after his access had worn off. Islamic State might be the preeminent militant organisation today, but AQ still pose a threat.

I think it’s smarter to view this article in the context of an environment of deeply negative intelligence stories over the past two years. In fact, almost all intelligence stories before and after Snowden have been about failures rather than successes. That's just the reality of Intelligence work. 

Intelligence agencies can’t discuss successes for obvious reasons so they need to find other ways of sending their positive message out, even if that means faking or embellishing a high-level penetration of one of the most closed terror organisations in history. 

Western intelligence has been disastrously blocked from penetrating AQ at pretty much every turn. That’s one of the reasons the group evaded destruction for so long. Now we’re expected to believe they had an asset in top position for more than a decade? Give me a break.

Because it gets worse. By my reading the timeline he wants us to believe places him as a spy inside AQ during the crucial planning years of 9/11 (1999-2001). 

If he had such incredible access to AQ plans - as he boasts later in the article - why didn’t he know about that plan? Or if he did know about the plan, why didn’t he share it with his handlers? Either way, it doesn't feel right.

Why didn’t the journalist ask about this obvious hole? That would have been a much more interesting question making a far better story. Mr Dean said he was part of AQ during after 7/7 as well. That’s two strikes against his “access”. 

Where was the high-level source material fed to MI6 on the London attack? He’s either a liar, insane or extremely incompetent. I hope it’s the latter. Although he does talk about how difficult it was to "rely entirely on your memory". It sounds like everything was in his mind. 

I believe this guy was at best a low level AQ operative, assuming he was part of AQ at all. He obviously thinks a lot of himself, but this whole thing stinks like a PR job from MI6. 

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