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How ISIS Evades the CIA

The inability of the United States government to anticipate the ISIS offensive that has succeeded in taking control of a large part of Iraq is already being referred to [1] as an “intelligence failure.” To be sure, Washington has unparalleled technical capabilities to track money movements and to obtain information from the airwaves. It is adept at employing surveillance drones and other highly classified intrusive electronic methods, but there is an inherent problem with that kind of information collection: knowing how the process works in even the most general way can make it relatively easy to counter by an opponent who can go low tech.

Terrorists now know that using cell phones is dangerous, that transferring money using commercial accounts can be detected, that moving around when a drone is overhead can be fatal, and that communicating by computer is likely to be intercepted and exposed even when encrypted. So they rely on couriers to communicate and move money while also avoiding the use of the vulnerable technologies whenever they can, sometimes using public phones and computers only when they are many miles away from their operational locations, and changing addresses, SIM cards, and telephone numbers frequently to confuse the monitoring.

Technical intelligence has another limitation: while it is excellent on picking up bits and pieces and using sophisticated computers to work through the bulk collection of chatter, it is largely unable to learn the intentions of terrorist groups and leaders. To do that you need spies, ideally someone who is placed in the inner circle of an organization and who is therefore privy to decision making.

Since 9/11 U.S. intelligence has had a poor record in recruiting agents to run inside terrorist organizations—or even less toxic groups that are similarly structured—in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Information collected relating to the internal workings of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, dissident Sunni groups in Iraq, and now ISIS has been, to say the least, disappointing. To be fair this is often because security concerns limit the ability [2] of American case officers to operate in areas that are considered too dangerous, which is generally speaking where the terrorist targets are actually located. Also, hostile groups frequently run their operations through franchise arrangements where much of the decision making is both local and funded without large cash transfers from a central organization, making the activity hard to detect.

In the case of ISIS, even the number of its adherents is something of a guesstimate [3], though a figure of 5,000 fighters might not be too far off the mark. Those supporters are likely a mixed bag, some motivated to various degrees by the ISIS core agenda to destroy the Syrian and Iraqi governments in order to introduce Sharia law and recreate the Caliphate, while others might well be along for the ride. Some clearly are psychological outsiders who are driven by the prospect of being on a winning team. They are in any event normally scattered over a large geographical area and divided into cells that have little in the way of lateral connection. They would, however, be responsive to operational demands made by the leadership, headed by Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Moving in small groups while lacking a huge baggage train or infrastructure, it was relatively easy to concentrate to push into Iraq and link up with dissident Sunni tribesmen without necessarily coming to the attention of spies in the sky, American drones flying out of Turkey.

It should be assumed that the U.S. intelligence community has no spies inside ISIS at any level where it might be possible to collect significant or actionable information. In the past, successful penetration of a terrorist organization has come about when a dissident member of the group surfaces and volunteers his services in return for money or other considerations. This is how law enforcement and intelligence agencies broke the Euro terrorists who were active in the 1970s and 1980s, but its success depended on the radical groups being composed largely of middle-class students who were ideologically driven but by nature not necessarily loyal to a political cause or its leaders. The defector model does not appear to have been repeated successfully recently with the demographically quite different radical groups active in Syria, at least not at a level where actionable intelligence might be produced.

Lacking a volunteer, the alternative would be to run what is referred to as a seeding operation. Given U.S. intelligence’s probable limited physical access to any actual terrorist groups operating in Syria or Iraq any direct attempt to penetrate the organization through placing a source inside would be difficult in the extreme. Such efforts would most likely be dependent on the assistance of friendly intelligence services in Turkey or Jordan.

Both Turkey and Jordan have reported [4] that terrorists have entered their countries by concealing themselves in the large numbers of refugees that the conflict in Syria has produced, and both are concerned as they understand full well that groups like ISIS will be targeting them next. Some of the infiltrating adherents to radical groups have certainly been identified and detained by the respective intelligence services of those two countries, and undoubtedly efforts have been made to “turn” some of those in custody to send them back into Syria (and more recently Iraq) to report on what is taking place. Depending on what arrangements might have been made to coordinate the operations, the “take” might well be shared with the United States and other friendly governments.


