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Experts Ask: How Strong Is Al-Qaida?

January 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The first in a series about the evolving nature of al-Qaida, Margaret Warner speaks with a former CIA staffer about the terror group's influence.
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MARGARET WARNER: Luis Rueda spent 28 years in the CIA, mostly as an agent and station chief in the field, including in the Middle East and South Asia. His last assignment was deputy director for counterintelligence at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, where he dealt with double agent operations and tradecraft security. He retired on January 1, on the heels of the foiled Christmas Day airliner plot and the deadly double agent attack on a remote CIA outpost in Afghanistan.

I spoke to him earlier today at his home on Capitol Hill.

Luis Rueda, thank you for being with us.

LUIS RUEDA: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: Osama bin Laden, or a voice saying he was Osama bin Laden, this weekend hailed the Christmas Day bomb attempt, the same attack that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has already taken credit for.

Now, one, do you believe this is Osama bin Laden, but, more importantly, what — if so, what does it is say about how al-Qaida is operating today?

LUIS RUEDA: It’s always hard to identify whether it is him or not. But, as far as we know, there has never been a false Osama bin Laden tape. So, the odds are that it probably is him.

I think what it tells us about al-Qaida is that we are now facing a more decentralized, flexible organization. Al-Qaida central will take claim. He will take credit for certain things. It does not really mean that they had daily command-and-control, planned the operation, or executed it.

It is probably likely that it did originate in Yemen, but the fact that al-Qaida provides a moral and political center for all these groups allows them to take credit for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if we then add the Jordanian double agent suicide bombing in which seven CIA officers, your former colleagues, were killed, what does that tell us about al-Qaida’s capabilities today?

LUIS RUEDA: I think it tells us the same thing. These types of double agent operations tend to be fairly sophisticated. It requires a good degree of planning and mental execution.

It shows us that the adversary is growing in its own sophistication, running different types of operations. And, as we hit them in certain areas, as we neutralize their capability, they shift to other things.

MARGARET WARNER: The fact that they were running a counterintelligence operation against the U.S., I mean, is this new for them?

LUIS RUEDA: When al-Qaida started out its terrorist activities, their intelligence operations tended to be tactical collection operation, collecting on a target, trying to find out timings and how to attack a target.

These types of double agent operations are a level above that. And what we are seeing now is a growing sophistication, at least in the intelligence realm of the enemy. It also shows, I think, that we are, as a government and as an agency, having an impact on them, because it is forcing them to strike at what they perceive as some of their main enemies.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, have they tried this sort of thing before, sending a false agent or volunteer?

LUIS RUEDA: We have always seen a degree of bad cases, cases that have been sent against us. Hard to tell whether it was bad from the beginning, when they volunteered, or they turned bad. We see the sophistication.

But this, I think, is on a level a little bit above that, where there was a very clear plan to take action against that facility. So, I think this is probably a little bit more serious.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Bruce Riedel, who is also a former CIA officer, said — late last week, he said, “Once you discover the enemy is running counterintelligence against you, you have to ask, how many of our other assets aren’t who we think they are?”

Do you think that is a danger?

LUIS RUEDA: That is always a danger. And I think it is a danger that the agency is very well aware of. It does spend a lot of time reviewing the cases, vetting the cases, validating the cases.

And I can guarantee you they are doing that right now, reviewing all the cases to see who is good and who is bad, what the signs are. The problem is, we’re engaged in a war. And at no time in anybody’s history have you won every single battle against an adversary. Every now and then, they will win one. They will get one through.

We can’t guarantee 100 percent security. We understand that. That is the risk we take.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if you take these two recent attacks, if you take other things they have been doing this past year, do you think al-Qaida is stronger or weaker than it was five years ago?

LUIS RUEDA: I think it is — again, it’s one of these things that it is not a clear-cut answer, and it is one of the unsatisfying answers.

But, clearly, al-Qaida is weaker in its command-and-control and sophisticated operations, the types we saw on 9/11, the types we saw where they tried to bomb five airliners coming in from Great Britain. They have been weakened in that area.

But they have also adapted and grown in sophistication in things like counterintelligence and intelligence operations. You can see that the biggest threat right now is within Afghanistan. They are feeling the pain. They are feeling the hurt. They are trying to survive.

