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Al-Qaida Infiltration 'Important' But 'Not Unheard Of'


For more on the Yemen bomb plot and what it tells us about U.S. intelligence operations, we're joined by Philip Mudd, former deputy at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. He's now a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation here in Washington. He joins us in studio.

Thanks for coming in.

PHILIP MUDD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, this plot was disrupted using a British-Saudi national who had infiltrated the al-Qaida network. Can you give us a sense of how difficult this is? What has to come together in order to make this happen, to get that level of infiltration?

MUDD: I would say at this level, at the level that he was infiltrating, this is extremely difficult for a few reasons. First, you've got to find somebody who's in essence a friend of the organization. You can't insert somebody cold. The second is you've got to deal with the organization's counterintelligence apparatus. In my experience in watching al-Qaida is that they are not only vigilant but brutal in dealing with penetrations of the organization.

That said, I should comment that it's not as unheard of, as the media has been suggesting over the past week or so. You remember the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed operation years ago, the biggest player in al-Qaida before bin Laden. He was taken down by a human source. You also remember how significant human sources were in building a picture or a pattern of life, if you will, around bin Laden. So those are just a couple of examples to say this is interesting, it's important, it is not unheard of.

MARTIN: After 9/11, the intelligence community was admittedly kind of caught flat-footed. What has been the effort over the last 10 years to develop this kind of human intelligence, especially as we see the new import given to drones - remote technology - that do so much of the intelligence gathering now?

MUDD: I think to suggest that technology can replace human sources, even in the 21st century, is a radical misunderstanding of how the intelligence business works. Look, you can get a lot of technical information about a human being. If you look at your daily life - you go to the ATM, you get on a cell phone, you get on email - you're leaving what we call digital exhaust or a digital footprint that even contrasted to 10 years ago is significantly larger. But it's missing a couple of things.

The first thing it's missing is dealing with an organization that understands some of our technical capabilities, they're not going to leave that kind of digital exhaust. And second, human beings can get inside people's minds in ways that technology can't. It can discern intent. They can sense the tone in a room, whether someone's joking, whether they're serious. So technology has been critical in this war but what you have is sort of a group of pieces of intelligence - technical intelligence, intelligence from sister services and human intelligence, and none of those can be discounted.

MARTIN: What about our collaboration with partners? I mean, this man was a dual national from the U.K. and Saudi Arabia. Is the kind of cooperation that we saw in this example illustrative of the larger trend or was this really specific to this case?

MUDD: No, this is quite common. There is a sort of network of security services worldwide that have common interests. They're not always interested in doing the right thing. There's a very simple calculus here. When you're in a security service, whether you're in the Middle East, South East Asia, Britain, any place, and you're facing imminent threat to your own citizens, the likelihood that you're going to look at that threat - and in this case, against a global adversary, an adversary you can't touch with your own assets alone - you're going to go to sister services and say look, I need help.

MARTIN: What now - how do the U.S. and its allies make the most of this particular moment? I mean, they've disrupted this plot, but the bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is still at large. What happens after something like this?

MUDD: Well, I think obviously you're looking at tactical information to say is there anything that we can work on out of the operation that helps us do a takedown within the coming days or weeks. The other thing I'd say is this is not a moment in time. Terrorist organizations are fabrics. If you think of a piece of fabric, you take out threads. Not one thread. Not two. If you take out a big thread and wait another six months they'll reform the fabric. It is consistent operations that take out the threads so fast and with such viciousness that the organization can't replace them fast enough and the fabric frays.

The message on the inside I'm sure is going to be let's go. Let's go. Let's go. And that's over the course of 10 years of taking people out so fast that the shark's teeth can't replace themselves.

MARTIN: Philip Mudd is a former intelligence official. He's now with The New America Foundation here in Washington, D.C. He joined us in our Washington studios.

Thanks very much for coming in, Philip.

MUDD: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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