There is a phrase frequently used when terrorists give the spy grid a red herring: “a failure of the imagination”. This was said by agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after 9/11. British spies invoked the same on the following 7/7. In the aftermath of 11/26, the best cops in India offered this as an explanation. And in recent days, the Taliban’s rapid march on Kabul has also been described in this way. It seems that 20 years of war were conditioned by the inability of our security services to think like an insurgent.
Obviously, there is more to it. Insurgents are resourceful, and detecting their plots is incredibly difficult. But the trope gives an incomplete picture of how $ 8 trillion was spent in a war on terror, in which nearly a million people died, only to end up almost where we started. .
Take the Malaysian case, where on January 5, 2000, two 9/11 conspirators – Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi – joined an Al Qaeda planning meeting and, 10 days later, the CIA learned that they landed in Los Angeles. . Their names were not placed on a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) watch list, which allowed the agency’s long-term operations to continue, thus thwarting an easy collar for the Bureau.
Later, the George W Bush administration was not interested in intelligence shared by the CIA between April and August 2001, which identified Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as plotting against the United States. In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, as CIA leaders felt the heat, the rivalry between US agencies escalated, as the desire for revenge and redemption within Langley intensified . Spies began to push for harsh measures to circumvent the Geneva Conventions, transferring Al Qaeda suspects to black sites, where they were tortured, unraveling the rules-based system.
The bolder tendencies of the CIA played on the darkest compulsions of host countries such as Pakistan, where Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was no stranger to disappearances, extrajudicial killings, terror and to torture. They have also provided justifications to other states that have done the same, including India. Thailand hosted the CIA’s first enhanced interrogation experiment and continued to use brutal methods in a war against Muslims in the south of the country, before going after thousands of suspected methamphetamine users. This bloodbath was warmed up in the Philippines. And when information about the CIA’s black sites leaked, aid workers and journalists would be treated alike by Islamists.
The 7/7 attacks in London were imagined and partly planned. What the spies had struggled with were the links between the suspects under surveillance. These failures, combined with the CIA’s belief that a second wave of attacks was imminent, sparked the proliferation of spyware that could light up frontier spaces, chain contacts, scrape metadata, and light up disposable burner phones and satellite handsets, popular with bombers. . This technical intelligence (techint) capability and relentless research work would soon tear apart much of the al Qaeda leadership hiding in Pakistan and ultimately wipe out Osama bin Laden.
But before that, another hot spot lit in Iraq, where a bitter civil war between Sunnis and Shiites was sparked by the 2003 US invasion, after lawmakers presented falsified evidence on weapons of mass destruction. Saddam, ignoring CIA analysts who claimed Baghdad was not in cahoots with Al Qaeda. A second cluster of burners and satellite phones shone from Pakistan where an anti-West and anti-Indian amalgam was building up, emulsified by the US war in Afghanistan in full swing and soaring into nation-building.
Terror has proliferated because of these failed wars, the conduct of which has been distorted by politicians, with civilians now broadly targeted, many of these massacres perpetrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi whose infantry in Iraq merged with the Baathists to leave the foxholes for a terrorist state. The Caliphate has been penetrated by spies in the West and the Gulf and pushed back by American clients, especially the Kurds. However, an alarm was raised by Edward Snowden who showed us that another cost was that hyper-invasive collection methods shredded surveillance laws.
Due to technology, 11/26 was also partially anticipated by the US National Security Agency and the UK Government Communications Headquarters. However, one way or another, politics have once again clouded these ideas. Perhaps the United States was not persuasive enough or withheld critical details as some of its assets were back on the trail of the world’s most wanted man. Perhaps the Indian officers did not believe the warnings. Or the spirit of the abyss got in the way.
But subsequently, India invested in these invasive technologies, packages that made it easier to listen to smartphones, mail servers and social media feeds, spawning facial recognition systems that chained networks of CCTV cameras, in large cities and transport hubs. The oversight and legal framework remained fragile, as new laws were passed at breakneck speed that cracked down on streaming content and social media, while others redefined who was or was not a citizen. .
Brown and black people outside India were also at risk of losing their residency, as countries including Britain began revoking their nationality as punishment for joining Daesh. With CIA black sites forced to shut down after a corusing report by the Agency’s Inspector General, spies have gone from being jailers and interrogators to orchestrating mass death events, in the part of a burgeoning drone program backed by the Pakistani military and the Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington – a tactic that saved the lives of the U.S. military but killed the rural poor.
As Islamophobia gripped many countries, authoritarians and disruptors were elected from Budapest to New Delhi, as fear and chauvinism made civilians accept their shrinking freedom. What did these intrusive networks see? Not the presence of dormant armies of Muslim insurgents in India and the West. Instead, they focused on small groups of angry and broken individuals whose rage and instability, manipulated from a distance, were difficult to heal, while poverty and exclusion remained the norm. This version, which highlighted how desperately needed political solutions were, was a harder sell for politicians, even though the expensive intelligence grid couldn’t stop Pulwama or prevent the stabbing on London Bridge.
Donald Trump abandoned the Kurdish allies of the United States to Turkish security forces in 2019. Joe Biden deserted the Afghan National Army in 2021. However, the West and India did not foresee the rout of Kabul. Widespread and Professionalized Intelligence States like the UK, US and India would not recognize Kabul was a mirage, while in the provinces, governors and citizens choose the Taliban, not because they found the movement compelling, but because its power was visceral.
These are just a few of the disconnections. Even as the covert capabilities of spy agencies have exploded, the path to truth, as told by states, has become much more complex. Once upon a time there were spies who created order out of facts and rumors. Politicians have redesigned them, in line with strategic priorities. But then came September 11.
For two decades, politicians suppressed information that did not match their narrative. Then the spies began to select the product, before sharing it with the White House or the Prime Minister’s office. Bob Crowley, a colonel who served as the senior counterinsurgency adviser to US military commanders in Afghanistan, described the process as a “self-licking ice cream cone”, in which the data points were changed so lawmakers could see what they wanted.
After September 11, most things can be seen and heard by governments. However, understanding and telling us the truth is quite another matter.
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark are journalists and filmmakers. Their latest book is Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of RAW and ISI
Opinions expressed are personal
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