But seeding is very much hit or miss, as someone who has been out of the loop of his organization might have difficulty working his way back in. He will almost certainly be regarded with some suspicion by his peers and would be searched and watched after his return, meaning that he could not take back with him any sophisticated communications devices no matter how cleverly they are concealed. This would make communicating any information obtained back to one’s case officers in Jordan or Turkey difficult or even impossible.

All of the above is meant to suggest that intelligence agencies that were created to oppose and penetrate other nation-state adversaries are not necessarily well equipped to go after terrorists, particularly when those groups are ethnically cohesive or recruited through family and tribal vetting, and able to operate in a low-tech fashion to negate the advantages that advanced technologies provide. Claiming intelligence failure has a certain appeal given the $80 billion dollars that is spent annually to keep the government informed, but it must also be observed that it is also a convenient club for Republicans to use to beat on the president, which might indeed be the prime motivation.

The real problem for Washington is that penetrating second-generation terrorist groups such as those operating today is extremely difficult, and is not merely a matter of throwing more money and resources into the hopper, which has become the U.S. government response of choice when confronted by a problem. Success against terrorists will require working against them at their own level, down in the trenches where they recruit and train their cadres. It will necessitate a whole new way of thinking about the target and how to go after it, and will inevitably result in the deaths of many more American case officers as they will be exposed without elaborate security networks if they are doing their jobs the right way. It is quite likely that this is a price that the U.S. government will ultimately be unwilling to pay, and that unreasonable expectations from Congress will only result in more claims that there have been yet more intelligence failures.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "How ISIS Evades the CIA"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 23, 2014 @ 2:00 am

Nothing like the practical to shatter the imaginative.

#2 Comment By Thomas Sm On July 23, 2014 @ 7:19 am

ISIS effectively *IS* the CIA. The degree of support afforded such a group, even if they raise funds only from Arabs, is not possible without the consent of Western intelligence services. It is a proxy army to fight Assad, Maliki, and Iran. Note that despite the rash rush to attack Syria last year, the US is doing precisely squat to combat ISIS, raising preconditions of weakening or decapitating Maliki for American cooperation, while condemning Syrian-Iraqi collaboration against the mercenaries.

I understand Mr Giraldi spent a great deal of time in Turkey, but Turkish intelligence today also collaborates with terror groups operating in Syria. Turkey is more an Al-Nusrah Front supporter, and less ISIS, but still. Jordan came out very early in support of overthrowing Assad and reports have claimed a number of fighters were trained in Northern Jordan (which cannot be without their consent).

The link posted in the article as proof the Turks and Jordanians are worried about terrorist infiltration is incredible! It claims Iran is behind ISIS!?! Maybe Iran also faked the Davutoglu tape from a few months ago? Maybe ‘Zaman’ will claim Iran funds the Turkish (secularist Atatürkist) opposition? I am surprised Mr Giraldi posted such bile.

It may well be that the professional side of our intelligence agencies cannot penetrate “second-generation terrorist groups”, but excluded from the conversation here is the obvious collaboration of Western allies in the region with ISIS as a bulwark against their enemies and the apparent consent of the West with this plan. So, some wing of the State is involved.

#3 Comment By J Harlan On July 23, 2014 @ 10:29 am

Everyone should read “Legacy of Ashes” by Tim Weiner. In my opinion the US (from 1947) would have been better off without the CIA.

Petraeus’ push for more para-military action was 100% in the wrong direction. The US has a military quite capable of killing people. It needs, and has never had, a decent intelligence organization.

Weiner’s “Enemies” is also an interesting history of FBI intelligence activities.

#4 Comment By Ed K On July 23, 2014 @ 11:10 am

ISIS and all Islamist terrorist are British inventions that started in the late 19th century and still in operation today. They are used by MI6 and CIA to achieve their goals. Anyone who reads and has researched the issue knows that, I am surprised that Mr. Philip Giraldi is not in the know. If ISIS is an independent entity, it will fighting the Israelis and helping the people of Gaza?

#5 Comment By Philip Giraldi On July 23, 2014 @ 11:30 am

Thomas Sm – Western intelligence agencies might well be culpable in that they inadvertently aided the rise of groups like ISIS (acting under orders from the White House), but to suggest that they consented to the development or had some plan to benefit from it is a bit of a stretch.

