Hunts, Hits and 'Humint'

Bin Laden's killing is a reminder to Israel's security services that in terms of intelligence, there's no substitute for human sources on the ground who can provide accurate, reliable information.

"We are determined to pummel the rest of Al-Qaida," John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, said this week. The elimination of Osama bin Laden, he added, should be the jumping-off point for destruction of the entire organization.

The highly hierarchical organization that bin Laden and his heir apparent, Ayman al-Zawahiri, initially gathered around them has long since disappeared. Instead, there is now a loose network of movements, spread across Asia and Africa, that draws its inspiration from bin Laden, but generally did not receive direct instructions from him. These movements are still capable of perpetrating showcase attacks - certainly against Western targets in the Middle East or eastern Asia. At the same time, the desire to carry out such attacks in the United States or in Europe (which remained a key target as far as bin Laden was concerned, as opposed to some of his aides ) has not been realized in the past few years. The motivation for revenge will increase now, but if Al-Qaida had been capable of launching a grandiose plot in the past year or two, it probably would have done so.

Abbottabad - New York Times
New York Times

"The West is continuing its normal life," says Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen (res. ) Lior Lotan, an expert in counterterrorism. "The Olympic Games have been going ahead as scheduled. Extremist Sunni terrorism is killing mainly Muslims in failed Arab states."

The dictatorial regimes that have collapsed recently were not brought down by murderous acts of terror such as those supported by bin Laden, but rather by broad popular protests, in which the level of violence by participants was relatively low.

"We have reduced Palestinian terrorism to a tolerable level, from the state's point of view," the outgoing head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, said on Wednesday. In other words, the strategic impact of terrorism has been greatly diminished. Perhaps the United States also believes this, though the strict security checks that are carried out in American airports (even before the level of alert was raised because of the bin Laden killing ) would seem to show that it is not yet acknowledging this.

As far as Jerusalem is concerned, President Barack Obama's decision to assassinate Osama bin Laden constitutes a declared, if delayed, acknowledgment on the part of the Americans of the Israeli argument that targeted attacks on senior members of organizations are a necessary modus operandi in the struggle against terrorism. According to former director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. (res. ) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, bin Laden's assassination reflects the administration's understanding that it is impossible to separate the leader from the operational stratum below him.

The way the operation was carried out in Pakistan also carries significant implications for the objective of deterrence - not only in terms of the meticulous collection of intelligence and the impressive performance by the forces involved, but also with regard to the decision to dispatch a ground force and not carry out a remote-controlled aerial attack. The "close-up" assassination deprived the terrorist organizations, from Hamas to Al-Qaida, of the ability to claim that the West is cowardly and afraid to endanger its people in face-to-face combat. The methods used also helped avoid the killing of noncombatants and, of course, made it possible for the administration to ascertain that bin Laden had indeed been killed, though there will always be those who claim it was an American trick. The United States, for its part, is exempt from at least one Israeli concern: No one is about to send Obama and his officers to The Hague.

The human factor

The New York Times reported this week that last July, Pakistani agents working for the CIA spotted the car of bin Laden's courier, the so-called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and followed it to the Abbottabad compound in which the terrorist leader was killed. It is hard to believe that surveillance of the compound and of the courier was carried out solely by Pakistani agents: It can be said with a high level of certainty that American CIA agents were also active on the ground before the assassination: handlers of agents, security guards (such as Raymond Davis, who was arrested in February by the Pakistani authorities after he shot to death two robbers ) and members of the Special Forces.

Beyond the military training of soldiers in the U.S. elite units, these are agents who have learned how to dress like Pakistanis, behave like them and speak the local languages, Pashto and Urdu. In Israel such undercover agents have been known as mistaravim; they pose as Arabs to infiltrate Arab communities. The character of the operation launched by the U.S. forces undoubtedly differs from that of Israel's undercover men in the West Bank or Gaza, but the general principle is the same: Melt into the local population without being exposed.

The agents spent many hours outside the compound in Abbottabad, watched the cars that entered and left, installed sophisticated wiretapping equipment and maybe even assisted the Navy SEALs in the proximity of the target. The exact number of Americans who are operating on Pakistani soil is unknown. Despite protests by Islamabad, this activity has gained momentum since Obama entered office.

There are no grounds for the claims made by some media outlets in Israel that the president is taking undue credit for the success of the manhunt, which was launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush. It was in fact Obama who effected a strategic change, no less, upon taking power, in the activities of American forces in Central Asia and the Middle East. That change also helped in obtaining the intelligence that led to bin Laden's elimination.

