‘Actionable’ Intelligence

One of the things common about Pakistan and US has been brought to the surface by the 9/11 Commission, countries fighting the modern version of terrorism need to have far better quality of intelligence than available at present, this must be shared quickly and effectively with the units actually fighting on the ground. The prime requirement of today’s war against terrorism is timely “actionable” intelligence. The accountability inherent in any democracy means that the US is doing something about it, public hearings by a bi-partisan blue-ribboned panel has exposed the in-built weaknesses of the entire US intelligence apparatus. While the creation of a new “Homeland Security” Department have resulted in extensive reforms of the entire intelligence system and the observations of the Commission have force-multiplied these reforms, this process may well take several years. The major finding of the Commission was that while there was a proliferation of sporadic intelligence reports, “actionable” intelligence was not available in real-time. Moreover the intelligence reports crucially lacked the projected date, place and method of attack, the process of the jigsaw puzzle were spread over too many departments which were unwilling to share information due to inefficiency, ineptitude or simply inter-departmental jealousy.

One can gather intelligence on an enemy’s capabilities in any number of ways, but determining the enemy’s intentions is extremely difficult. This was made more difficult for the US when under the mandate given by US President Carter, CIA Boss Admiral Stansfield Turner virtually dismantled the “human intelligence” assets of the CIA in favour of electronic intelligence. To an extent the ISI suffered a similar fate in losing a whole lot of the field operatives once the first “Afghan cleansing” was done in 1993-94 in the wake of the US threatening to put Pakistan on the list of “terrorist nations”. Penetrating an enemy organization to ascertain the enemy’s capabilities and intention requires human intelligence (“humint”), electronic intelligence can kick open the door, you need boots on the ground to go through that door. Only “humint” can discover not only what the enemy can do but what he plans to do, and find out the where and the when. The US has discovered this weakness at grievous cost, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Contrary to universal perception, the ISI was virtually without any intelligence assets in Afghanistan pre and post 9/11. This has put tremendous pressure on the intelligence community to deliver “actionable” intelligence, leading to atrocities like Abu Ghraib. People generally assume that intelligence is like a jigsaw puzzle and it is not possible to act till the last piece of the puzzle is in place. It is an extremely dangerous assumption to equate “actionable intelligence” with “complete intelligence”, the US has paid dearly for it through the 9/11 attacks.

Overhauling/re-organization will mean improved intelligence to cope with the new demands, requiring the recruiting and training of more agents who are capable of penetrating terrorist groups, having more analysts to interpret the information collected on a daily basis, and ensuring that the processed intelligence is immediately and completely shared among those who need it on the frontline of the “war against terrorism”. Some of this was seen to good effect in 1994-95 when the Intelligence Bureau (IB) under Maj (Retd) Masood Sharif penetrated the militants in Karachi to devastating effect. What is stopping the government from using his services again? During wartime, and we are at war, the country needs to use its best available talent and resources irrespective of political leaning and beliefs. Intelligence must be available to the leaders in quality more than quantity for quick decision-making, it being understood that absolutely perfect intelligence may not be attainable. Improved intelligence gathering, analysis and sharing thereof is even then unlikely to give the detailed picture required, the agencies will certainly have to perform far better than they have done till date.

The only time a terrorist attack can be prevented is in the planning stage, this could be over in a few days or even extend to several years. Once the planning is done a different group will be involved in carrying out the attack and it would be difficult to recognize the people because they may not be of the same group that did the planning. During the planning stage, there is need for terrorist managers for logistics management, to designate personnel, weapons and equipment, to acquire transportation and to conduct reconnaissance, and organize the move of men and material, to put in place escape routes, communications, manpower and equipment, etc and all this without attracting attention of the law enforcement agencies (LEAs). The intelligence apparatus of the State has to work overtime with a positive mindset to search out indicators and leads during this “vulnerable” period. It may seem personnel are easy to hide, nothing is more difficult, the only period that the terrorists are really susceptible to interdiction is during the planning stage.

Recent incidents need to be enquired into and studied in some detail, viz (1) the two assassination attempts on the President in Rawalpindi (2) the murder of MMA notable Mufti Shamzai in Karachi (3) the attempted assassination of the Commander 5 Corps in Karachi and (4) the murder of PPP leader Munawar Suharwardi in Karachi. While the assassination attempts on the President was clearly Al-Qaeda, the Karachi incidents seemed to be crude attempts to put the blame on Al-Qaeda. If Al-Qaeda is sophisticated as they are advertised to be they would be stupid to attempt anything in Karachi, this happens to their primary conduit for logistics and at one time served (and maybe still serves) as a major base for their “safe houses”. After any incident in Karachi, the law enforcement agencies (LEAs) invariably manage to discover one or two Al-Qaeda safe houses and some their operatives were killed/captured for the crimes of others. Why should they invite attention? It is true that Karachi has sectarian violence and has had its fair share of ethnic trouble, however, to jump to the Al-Qaeda conclusion every time is not correct. Certain militant religious organizations are engaged in “copycat” atrocities to attract notoriety, e.g. suicide bombings in the mosques. While there is no “smoking gun” evidence that Al-Qaeda are behind the incidents, one must not detract from the Al-Qaeda threat. Intelligence agencies must function with an open mind without pre-conceived notions, political hits will always attempt to shift blame to sectarian or Al-Qaeda violence to avoid feeling the heat of subsequent investigations.

The actual participants of the attempted hit on the Corps Commander have been rounded up, they must be squeezed for a wealth of information, the agencies have to shun Marquess of Queensbury rules, too many lives are at stake, too much is at stake for the city of Karachi. After all, the participants had to have motivation from someone and somewhere, a lot must have gone into planning and logistics. All these require funds, funds have to be transferred by some means. Every Police Station in the country has good information on people who live in their area, strangers moving into any locality excite immediate attention. The terrorists have to engage in some activity in pursuing their objectives, to show their heads above the “grass”, how long will they lie low? Only by quickly bringing in specialist agencies that have the experience and expertise will this intelligence become “actionable”, it then depends upon the agencies how well to exploit this “actionable intelligence” to ensure that terrorists do not go beyond the planning stage of their intended operations.

Analysts make their best estimates, the leaders must use these estimates for quick decision-making in the circumstances availing. Intelligence is an art not a science, not even an inexact one. Under adverse circumstances the making of sound decisions requires both courageous leadership and excellent judgment. The dictionary meaning of judgment is “arriving at a decision or conclusion on the basis of indications and probabilities when the facts are not clearly ascertained”. One can only ensure that leaders take correct decision if the intelligence agencies make definite improvements in the quality of “actionable” intelligence.