The inside story of how U.S. terrorist hunters are going after al Qaeda
America's high-tech eavesdropping gear has given the hunters a crucial edge. "We've been using a lot of the tools that we couldn't use when al Qaeda was hiding in the mountains," explains former National Security Agency staffer Matthew Aid, an expert on electronic eavesdropping. Only in rare cases can homing gear give a satellite or cellphone's exact location, Aid says. What it can do, though, is pinpoint the receiver's neighborhoods, giving on-the-ground security forces a place to focus. And al Qaeda's troops have foolishly cooperated. Three of its top people--KSM, Zubaydah, and Binalshibh--all were caught with satellite phones.
Before 9/11, eavesdropping on al Qaeda was America's single best source of intelligence on the group. But the CIA had few human sources to take the next step. "We couldn't corroborate it; we couldn't act on it," says an intelligence official. That has changed. Also, al Qaeda operatives are not the high-tech terrorists some imagine. Their computer files are rarely encrypted, and when they are, U.S. officials have broken the codes easily. Nor have they used encrypted telephones. Al Qaeda's "codes" consist of simple word substitutes or use of flowery Arabic phrases. "They continue to make basic tradecraft mistakes," says Aid, "and one of them is you never talk over the phone." That message has reached the top: Bin Laden no longer uses the phone.
Bin Laden remains the world's most wanted man. He is thought to be hiding in the tribal badlands along Pakistan's northwest border. U.S. counterterrorism officials remain confident that they eventually will find him. "Ninety-six percent of what we operationally need is in place," says Black. "You're just waiting for the dime to drop."
Black left the CIA in late 2002. He now directs the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. Like his old colleagues at the CIA, he remains wary, sobered by recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Al Qaeda, he says, remains a disturbingly lethal threat, with hundreds of operatives and would-be martyrs dispersed around the globe.
Al Qaeda 2.0. Borrowing a term from management theory, one counterterrorism veteran calls al Qaeda "a learning organization." It accumulates knowledge, develops new skills, and continually adapts to its environment. That, of course, is not good news. Peter Bergen, author of Holy War Inc., calls its latest incarnation al Qaeda 2.0, a more decentralized, more organic network of terrorism. The al Qaeda of 9/11--with its military training camps and millions of dollars--may in fact no longer exist, but in its place may be local cells that take on lives of their own. Instead of striving for catastrophic damage, they may concentrate on "soft" targets like the streets of Casablanca and the residences of Riyadh. And still, bin Laden's original creation may yet survive. Young jihadists could move into positions of leadership faster than America and its allies can track them down.
This much is clear: America waited too long to join the fray, and the battle is yet to be won. "I've never had a job where you can celebrate success, and you're still so paranoid at the end of the day," says a senior intelligence official. "I don't know if we'll ever be able to declare victory."