Intelligence officials charged with safeguarding the United States from terrorists surely must dream about having an informant within the inner circle of the al-Qaeda network. Omar Nasiri lived that dream. In the mid-1990s, he infiltrated the al-Qaeda network, training at camps in Afghanistan and shuttling communiqués to radical clerics in Europe, all the while passing on information to British, French, and German intelligence operatives. Nasiri (a pseudonym) has since changed careers, and recently wrote a book, Inside the Jihad, offering an account of his escapades as a double agent (Salon). Naturally, Nasiri’s account faces questions over its accuracy, but Michael Scheuer, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) unit that tracked Osama bin Laden, told the New York Times, “I've never seen anything from that period that was so complete and rang so true.”
The publication of Nasiri’s book comes at a time when the U.S. intelligence community faces criticism for a shortage of employees with a true understanding of the enemy. The Weekly Standard suggests some of the prewar intelligence failures in Iraq could easily have been mitigated if the CIA had cultivated informants within either Iraq or al-Qaeda. Certainly if U.S. officials had read Nasiri’s account in 2003 they would have avoided one mistake (WashPost): Nasiri trained in counter-interrogation tactics with Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a man who was later captured and interrogated by Americans to whom he fed false information about support from Saddam Hussein. Al-Libi’s misinformation was subsequently used by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell as he made the case for invading Iraq at the United Nations.
CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon tells CFR.org “Human intelligence is immensely valuable,” but something for which the United States has little “organic capacity” when investigating terrorism. Underscoring the value of such resources is the story of how British intelligence managed to undermine (Atlantic) the Irish Republican Army through an intricate network of double agents.
Retired Admiral James A. Lyons hopes the appointment of Robert Gates as defense secretary will result (WashTimes) in “a dramatic increase of our HUMINT penetration capabilities.” He isn’t the only person advocating improved human intelligence: Calls even come from within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The problem, says Mark Ewing, a senior DNI official, is “We haven’t got the right kind of people” (USNews). Like Nasiri, the right people may often have checkered pasts or come from countries where the seeds of Islamic fundamentalism have flourished. They are the kind of people who would almost certainly be denied security clearance by any U.S. intelligence agency. Retired CIA agent-turned author Robert Baer argues in Foreign Policy that the U.S. intelligence community should develop a new kind of limited clearance and then begin to “recruit on the dark side.”
Of course, relying on agents with questionable backgrounds exposes agencies to a degree of risk. Indeed, it was disaffection with his British handlers (CNN) that led Nasiri to write his book.