How to fool the CIA: Part One
One of the most audacious attempts to track and kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy commander of al-Qaeda, took place in 2009
[Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death on the last day of July 2022 brings to an end a career spent hoodwinking intelligence agencies like the CIA. This story recounts one of the most audacious attempts to track and eliminate Zawahiri.]
David versus Goliath
It’s the mid-2000s. You’re a well-educated, thirty-something extremist who is livid at the way America has made a dog’s breakfast of Afghanistan and then, as if one wasn’t enough, repeated the exact same sham in Iraq. The global terrorism scene is flourishing, but unfortunately for you, entering it is tricky. And you are a nobody.
If you rush to join one of the franchises active in the Middle East, you’ll be lucky if they give you a Kalashnikov — or an M-4, depending on how benevolent the CIA is towards the franchise at the moment — and let you become cannon fodder. Others find themselves relegated to cleaning toilets, hardly the source of glory that a young al-Qaeda sympathiser such as yourself covets.
What you need is a legend, something that sets you apart from the boy next door who is eager to murder, maim, and rape. And other such distractions. So please begin by writing articles on extremist message boards. Don’t forget to use a nom-de-plume, lest your own words come back to bite you prematurely.
It won’t serve for the local Mukhabarat or General Intelligence Directorate to smash your door and haul you off in chains before even a dozen people have read your work. And the nom-de-plume (or should it be guerre) must have meaning. Something like iStanBinLaden might not appeal to the targeted audience. Abu Dujana al-Khorasani works better.
Now that you have the basics, write about atrocities committed by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Share videos of Iraqi insurgent attacks on US troops. When al-Qaeda releases a statement, write a sympathetic analysis, explaining the nuances for other sympathisers who might not be as blessed by historical context or basic intelligence.
Be aggressive. Use biting sarcasm. And let your online persona slowly become the real you. Soon, your articles will attract a large readership. If it doesn’t, consider giving up. Or sign up to become cannon fodder.
Mukhabarat enters stage left
When you’ve attracted enough of a readership, and as the content you churn out skews more and more towards the radical, the Mukhabarat will pay attention. Don’t go out of your way to contact them; they’ll find you, and take you to a place colloquially known as the fingernail factory. For reasons that are best left to your imagination.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. Extremists, especially the ideological kind capable of writing article after article justifying the likes of al-Qaeda, for example, are usually known for holding out under enhanced interrogation for long durations. You shouldn’t bother with any of that tough guy nonsense, though. Break within a few hours. Cower after two-three slaps, and don’t let your interrogators even think of fingernails.
When they ask for details about your fellow extremist writers, unmask some of them. Preferably those who don’t reside in the same country. The appearance of willing cooperation is important here. Results can be litigated later.
Cooperation will confuse your interrogators, because they expect someone like you to put up more of a fight. And they’ll mark you as a weakling, a wuss. Someone not as committed to the extremist ideology as they had expected. After a few days, when they realise they’ve got everything they could out of you, they’ll let you go. Or eliminate you. But this is one roll of the dice you must risk.
If you survive the fingernail factory and make it out alive, someone from the Mukhabarat will keep tabs on you, even take you for the occasional cup of tea. They’re struggling to figure out what to do with you, grasping for a way to utilise you against the very ideals you are committed to. Because that’s their job, and they’re rather good at it, especially the Mukhabarat in your country.
Over the course of many such meetings, try to build a rapport with your Mukhabarat handler, and slowly — SLOWLY — make it appear as if you’ve completely changed your opinion about topics like al-Qaeda: what was once your ideal has now become something that disgusts you. Then, one day, suggest that you ought to be doing more than just writing or sipping tea
Go to Pakistan
Tell your Mukhabarat handler that you want to go to Pakistan.
Well, isn’t it the global epicentre of terrorism? Al-Qaeda’s entire leadership enjoys state hospitality there, and you want to go there to help gather intelligence about that same leadership.
Sounds reasonable, but why won’t the leadership just put a bullet through your head on day one? Why would they trust you? Tolerate you?
Because it so happens that you’re a doctor, a paediatrician, and they’re desperate for practitioners who can treat those fighters of theirs that get injured fighting Americans in Afghanistan. There’s a war going on there, remember?
Your Mukhabarat man will take the proposal to his bosses. Since they haven’t spent much, and don’t particularly give a flying fuck about you, they might just give you a few thousand dollars, arrange your visa, book you a flight ticket, and send you on your way.