The president took a risky gamble (which ultimately paid off ) in deciding to authorize the assassination operation despite advance information to the effect that there was only "60 percent certainty" that bin Laden was present in the compound. It was also Obama who decided to cut back the number of American troops in Iraq ahead of a total withdrawal - a move that enabled him to concentrate a greater effort in Afghanistan, to which he dispatched another 30,000 troops more than a year ago. Simultaneously, Obama authorized a large number of "red line-crossing" operations inside the territory of U.S. ally Pakistan, something the Bush administration generally shied away from.

In December 2009, Obama announced a new policy: "After consultations with our allies, I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan and the extremist safe havens in Pakistan." Since then, U.S. forces in Pakistan have conducted hundreds of operations: bombings from the air, raids by ground troops and intelligence operations.

In a conversation this week with Haaretz, Brian Katulis, a national-security expert specializing in Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Center for American Progress - which is considered very close to the present administration - estimates that Al-Qaida has lost between 750 and 1,000 of its activists in this region alone.

"On April 13, less than a month ago, a senior Al-Qaida operative, Abu Hassan al-Najdi, was assassinated in an air attack in eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden's assassination is only another element in a larger campaign. It is likely to accelerate the fragmentation that Al-Qaida is undergoing in those countries. At present, in fact, the organization in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula represents a far more concrete danger than Al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It's to be hoped that the assassination will increase the cooperation of the government in Pakistan with the United States," Katulis said.

He also raises questions about Islamabad's mode of operation and about the reasons that led bin Laden to look for, and find, sanctuary in Pakistan. "We are talking about a vast country with a population of 170 million people. It's an easy place to move around in, and you can find quite a few support networks and places to hide behind walls. For example, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed [chief planner of the 9/11 attacks] was arrested in Karachi. We have to examine whether we still have an ally in Islamabad," noted Katulis.

Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser, told NBC, "Clearly there's some type of support network that provided [bin Laden] assistance" to hide in Pakistan. Islamabad, he added, will have to investigate whether the terrorist received help from within the regime. Still, Brennan did not directly accuse the regime in this regard and termed Pakistan "a strong counterterrorism partner."

The Americans made every effort to prevent the relevant information from leaking to their "strong partner," for fear that there might be those in Pakistan's intelligence services who would warn bin Laden to leave immediately. Washington's attitude toward Pakistan reflects sweeping mistrust at all levels.

Bin Laden's killing shows that in terms of intelligence, no substitute has yet been found for "humint" - the agents and the human sources who provide accurate, reliable information in places where satellites, electronic surveillance and wiretapping cannot always do the job. The American ground presence was highly significant in the case of bin Laden. This is apparently also the most difficult problem facing the Shin Bet security service in Gaza: After nearly five years, it has not been able to find the place where Gilad Shalit is being held.

Show time

By Wednesday at midday, the killing of bin Laden, the world's No. 1 wanted man for the past decade, had already disappeared from the headlines of the Arab satellite channels. The reason: the signing ceremony of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement and the continuing protests in Syria. Hundreds of jubilant Palestinians in Ramallah and Gaza were seen on television; even the official Palestinian Authority station resumed its broadcasting operations in the Gaza Strip after a period of four years.

The ceremony was delayed for about an hour-and-a-half because of what appeared to be a disagreement over seating arrangements. The dispute over the seats is only the trailer for the full-length movie.

In February 2007, the Mecca agreement was signed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal, under the auspices of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The agreement stipulated that a Palestinian unity government was to be formed, and this was in fact done within a month. But in June, just three months after the formation of the unity government under Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas fomented a violent revolution in Gaza.

On Wednesday it was again Meshal and Abu Mazen - this time without Mohammed Dahlan, who in 2007 was one of the key figures in the Fatah camp at the Mecca ceremony. Four years of schism may have had their effect: The fact that an independent figure is supposed to head the new government may smooth its transition to power. Still, the disagreements loom large. It's hard to see how the two sides will get through the 12 months until the scheduled elections.

If the disputes are to be resolved, each camp will have to show tremendous will. It's unlikely that either Fatah or Hamas can do that, however. Neither is eager to cede control in its areas, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But both of them, and Hamas in particular, understand that in order to calm their public they have to support Palestinian unity, at least for show.