My citation from Zaman (Gulen owned) was only to report the observations of the local governor on ISIS infiltration along the border, which I consider to be credible. I do not endorse the rest of the article. author’s innuendo.

#6 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On July 23, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

One way to win against ISIS is to let them succeed. That is, give them time to sufficiently alienate the locals. There will be no end of volunteers against them when that happens. It would be helpful to cultivate some genuine Sunni organization with deep religious/tribal differences with the ISIS loonies. Just let them know that we share their distaste for ISIS on a practical basis and have no intention of turning them against fellow muslims in general, just a desire to see off ISIS.

I think there is no greater disincentive to help us in the ME than our “friendship.” We need to find groups with limited short term goals with whom to ally. Everyone in the ME knows what happens to our “Friends.”

Instead of wringing our hands over home-grown terrorists returning to attack us, we should take advantage of the phenomena by planting our own volunteers in ISIS’s midst. This will be difficult but not impossible. The upside would be the sowing of deep distrust against these western volunteers. Perhaps ISIS internal security would liquidate these characters before they can return. Even if no valuable intelligence were gained, getting our enemies to fight among themselves is a good thing.

#7 Comment By richard young On July 24, 2014 @ 1:27 am

The author inexplicably ignores the fact that ISIS and Al Nusra and other Al Qaeda affiliates have been operating openly in Syria for the past two years and have been notoriously occupying specific villages, towns and cities throughout Iraq. I have read numerous main-stream media reports of interviews with local informants and even with officials in ISIS and Al Nusra, making no attempt to hide the identity or exact location of these self-declared Al Qaeda affiliates. In these circumstances, there is no need to infiltrate such openly operating terrorist forces in order to launch drone strikes or other military attacks on them. That our US Government has failed to attack these notorious and precisely located Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria for the past two years evidences a US Government policy choice of effectively giving those terrorist groups a “safe haven” so long as they help our Government achieve a shared “regime change” goal in Syria, not an inability to attack such terrorist groups for lack of sufficient information to target and strike them.

#8 Comment By Mike Aston On July 24, 2014 @ 2:43 am

Al Ciada was funded and trained by the CIA. ISIL was funded and trained by Al Cida and ISIL was taken over by a US asset who turned and was released from US captivity in exchange.

It was NOT inadvertently, but the training and funding was done on purpose! You just have to dig a little deeper and see the connections. Most ISIL tactics were taught to them by US advisors and not Iraqi/soviet tactics. In fact bander bush was released from his previous job to just take over the new job of overseeing ISIL. Maybe the US directly has no control over ISIL but it sure has control over the people who do and a drone strike can easily take out that control and financing if they want. ISIL which is now even self funding! Cant get any better than this.

#9 Comment By Macroman On July 24, 2014 @ 7:56 am

Mr. Giraldi, There are suspicions that al bagdadi was funded and set up by CIA. Your thoughts?

#10 Comment By Chris Travers On July 24, 2014 @ 8:25 am

One of the things that perpetually comes up in real security fields (not DHS 😉 ) is the information paradox. There is a naive assumption that if some information is good, more information is better. However, this is not the case. The problem is that increasing the volume of information decreases the chance that you will see what you are looking for.

The US security response seems to be operating under counterproductive assumptions, that more information is better. The Snowden situation showed how poorly equipped the NSA was to find a whistleblower who left the country. The one thing Americans can take comfort in, is that the quantity of information gathered is so large as to be nearly useless for actual surveillance but too incriminating for the NSA for it to ever be really used in law enforcement.

#11 Comment By Richard Steven Hack On July 24, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

There is no such thing as “security”. One of the corollaries of that is that no terrorist group is secure. There are ways to find them, infiltrate them, surveil them and take them down, regardless of whether they are ethnically cohesive or operating in dangerous areas.

There is no question Osama bin Laden could have been found MUCH sooner than he was (assuming that official story is even true at all.)

If the CIA isn’t competent to use those known methods, then perhaps the US needs to replace the CIA with other means. I suspect this is why the Pentagon wants its own intelligence agency. They are more used to doing “combat intelligence” in ways that are applicable to war-torn areas like Iraq than the CIA is.

