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January 06, 2010


Great post. These days, AQ is "successful" not because they're much of a real threat, but because we perceive them to be.

Christ, we're flipping out over the underpants bomber and all I can keep thinking is that (according to news reports of which I'm highly skeptical) if AQ has spent all this time preparing for their next big attack and the best they can come up with is some disaffected kid who sets his bean bags on fire above Detroit, then we don't need to be tying ourselves in knots over them and expending tremendous resources to combat them. Every now and then they may get lucky and give us a bloody nose, but that's about it.

AQ is a major threat in so much that the public perceives them to be. They're surviving off the legacy of their "brand", if you will. In many ways, AQ is like John McCain: Not that important, but everybody still pays a ton of attention to them.

/end incoherent post...

David Ignatius was on NPR this morning; he had some rather uncomplimentary things to say about the CIA's role in this.

Basically he said they broke tradecraft by having the meeting on the base, and also broke tradecraft by not searching him.

I realize that this is perpendicular to your story, but a Randy Quaid line from Days of Thunder kind of comes to mind.


I'm reminded of when my wife, who used to work for a center/left think tank in DC, once headlined a blog 'Sarah Palin Bikini Pictures'--when the whole world was talking about those faked photos of Palin. My wife's point was about how women are presented in such a manner and so on.

She would get, normally, a couple of dozen hits a day. That day she got nearly 5000.

Got to love Google.


Your tired ass is still here. That's gotta count for something, right?

To paraphrase Ed Gruberman:

"Patience...how long does that take?

I want to blow people up now!"

And on a more serious note. Would the mindset of someone capable of collecting data from the inside for years be incompatable with the mindset of someone willing to blow themselves up?

This is a really good point that I hadn't thought about before. I wish this kind of thinking was presented a little bit more in the MSM, instead of Chris Matthews wetting his pants about some terrorist kung-fu master getting on board a flight.

Now I don't mean to downplay the deaths of the folks involved, but this guy could have fed us tons of damaging misinformation. Instead, he blew himself up. It suggests, though I suppose this shouldn't be surprising, that AQs operations are hidebound by their ideology. These guys are dangerous, but we shouldn't be terrified of them. We should be smarter, more flexible, and more adaptive then them.

Come to think of it, I am tired. Maybe another cup of coffee will do the trick.

Hey Slarti, I gotta a 3 month old. Quit yer complainin'

These guys are dangerous, but we shouldn't be terrified of them. We should be smarter, more flexible, and more adaptive then them.

Hear! Hear! Unfortunately, our overreaction is only proving that terrorism works spectacularly.

Afghanistan - 80% illiteracy. Iran 41% illiteracy. Pakistan 50% illiteracy. And so on. It is very hard to overestimate the existential threat that these people actually represent to America and the developed world.

The real question is why it takes the full might of the US military and billions and billions and billions of dollars to fight them?

Who is playing who in all this?

I think one of the differences is that information at the operational level is more verifiable today. Misinformation could send drones to the wrong town, or have us target the wrong people, but it would not take to many of those before the spy was no longer trusted. In order to be effective, Al Qaeada would have had to provide some real information consistently enough for the CIA to continue to bother with the spy.

Plus, there is a whole lot of value in striking back at the seemingly untouchable drones, and having the most deadly operation against the CIA ever, and exposing the Jordanian connection, and creating further mistrust by Americans for all the local and foreign allies that are working with us.

This post assumes that Balawi was capable of running a double game. If he clearly wasn't (because too unstable or not a good liar), then perhaps this was his highest and best use to al Qaeda. Attempting to shoehorn someone into a role they're not suitable for would just have resulted in him being captured and interrogated and possibly revealing intel on his al Qaeda handlers.

Hate to rain on the parade here, but maybe if Al-Qaeda felt safe expending a false-double in a (very effective) decapitation strike, maybe it's because they have others. (Very effective- I mean, c'mon, if AQ had a wish list of Americans in the Af-Pak theater that they wanted dead, the 7 killed, & 6 maimed were on it; at, or near the top.) In any case, we now have real cause to doubt our other doubles, if we have any. And you persist in calling these people stupid? Face it, they won this one, big-time.


He kept his secret until the 1980's

I thought Pujol was the inspiration for Our Man in Havana.

While I agree with the jist of what you've written here, calling the lives of those CIA agents the equivalent of "a couple of boxes of printer paper" at Microsoft is in pretty poor taste, I think.

Great post Bob; loved reading the GARBO comparison.

Hope to read a lot more of you in the posts to come.

Hey Slarti, I gotta a 3 month old. Quit yer complainin'

I feel smugly superior. We completely bypassed the newborn phase.

But, hey, I'm making the adjustment between New Orleans time and local time. And I'm not just talking time zones.

You still win, though.

calling the lives of those CIA agents the equivalent of "a couple of boxes of printer paper" at Microsoft is in pretty poor taste, I think.

But he didn't actually do that.

I agree AlQaeda's not a major threat except to the extent the GOP can use it to further its agenda. However, I disagree they're as incompetent as you claim.

