The Western intelligence community finds the al Qaeda terrorist organization harder to place spies into than the Kremlin, according to The Washington Post today.
The paper attributes al Qaeda's ability to resist espionage to its religious motivations, its internal security standards, and Western intelligence agencies' missteps.
Traditionally, U.S. intelligence in the Cold War used "cash for tips" to acquire moles and information, but this strategy failed as the religiosity of Islamist radicals made them less susceptible to bribes.
Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's Bin Laden Unit, explained:
... money and other traditional inducements are unlikely to persuade Islamist radicals to betray a religious cause to which they are fervently committed. While people operating on the fringes of al-Qaeda -- arms suppliers, narcotics dealers and rival extremists -- might be tempted, he said, the chances are remote with people higher up the chain of command.
"We're still kind of stuck in the Cold War approach to this," Scheuer said. "This is a much more difficult target than the Soviets were. These people are true believers. They're living according to their beliefs, not in the lap of luxury."
Another deficiency that made the problem all the more acute was that U.S. intelligence had few Arabic-speaking agents that could recruit and handle informants or spies or had enough knowledge of tribal affiliations and radical Islam to infiltrate the organization themselves.
Difficulties mounted after 9-11 as al Qaeda strengthened its security of top leadership and ensured anyone with access to leadership had been properly vetted through personal and tribal loyalties as well as background checks.
A former member of France's foreign spy agency told the Post another barrier to infiltrating al Qaeda has to do with the organization's use of new members. They are "highly disposable," he said; they are often the organization's suicide bombers.
When Western intelligence agencies have been successful in penetrating the organization, something has compromised their informant. This January, a Pakistani informant working for French intelligence infiltrated a terrorist training camp in his country, only to be pulled out because his identity had been compromised by Spanish prosecutors. Based off the informant's information, Spain arrested 14 men in Barcelona for allegedly conspiring to blow up subway stations across Europe. Because Spanish police did not recover bombs or evidence of the plot, the prosecutors had nothing to rely on but the informant's information and thus had to divulge him as its source.
The article says counterterrorism officials hold out hope that one day they will successfully place an agent inside al Qaeda. This optimism comes from the fact that al Qaeda needs new members to replenish its ranks and has shown a willingness to accept idiosyncratic recruits. One such member is Adam Gadahn. A 29-year old Californian of Jewish ancestry, Gadahn serves as a propaganda advisor to al Qaeda and is believed to have direct contact with Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second-in-command.
He presently finds himself under indictment for treason against the United States.