And with $80 billion for intelligence efforts, surely bribery can be more effective than it is. I don’t care how religious or committed some terrorist is, big money is big money. Bribe them! Bribe their families! Family will turn you in faster than anyone. 🙂

#12 Comment By Philip Giraldi On July 24, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

Macroman – Stranger things have happened. Someone may have thought that encouraging the radicals to split by funding a fringe element might produce a good result, i.e. a civil war within the civil war. The Israelis tried something like it when they supported Hamas against the PLO and look how that turned out – badly for everyone.

#13 Comment By Ahmed Fourati On July 24, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

One way to stop terrorism is stop participating in it, stop fostering it, stop creating it, stop financing it, stop training terrorists, stop instigating it…….you know now about who I am talking about.
The case Mr. Giraldi is discussing is a by- product terrorism or reactionary terrorism that comes as result of repression, dropping bombs on civilians (innocents, voiceless and defenceless).

#14 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On July 25, 2014 @ 2:26 am

Inquiring minds want to know, what was al Baghdadi’s real name before he naming himself after the Prophet’s uncle and first caliph’s. Was he really named Abu Bakr at birth? Hardly. Not that it would have been Benny Swartz or anything, but seriously, who was/is this guy? This might be the sort of basic intelligence lacking in our fight against primitive Muslim mischief.

#15 Comment By Thomas Sm On July 25, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

I think Israel helping Hamas get started turned out *great* for them!

Imagine, Israel vs. the PLO in the 70s, 80s: a near-even death ratio, European sympathy with the Palestinians to the point that real terrorists could hijack planes and land them in places like Italy with the PM’s (Craxi’s) endorsement. Now, they just ignore the PLO, allow Hamas to take Gaza, take their own people out, and blow it to Hell every couple years. Nobody wants to appear sympathetic to Hamas, even though in their actions they are ostensibly less terroristic (or at least less successful terrorists) than the PLO, much less than the PFLP/DFLP/PLF. They’ve brought suicide bombs to a trickle and blow some cruddy homemade rockets out of proportion. And everyone is afraid of Hamas because they appear on TV with big beards and kalashnikovs screaming ‘Allah’.

Sorry, I just have not been able to accept for a few years now the paleocon idea that all the great evils hitting us in foreign affairs are the result of incompetence and unforeseen consequences. Even if it could be an accident that they help themselves to a fair deal of abandoned US equipment (I know older veterans I have spoken with say they destroyed what they could not take with them when abandoning a base), is it an accident that ISIS is funded by ‘private sources’ in the Gulf, but *nobody* appears to have clear intelligence on *who* funds it and does nothing to stop it? But apparently we know exactly who hit MH17 and with what immediately after it is reported? Do you believe Prince Bandar, who thinks he can overthrow Assad, cannot figure out the provenance of ISIS funding and training? He is complicit, which means the US is complicit!

Mr Giraldi, you are well-aware of the ‘Deep State’ in Turkey, seemingly dismantled (but really replaced) under Erdogan. Can’t we accept there is something similar in the US? Even if the average intelligence agent has his own bureaucratic functions that follow official policy, other portions of the State carry out unofficial policies. For example, you surely do not deny tacit intelligence support for the Syrian rebels or at least the fact that the US almost went to war to support armed fighters who are mostly Gulf-funded and Turkish-supported Islamists, all the same, if your neighbour goes and fights in Syria, he is arrested as a terrorist upon return. The right hand does not follow the left hand, and since the crazies who would go to fight with Al-Nusrah Front are just dispensable and defenceless pawns, who cares?

I seem to remember you were in Italy at some point, what about Operation Gladio, for example? Surely, that involved a relatively small number of intelligence officials, not everyone operating in Italy.

If your point was simply that people working in the intell agencies do not enjoy helping ISIS and do not consent to some unofficial policy, then sure. Their individual feelings or ethical standards were not the point. The tacit ‘consent’ of the CIA in a plan to bolster Islamist groups does not mean the consent of analysts and field operatives but a deliberate blind-eye or wink-wink from the leadership towards the Khalijis with a plan in mind.