I think you're framing the "war on terra" as being similar to conventional wars where intelligence can provide one force with an advantage over a foe capable of at least occasionally going toe-to-toe.

AQ cannot. Moreover, it's not AQ's strategy to do so. Their overriding goal is to provoke final conflict between Islam and the West. Thus, many of its actions are designed not to gain military advantage but, instead, to provoke disproportionate responses in the hopes this will hasten the beginning of a greater conflict. To do this, they attack civilian targets, symbolic targets and targets desined to aid recruitment to the cause.

As I'm sure you're aware, the CIA in the ME represents both a symbolic target and a recruitment aid.

@ChrisC--I am sorry if you thought I meant that; I did not. I have a large number of friends in the Agency and in DOD, who have lost and continue to lose collegues. I can rattle off the names of a number of people I've shared a beer with and had to bury at Arlington.

The comparison is about, from AQ's perspective, planting an agent just to have him blow himself up. It was, from an intel person's view, a gigantic waste of time, resources and opportunity.

@Jadegold--I have to disagree. I think that AQ could have done a LOT more damage by keeping an agent on the inside capable of passing information (both false and truthful) to the Americans.

For example--you want to infuriate Moslems? Have an American drone strike take out a group of pre-schoolers in Pakistan, along with a "suspected AQ leader" that you don't mind losing. Or to hit a NATO outpost "by mistake." Just imagine if the Americans hit a mosque filled with worshippers on a Friday.

Or just have the Americans target your enemies for you.

A lot more damaging than blowing up a few Americans once, and letting them know that you are trying to slip agents in.

The more I read about this, the more I'm starting to believe the bomber did it on his own and AQ is trying to spin it.

@Bob: Right, I didn't mean to imply that you were intentionally glib about the deaths, but it does feel a bit off, tone-wise.

I mean, it sounds like you're saying that the CIA feels the loss of those members as much as Microsoft would feel the loss of a couple boxes of printer paper. Which is obviously wrong, and I can see how people would find it offensive, even if it's not at all what you meant.

Do you really believe we select targets on the basis of one person's intelligence? Especially, when that person is a foreign national? I think we've blown up enough wedding parties and members of the "coalition of the willing" to realize this isn't a good idea.

Again, this serves AQ well. It strikes a blow against a favorite ME boogeyman, the CIA--not to mention putting a serious crimp in further attempts to recruit local informants.

Do you really believe we select targets on the basis of one person's intelligence? Especially, when that person is a foreign national?


We believed Saddam had battlefield ready chemical weapons based solely off the word of an Iraqi cab driver. If memory serves me properly (and someone, please correct me if I'm wrong), we sent a whole mess of troops to get Al-Zarqawi based on the information of one informant we flipped.

Happens all the time...

...not to mention putting a serious crimp in further attempts to recruit local informants.

Or at least doing so while bringing them on base without a search.

"These guys...are idiots."

Al Qaeda's objectives are, for the most part, unachievable. My guess is that the group doesn't do serious strategic planning because it doesn't want to confront this. If that's the case, they aren't complete idiots. Instead, they engage in a selective, self-imposed idiocy in their strategic planning.

Fraud Guy:

"So, what, like an hour or so?"

I love that track! And I use that "patience" quote all the time.

[/boot to the head]


I think you mean "very hard to underestimate."

I agree that they're idiots. One reason I was shocked by 9/11 was that al-Qaeda's first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center had a Keystone Kops kind of incompetence. It appears that the 9/11 attack was an exception to their rule.

a guy pulls off being a TRIPLE agent, got the nerve to bluff a torture apparat like the Jordanians, and sets off a bomb while at a SIT DOWN inside a CIABlackwater base, wiping out decades of knowledge as well as the CIABlackwater assassination program braintrust.
and you equate him with the underpants bomber?
I usually can detect satire......

I just wonder if we know for sure the CIA guys hadn't discerned that he was a double agent, and he knew that. It seems that might account for such a radical action. There are any number of scenarios that wouldn't be obvious to us that might make AQ seem much less stupid.

We had an important operation devoted to targeting and killing Al Qaeda members.This guy killed them all. Just like we killed all the guys behind 9/11. Seriously, he drove a serious wedge between American and Jordanian intelligence and demonstrated Al Qaeda's ability to hit us hard, just where we think we're safe, as well as eliminating the most experienced members of the Predator team. Sounds like a pretty good day's work to me

Jeremy Scahill says "They say al-Balawi (the Khost CIA bomber) provided intel for drone strikes vs. al Qaeda. I'm sure it was real accurate."

Hey Bob... It's Dan (yes, that Dan)... good post.. call me at work, love to catch up.

Hey Dan, (yes that Dan), you do not have permission to comment on my blog. Next time I see you, you'll pay ;)

Give em hell Bob.

Eric, don't be so hard on Dan. Do you have any idea how hard it is for him to get up, go to work at 10, have a 1 hour coffee break, a three hour lunch, a "meeting" for 10 minutes, then go home at 4?

Dedicated civil servant that man. :)

[bites tongue, clenches keyboard]

I'll leave him alone...for now.