The Christmas bombing, while dangerous, also shows that, you know, one half-assed operation can cause significant damage. But it was an operation that demonstrated a lack of expertise and professionalism that we had become accustomed to with al-Qaida. So, I — the answer is both.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how good are we?

LUIS RUEDA: I think we’re — I mean, again, I want to be — it’s going to look like I’m biased, but I think we’re very good at meeting the threats, identifying what the threats are going to be, and countering them.

The issue is, it is a race against time, so to speak, in that the adversary shifts and changes, and we tend to catch up very quickly. We should be in a position where we can anticipate what those changes are before they get there, such as identifying which of the next tier of countries al-Qaida is going to try to establish a presence. We know Yemen is a problem.

We should be looking at Mauritania. We should be looking at Mali. Are those areas where they are going to be going? Al-Qaida tends to shift to countries where there is a degree of chaos, where there is a degree of instability, where they can slide in with limited control. So, we need to be anticipating that.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying that the tradecraft in the U.S., as it is known in the intelligence agencies, is good, but it is still not adapting fast enough?

LUIS RUEDA: I think the tradecraft is very good for what we are doing, but it needs to adapt quickly. I…

MARGARET WARNER: And is it?

LUIS RUEDA: I think it is, but, at times, it’s like — like most things. At times, we adapt very quickly, and we put it into place. And, at certain times, the adversary may have changed their tradecraft themselves. And, so, we have got to match it.

It’s like a ping-pong match.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do we have a handle on this evolution, how al-Qaida is adapting? Are we adapting to meet it?

LUIS RUEDA: Sometimes, we are, but, unfortunately, sometimes, we are not.

Al-Qaida is much more decentralized and much more sophisticated. We at times become very fixated on certain issues, like getting Osama bin Laden. That is an important part of it, but it tends to be more of a justice issue, of a revenge issue, and dealing a moral blow or a blow to the morale of the enemy. But is not the end-all, be-all. It’s not going to solve our problem.

We are faced with a global counterinsurgency, and we have got to deal with it on that level with a host of tools, not just intelligence and military, important as they are, but social, economic, information, et cetera.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, at times, we are too focused on getting other top leaders?

LUIS RUEDA: I think we do. We…

MARGARET WARNER: Or is that actually very useful?

LUIS RUEDA: It is useful, but, at times, it becomes the end-all, be-all. It’s almost as if we want to declare victory if we get one individual, two individuals, three individuals. That is not going to give us victory.

It is important how we define victory. And, for me, that is creating stability and in areas where these people can’t thrive and grow. If you are fighting a counterinsurgency, you have to deny the population to the enemy. And that becomes the most important part, not just securing the population, but denying their support and goodwill.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you describe it almost like a cancer that then sprouts up, takes root in other areas?

LUIS RUEDA: It is like a cancer.

MARGARET WARNER: So, where is another area we are not paying enough attention to?

LUIS RUEDA: It is hard say if we’re not — I mean, it’s hard to anticipate. I could see Sub-Saharan Africa becoming a problem. We do pay attention, but it becomes a resource issue.

The intelligence community, at least, doesn’t have the resources to hit everything with the full strength it needs to. We are clearly heavily committed into Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are now becoming heavily committed into Yemen. You can see commitment into Somalia, but there is a point where the system begins to say, we just don’t have enough resources.

And part of the solution to the problem is devoting enough resources to the end.

MARGARET WARNER: You are saying that, right now, al-Qaida really still has the momentum.

LUIS RUEDA: Al-Qaida is developing momentum. You can see it coming. They were on the defensive for the longest time. They have used the time to survive and to begin to recuperate.

The threat of al-Qaida in Yemen is growing. The chaos in Somalia is significant, and it’s still a problem. So, they are using this and they are starting to develop the momentum. I am not ready to say that they have the initiative yet, but, if we don’t stop them, they will.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how many years do you think we’re going to be at this?

LUIS RUEDA: Well, unfortunately, unless there’s a dramatic change, at least 10 or 15 years, maybe more. This is not a problem that is won easily. It is not an enemy that is defeated easily. It’s not meeting armies on a field of battle and crushing them. This has become a social movement. That’s a problem. Movements are difficult to defeat.