#16 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 25, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

Philip Giraldi’s prediction that attempts to gain actionable intelligence on groups like ISIS are doomed to failure – no matter how many billions of dollars are dumped on the project – makes sense.

This inability to penetrate and to gain intelligence on low-tech organizations like ISIS is one of the principal reasons why William Lind’s June 17th remarks at the American Conservative Foreign Policy forum conclusions command our attention:

“Four times in recent years the U.S. military…has come up against 4th generation (Philip Giraldi uses the term “2nd generation”), non-state forces – in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq – and four times they have defeated us.

“The measure of success in a 4th generation situation is that when we, or the other intervening great power leaves, we leave behind a real state. In none of these cases were we able to do that. The pretense that we left behind a real state in Iraq has just dissolved within the past week…

“The fact that our military and the militaries of other states (which are designed to fight other state militaries) cannot win against these non-state forces: This is a revolution. This is an enormous change and it changes virtually everything else…

“An interventionist foreign policy guarantees failure because you find yourself in a war with non-state forces and the non-state forces beat you.

“A pretty basic rule of foreign policy is that you probably don’t start wars you know you’re going to lose…It certainly does not meet the conservative test of prudence…”

The inability of intelligence services to penetrate and to gather actionable intelligence on non-state, 4th generation forces like ISIS is one of many reasons why failure in a war against 4th generation opponents is guaranteed.

#17 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 26, 2014 @ 1:41 am

The intelligence capabilities are most effective against naive, soft targets easily tracked – the American people.
So that is who they are used most against.

#18 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 26, 2014 @ 9:24 am

A small correction of Thomas O. Meehan’s post referring to Abu Bakr was “the Prophet’s uncle.” Actually Abu Bakr was the Prophet Mohammed’s father-in-law. Mohammed married Abu Bakr’s daughter ʿĀʾishah. (Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources.)

#19 Comment By Rossbach On July 26, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

Why does the US have to be involved with these people at all?

#20 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On July 28, 2014 @ 12:43 am

Kurt Gayle, thanks for the correction. I knew he was some sort of relative.

#21 Comment By NortonSmitty On July 29, 2014 @ 1:17 pm

If the CIA wants to know what kind of weapons ISIS has, maybe next time they should keep the receipts.

#22 Comment By Edgar On August 4, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

How ISIS Evades the CIA ?

Coming out of nowhere, pooping up like magic, with a name of operetta, ISIS, and already controlling much of northern Iraq and Syria.

What a success from an upstart nobody had ever heard about one year ago !

If it happened in California, we would call it Facebook or an Hollywood blockbuster!

Strange also to use the name of an ancient Egyptian goddess to name an extremely radical Islamic movement, don’t you think ?

The creators of ISIS must have seen too many Hollywood movies…

So how do the CIA keep evading Isis ?

#23 Comment By Luke Thomas On August 12, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

The US Government is too busy spying on Americans to worry about the likes of Islamists.

#24 Comment By Austin On September 23, 2014 @ 3:52 pm

We need to infiltrate isis and not with people that would be sniffed out because of their years of training, but people whom are smart enough to go behind the lines of these terrorist groups and can get the intelligence. try not using trained operatives but people who try to deceive their friends and family or perhaps some of the better con artists that we all know that our intelligence agencies keep on profile, or atleast to look out for. If we can get them to run a con per say on isis then we be able to get what we need to cripple them.

#25 Comment By Richard Wicks On December 1, 2017 @ 11:01 pm

I don’t see how ISIS isn’t funded and directly supported by the CIA.

Assad opposed them, the vast majority of Syrians opposed them, Russia opposed them, but only the United States seems unable to successfully attack them.

The United States is in Syria to hand over the Golan Heights to Israel and to deprive Russia of it’s military base in Syria. Israel has already sold the oil mining rights of the Golan Heights to Genie Energy and did this in 2013. Please look up who is on the strategic board of directors of Genie and it’s blatantly clear what the objective was.

Seriously. Look up who is on the strategic board of directors of Genie.

The United States has plenty of traitors in high office, and in the media for that matter. If *I* can figure this out, why can’t you? Your job as a journalist is to be informed – yet I’m more informed than 99.9% of “journalists”.

The American Conservative is better than this.