Eric... Bob is mistaking me for an overpaid contractor... speaking of, since he left our office, my shoes have lost their shine.

OK, could somebody fill the rest of us in here -- who the heck is Dan?

He was a triathlete back in the early '90s, wasn't he?


Dan's one of my closest friends - and unknown to me, he used to let Bob shine his shoes in the office space they shared.

I could tell you more, but then he'd have to kill me. And you.

You got it right Eric but I don't like to get my hands dirty, which explains the aversion to shoe shining... Bob on the other hand, is a man to be feared.

Ah -- many thanks.

While I agree with the jist of what you've written here, calling the lives of those CIA agents the equivalent of "a couple of boxes of printer paper" at Microsoft is in pretty poor taste, I think.

I don't know about poor taste, but it's an inapt analogy. I work in IT, and I was expecting that analogy to end with something to the effect of "and deleted everything they could get access to".

Or for people who are so literal they can't bear to compare anything involving human lives to anything nonhuman, assume your mole at MS bombed his office, killed 6-7 people. You might very well get some senior architects and cause a setback, but in the end it's just a futile gesture.

@Catsy--That is a much better analogy; I wish I'd thought of it.

Another possibility:

So why did al-Balawi, a seemingly trusted agent, switch sides? The Jordanian intelligence sources who spoke to TIME speculate that al-Balawi had become enraged at the Americans for killing a high number of civilians in their hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. And al-Balawi, who felt partly responsible for these deaths because of his role in pointing out the targeted villages in which al-Qaeda militants had been hiding, may have been consumed by guilt. "It's very possible that he decided to take revenge for the death of these Muslim civilians," says a senior Jordanian official.

KCinDC: I just finished reading that story. I hope there's further investigation into that.

If the broad outlines of that report are true then the CIA's negligence makes more sense. Assuming he had given them correct information in the past they had some reason to trust him.

That explanation, however, is -- in some ways -- the inverse of Bob Mackey's 1:30PM post yesterday. In other ways, it fits well viz. the hypothesis that the bomber made his own decision to blow himself up vs. and AQ plan.

You are assuming his goal or mission was to spy on the Americans- but I have read that the number one desire of AQ in Pakistan was to stop drone attacks- and that this base was the regional targeting center for drone attacks.
So if their goal was to incapacitate the american drone targeting center, I would say he succeeded.

Al Qaeda has no need for the standard sort of intelligence information. Who's a spy and who isn't, the plans for the next drone attacks or even good info on the military spooks running around Pakistan. In other words important tactical information that could lead to larger strategic victories.

Al Qaeda isn't going to defeat anyone. It's a sort of phantom organization that has extremely limited operational ability in any traditional military sense.

From the story about how he gave them solid info about suspected Al Qaeda affiliated people to prove his worth it does seem that they did 'run' Balawi in a traditional sense but that doesn't mean they wanted to use him that way. You know, take his reports back to Al Qaeda HQ so Osama and his experts could do all that stuff intelligence people do. Read the tea leaves and build scenarios. For what? The invasion of America? No, all they wanted was what they got. A headline. Balawi wasn't the worlds oddest double agent. He was an unusual suicide bomber.

The boxes of printer paper is a bad analogy, since it is so bad I don't think it even offends anyone.

The problem with us is that we want to analyze things from our world view. These people don't work under our logic system, the way they act seems irrational to us but they clearly know what are they doing. They succeeded. 7 well trained agents are not that easy to find, a crazy man that doesn't care about anything, in that land can be picked easily.

Al Qaeda has succeeded fantastically well if you consider how few of them there are, how little money and what pedestrian technology they have and the selection pool from which they recruit.
a bailing wire & duct tape operation takes on the most technological/economically advanced nation in the history of the world and not only causes the abandonment of some of it's most fundamental values but also causes it to become almost obsessed with it's own safety. Al Quaeda has significantly damaged the economy of the US, divided us politically and caused the people of a significant number of nations to lose respect for us.

Al Queda is winning.

Rachel Maddow nailed it yesterday: We're still fighting on Al-Queda's terms.


Awesom0: Great post. These days, AQ is "successful" not because they're much of a real threat, but because we perceive them to be.

Not to mention, this worthless halfwit Abdulmutallab was supposed to ignite a bomb, right? Yet after the first pitiful failure (that moron Richard Reid, who managed to blow up exactly nothing) it still didn't occur to any of these Islamic-fundamentalist geniuses to test their ignition technique prior to sending their fool on the airplane, to see if it would, like, actually ignite anything. The happy outcome was another failure.

And just today I read about some other Islamic-fundamentalist geniuses in Karachi who managed to blow up their own safe house. (http://sify.com/news/blast-kills-eight-insurgents-at-pakistan-militant-safe-house-news-international-kbit4cdigah.html)

Keep it up, you dumb pigs. May all of our enemies be so very, very stupid.

Has it occured to anyone that just because this guy blew himself up it doesn't mean that there are not others? If one person can become so trusted so easily couldn't that mean their whole network of informants is compromised?

Shhhhh! Don't tell Al Qaeda what they're doing wrong!!

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