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US addressing intelligence gaps in Pakistan

May 19, 2010 15:24 IST

The US may re-look its human and technical intelligence apparatus in Pakistan following the attack on seven CIA officers in Khost and the failed New York bombing plot, writes security expert B Raman.

General James Jones, the national security adviser to US President Barack Obama, and Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, reached Pakistan on May 18 for talks with President Asif Ali  Zardari, Prime Miniater Yousef Raza Gilani, Army Chief General Asfaq Pervez Kayani and senior intelligence officials of Pakistan. They are also to hold discussions with US intelligence officials based in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While the visit has been projected by the Pakistani authorities as one of the periodic consultations on intelligence-sharing and liaison between the two countries, it is reliably learnt from Pakistani sources that the visit has been sparked by US concerns over serious gaps in intelligence coverage, which made possible a successful suicide bomber attack through a Jordanian double agent on a group of seven CIA officers based in the Khost area of Afghanistan on December 30, 2009, and the attempt by Faisal Shahzad, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, to bomb Times Square in New York on  May 1.

Shahzad had almost completed the task which he had been given by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan during training in the North Waziristan area. The Times Square plot fizzled out as the incendiary car bomb left by Shahzad malfunctioned and partly due to the alertness of a T-shirt vendor, who alerted a policeman after noticing smoke coming out of the car.

The TTP headed by Hakimullah Mehsud had been involved in the successful strike against the CIA officers in Khost and the failed attempt at Times Square. In both cases, US intelligence was badly caught napping.

Human intelligence has always been a weak point for the US despite the recent improvement which has made possible some successful Drone strikes on terrorist suspects in the two Waziristans, but the technical intelligence coverage of the US was of a high order.

It was better TECHINT coverage by the National Security Agency which led to the arrests of many Al Qaeda operatives in the Af-Pak region since the US forces went into action in Afghanistan in October 2001.

Both  HUMINT and TECHINT agencies of the US failed to detect the preparations of the TTP for the Khost attack and the Times Square attempt. According to Pakistani sources, the NSA failed to pick up any intercept even remotely connected to the two incidents. Shahzad had been frequently visiting Pakistan and was in Pakistan for about five months the last time he visited during which he underwent training and went back to the US to launch the attack.

Neither the HUMINT agencies nor the NSA picked up any piece of intelligence related to his being groomed by the TTP for the Times Square attack. The US immigration too failed to notice anything worrisome about his frequent travels to Pakistan despite his financial difficulties.

How to address these serious gaps in intelligence coverage? One way is by the US strengthening its intelligence presence in Pakistan for which a request is to be made to the Pakistani authorities by the visiting officials. They are unlikely to reject this request.

A more difficult proposition is to make the Pakistani intelligence agencies improve their intelligence coverage not only in the tribal belt, but also in Karachi and other cities. A nagging question without answer is whether the Pakistani intelligence had noticed the suspicious activities of Shahzad but refrained from alerting their US counterparts.

One could understand the poor intelligence coverage of the Pakistani agencies in North Waziristan, but their coverage ought to be better in Karachi, where Faisal initially met elements in the Jaish-e-Mohammad and took their help for going to the TTP camp in North Waziristan.

Jihadi elements in Karachi seem to have played an important role in assisting Shahzad in obtaining money for his attempted attack and in contacting the TTP just as jihadi elements of Karachi had played an important role in assisting Richard Reid, the thwarted shoe bomber in 2001. It was to identify the Karachi elements that Daniel Pearl, the journalist of the Wall Street Journal, went to Karachi in 2002 and paid with his life.

Under US prodding, the Pakistani government strengthened the intelligence collection role of the Intelligence Bureau under the Pakistani ministry of the interior, and restored the leadership role of the police officers in the IB. The IB does not have much of a capability in the tribal belt where one has to depend on the Inter-Services Intelligence, but one would have expected the IB's coverage to have been better in Karachi through the local police, but even the IB seems to have missed the contacts of Shahzad with JeM elements in Karachi before he went to Peshawar and from there to North Waziristan.

B Raman