What’s the worst that could happen, right?
Work for warlords
When you land in a Pakistani city from a reasonably affluent Arab country, it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock. But there’s nothing to be done about it. Adjust quickly, because the tribal areas where al-Qaeda hide are far worse.
Get in touch with the contacts you made on the message boards. Your nom-de-plume should help open doors. Use those references and make your way to the badlands bordering Afghanistan. Try to find work with one of the local warlords, preferably someone the Americans know exists.
Found one? Great. Who is it? Baitullah Mehsud? Shit! Should’ve picked someone less high profile, someone who wasn’t considered responsible by the Pakistan government for the assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister.
Mehsud has denied the charge, of course, but the Pakistanis don’t care, and neither do the Americans. And those chaps have got it in their heads that your new boss is building a dirty nuke. See those kites circling high overhead? Those are American drones. Try not to be next to Mehsud when one of them drops something. In the meantime, drop an email to your Mukhabarat handler informing him of your progress.
Meanwhile, tell Mehsud that you’re a double agent who is ostensibly working for the Americans through the Mukhabarat. But you don’t really believe their bullshit, and are 100% on the side of the extremists.
Mehsud believes you, but he wants to test your loyalty. So he tells you to tell your handler that Mehsud will be driving in a certain vehicle on a specified date in a particular location. Which you do. By email. Shockingly, one of Mehsud’s subordinates does drive that vehicle on that date to that location. And boom! He gets blown to bits. Mehsud is utterly convinced of your loyalty (and innocently claims that the driver volunteered, but conveniently, there are no witnesses).
That driver’s death doesn’t concern you much, though. Thanks to his sacrifice, you’re well established in Mehsud’s service now. Lady luck has been benevolent. But those damned birds, they keep circling like vultures. And one evening, as he’s getting a massage on a terrace from his newest wife, your warlord boss gets been cut in half — literally — by an AGM-114 Hellfire missile launched from a MQ-1 Predator drone.
Aren’t you lucky he didn’t ask you for that massage? But now comes the hard part: surviving the struggle for control of his militia. And the fact that none of his potential successors trust or like you is just the icing on the cake.
Go quiet for a few months and just try to survive.
Resurface a few weeks later, and send your handler an email with a video file attached. A few seconds in length, the blurry video shows a small gathering of men dressed in the traditional Pashtun way. They’re in a dimly lit room, listening to a man named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaeda’s strategic thinker and one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates.
The CIA have struggled for years to get an asset in proximity to the al-Qaeda leadership, so when the Mukhabarat shares this video with them, there’s much rejoicing. This no-name thirty-something doctor has somehow managed the impossible.
The video makes it all the way to Leon Panetta, Director of Central Intelligence, who is intrigued enough to ask about you. That’s when he and the rest of the CIA’s leadership find out that nobody in the CIA has even met you. Not exactly the sort of news to gladden a spymaster’s heart.
Meanwhile, you keep reporting the aftermath of American drone strikes to your handler, giving grisly details of terrorist deaths that, when corroborated by the CIA through drone videos, confirm that you have access to all those locations. To the CIA, it’s obvious that you’re being rushed to locations of drone strikes to provide medical aid to survivors.
Despite some reasonable doubts raised by the Mukhabarat, primarily based on the rapidity with which you shifted allegiances, your credibility with the Americans is now sky high. The phrase eating out of your hands comes to mind.
But that isn’t enough. So in November 2009, you write a bombshell of an email to your handler, telling him that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy commander of al-Qaeda and number two to Osama bin Laden, is now your patient. As proof, you include Zawahiri’s medical condition and medical history.
The Mukhabarat shares your report with the CIA. They corroborate Zawahiri’s medical history against medical records received from Egyptian intelligence, and conclude that you really have access to the second most wanted man in the world.
And the last part of your message — that you are due to meet Zawahiri a few weeks later for a follow-up — has the seventh floor of CIA headquarters salivating at the prospect of tracking and eliminating bin Laden’s deputy.
Continued in How to fool the CIA: Conclusion
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The Let Bhutto Eat Grass series deals with nuclear weapons espionage in 1970s India, Pakistan, and Europe.
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Oh, your dark sense of humour! Amazing research and unique style of writing..