MARGARET WARNER: Luis Rueda, thank you.

LUIS RUEDA: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: Luis Rueda spent 28 years in the CIA, mostly as an agent and station chief in the field, including in the Middle East and South Asia. His last assignment was deputy director for counterintelligence at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, where he dealt with double agent operations and tradecraft security. He retired on January 1, on the heels of the foiled Christmas Day airliner plot and the deadly double agent attack on a remote CIA outpost in Afghanistan.

I spoke to him earlier today at his home on Capitol Hill.

Luis Rueda, thank you for being with us.

LUIS RUEDA: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: Osama bin Laden, or a voice saying he was Osama bin Laden, this weekend hailed the Christmas Day bomb attempt, the same attack that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has already taken credit for.

Now, one, do you believe this is Osama bin Laden, but, more importantly, what — if so, what does it is say about how al-Qaida is operating today?

LUIS RUEDA: It’s always hard to identify whether it is him or not. But, as far as we know, there has never been a false Osama bin Laden tape. So, the odds are that it probably is him.

I think what it tells us about al-Qaida is that we are now facing a more decentralized, flexible organization. Al-Qaida central will take claim. He will take credit for certain things. It does not really mean that they had daily command-and-control, planned the operation, or executed it.

It is probably likely that it did originate in Yemen, but the fact that al-Qaida provides a moral and political center for all these groups allows them to take credit for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if we then add the Jordanian double agent suicide bombing in which seven CIA officers, your former colleagues, were killed, what does that tell us about al-Qaida’s capabilities today?

LUIS RUEDA: I think it tells us the same thing. These types of double agent operations tend to be fairly sophisticated. It requires a good degree of planning and mental execution.

It shows us that the adversary is growing in its own sophistication, running different types of operations. And, as we hit them in certain areas, as we neutralize their capability, they shift to other things.

MARGARET WARNER: The fact that they were running a counterintelligence operation against the U.S., I mean, is this new for them?

LUIS RUEDA: When al-Qaida started out its terrorist activities, their intelligence operations tended to be tactical collection operation, collecting on a target, trying to find out timings and how to attack a target.

These types of double agent operations are a level above that. And what we are seeing now is a growing sophistication, at least in the intelligence realm of the enemy. It also shows, I think, that we are, as a government and as an agency, having an impact on them, because it is forcing them to strike at what they perceive as some of their main enemies.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, have they tried this sort of thing before, sending a false agent or volunteer?

LUIS RUEDA: We have always seen a degree of bad cases, cases that have been sent against us. Hard to tell whether it was bad from the beginning, when they volunteered, or they turned bad. We see the sophistication.

But this, I think, is on a level a little bit above that, where there was a very clear plan to take action against that facility. So, I think this is probably a little bit more serious.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Bruce Riedel, who is also a former CIA officer, said — late last week, he said, “Once you discover the enemy is running counterintelligence against you, you have to ask, how many of our other assets aren’t who we think they are?”

Do you think that is a danger?

LUIS RUEDA: That is always a danger. And I think it is a danger that the agency is very well aware of. It does spend a lot of time reviewing the cases, vetting the cases, validating the cases.

And I can guarantee you they are doing that right now, reviewing all the cases to see who is good and who is bad, what the signs are. The problem is, we’re engaged in a war. And at no time in anybody’s history have you won every single battle against an adversary. Every now and then, they will win one. They will get one through.

We can’t guarantee 100 percent security. We understand that. That is the risk we take.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if you take these two recent attacks, if you take other things they have been doing this past year, do you think al-Qaida is stronger or weaker than it was five years ago?

LUIS RUEDA: I think it is — again, it’s one of these things that it is not a clear-cut answer, and it is one of the unsatisfying answers.

But, clearly, al-Qaida is weaker in its command-and-control and sophisticated operations, the types we saw on 9/11, the types we saw where they tried to bomb five airliners coming in from Great Britain. They have been weakened in that area.

But they have also adapted and grown in sophistication in things like counterintelligence and intelligence operations. You can see that the biggest threat right now is within Afghanistan. They are feeling the pain. They are feeling the hurt. They are trying to survive.

