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For want of some OPSEC, a Jihad Lost

I predict that US and coalition forces will be out of Iraq much sooner than anyone expects. I base this prediction in part on the intelligence and military aftermath following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death; though not necessarily for the same reasons that other commentators have offered up.

Frankly, I think al-Qaida in Iraq is too stupid to succeed in even the mid-term much less survive any “long war.” The broader war against terrorism is still going to take a considerable amount of time, but as far as Iraq goes I’m prepared to bet that this is a one-act show and the curtain is closing.

Why do I say they are too dumb to win? Al-Qaida’s own words and actions reveal the depth and breadth of their knowledge about their primary enemy. They know that they cannot stand toe-to-toe with us in a straight-up fight, so they have to resort to terrorist tactics in order to have any kind of kinetic success. They know that we have reconnaissance satellites, remotely piloted drones and a host of other intelligence gathering methods and mechanisms, so they divide into cells and mingle with the population so as to camouflage their existence and activities.

They are also aware of our efforts to seize and exploit paper documents and computer equipment, yet they insist on producing reams of incriminating paper and gigabytes of damning digital evidence. This from people who can apparently memorize an entire religious tome, often in a language that is not their own. They take the time to devise code words for bombs and weapons that are trivial to decode; strong encryption software that can keep an NSA supercomputer busy for weeks is cheap if not free but apparently they refuse to use it.

This is in part why current and former intelligence officers like me get so upset about unauthorized disclosures to the press about sensitive and on-going intelligence programs. The common refrain from the First-Amendment-now-and-at-all-costs crowd is that terrorists are too smart to use the phone, send email, or conduct some kind of activity that can be picked up by our intelligence services. Yet with every new terrorist captured – golden nuggets compared to the Zarqawi gold mine – we find that they are not all that smart after all; their notebooks and cell phones reveal all their important contacts, their computers expose their deepest thoughts and most sensitive plans.

Some have raised the issue of authenticity. To the best of my knowledge no one in al-Qaida writes fiction for a living, which means that it is unlikely that captured media is not authentic. If you have a global Jihad to run you cannot easily juggle between real documents and those clever fakes designed to fool US intelligence without forgetting which is which. Revelations mined from seized notebooks or computers may not be the whole truth because no one individual may be aware of the big picture, but if you are the man in charge, what you commit to paper or keyboard is likely to be as comprehensive a set of data as can be hand without our developing the ability to read minds.

Operational and technical security can be somewhat onerous, but even a few extra minutes of precaution can mean all the difference in the world. Had Zarqawi bothered to encrypt his laptop and thumb drive we wouldn’t be hearing about 500+ raids and 100+ terrorists killed so quickly after his death. The digital media would have been sent off to Washington DC to disappear into the bowels of a cryptographic torture chamber. In the mean time everyone in the al-Qaida in Iraq food chain would have scattered, become more wary and much harder to hunt down. In this scenario the death of Zarqawi would have indeed been a shot in the arm to al-Qaida because as far as the terrorists would have been concerned he died without selling them out; a stand-up guy who would not rat out his brothers. Yet because he couldn’t be bothered to perform the most basic and prudent security measures, Zarqawi sings louder and faster in death than he ever would have if captured alive.

We can only hope that al-Qaida keeps recruiting potential martyrs because the day they start bringing in people who want to live to see their precious Caliphate become reality is the day we are going to be in real trouble.

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.