The Christmas bombing, while dangerous, also shows that, you know, one half-assed operation can cause significant damage. But it was an operation that demonstrated a lack of expertise and professionalism that we had become accustomed to with al-Qaida. So, I — the answer is both.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how good are we?

LUIS RUEDA: I think we’re — I mean, again, I want to be — it’s going to look like I’m biased, but I think we’re very good at meeting the threats, identifying what the threats are going to be, and countering them.

The issue is, it is a race against time, so to speak, in that the adversary shifts and changes, and we tend to catch up very quickly. We should be in a position where we can anticipate what those changes are before they get there, such as identifying which of the next tier of countries al-Qaida is going to try to establish a presence. We know Yemen is a problem.

We should be looking at Mauritania. We should be looking at Mali. Are those areas where they are going to be going? Al-Qaida tends to shift to countries where there is a degree of chaos, where there is a degree of instability, where they can slide in with limited control. So, we need to be anticipating that.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying that the tradecraft in the U.S., as it is known in the intelligence agencies, is good, but it is still not adapting fast enough?

LUIS RUEDA: I think the tradecraft is very good for what we are doing, but it needs to adapt quickly. I…

MARGARET WARNER: And is it?

LUIS RUEDA: I think it is, but, at times, it’s like — like most things. At times, we adapt very quickly, and we put it into place. And, at certain times, the adversary may have changed their tradecraft themselves. And, so, we have got to match it.

It’s like a ping-pong match.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do we have a handle on this evolution, how al-Qaida is adapting? Are we adapting to meet it?

LUIS RUEDA: Sometimes, we are, but, unfortunately, sometimes, we are not.

Al-Qaida is much more decentralized and much more sophisticated. We at times become very fixated on certain issues, like getting Osama bin Laden. That is an important part of it, but it tends to be more of a justice issue, of a revenge issue, and dealing a moral blow or a blow to the morale of the enemy. But is not the end-all, be-all. It’s not going to solve our problem.

We are faced with a global counterinsurgency, and we have got to deal with it on that level with a host of tools, not just intelligence and military, important as they are, but social, economic, information, et cetera.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, at times, we are too focused on getting other top leaders?

LUIS RUEDA: I think we do. We…

MARGARET WARNER: Or is that actually very useful?

LUIS RUEDA: It is useful, but, at times, it becomes the end-all, be-all. It’s almost as if we want to declare victory if we get one individual, two individuals, three individuals. That is not going to give us victory.

It is important how we define victory. And, for me, that is creating stability and in areas where these people can’t thrive and grow. If you are fighting a counterinsurgency, you have to deny the population to the enemy. And that becomes the most important part, not just securing the population, but denying their support and goodwill.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you describe it almost like a cancer that then sprouts up, takes root in other areas?

LUIS RUEDA: It is like a cancer.

MARGARET WARNER: So, where is another area we are not paying enough attention to?

LUIS RUEDA: It is hard say if we’re not — I mean, it’s hard to anticipate. I could see Sub-Saharan Africa becoming a problem. We do pay attention, but it becomes a resource issue.

The intelligence community, at least, doesn’t have the resources to hit everything with the full strength it needs to. We are clearly heavily committed into Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are now becoming heavily committed into Yemen. You can see commitment into Somalia, but there is a point where the system begins to say, we just don’t have enough resources.

And part of the solution to the problem is devoting enough resources to the end.

MARGARET WARNER: You are saying that, right now, al-Qaida really still has the momentum.

LUIS RUEDA: Al-Qaida is developing momentum. You can see it coming. They were on the defensive for the longest time. They have used the time to survive and to begin to recuperate.

The threat of al-Qaida in Yemen is growing. The chaos in Somalia is significant, and it’s still a problem. So, they are using this and they are starting to develop the momentum. I am not ready to say that they have the initiative yet, but, if we don’t stop them, they will.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how many years do you think we’re going to be at this?

LUIS RUEDA: Well, unfortunately, unless there’s a dramatic change, at least 10 or 15 years, maybe more. This is not a problem that is won easily. It is not an enemy that is defeated easily. It’s not meeting armies on a field of battle and crushing them. This has become a social movement. That’s a problem. Movements are difficult to defeat.

MARGARET WARNER: Luis Rueda, thank you.

LUIS RUEDA: Thank you for having me.