A decade after al-Qaeda issued a global declaration of war against America, U.S. spy agencies have had little luck recruiting well-placed informants and are finding the upper reaches of the network tougher to penetrate than the Kremlin during the Cold War, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials.

Some counterterrorism officials say their agencies missed early opportunities to attack the network from within. Relying on Cold War tactics such as cash rewards for tips failed to take into account the religious motivations of Islamist radicals and produced few results.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, officials said, al-Qaeda has tightened its internal security at the top, placing an even greater emphasis on personal and tribal loyalties to determine who can gain access to its leaders.
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Alain Chouet, former chief of the security intelligence service of the DGSE, France's foreign spy agency, said it can take years for informants to burrow their way into radical Islamist networks. Even if they're successful at first, he said, new al-Qaeda members are often "highly disposable" -- prime candidates for suicide missions.

He said it might be too late for Western intelligence agencies, having missed earlier chances, to redouble efforts to infiltrate the network. "I think you cannot penetrate such a movement now," he said.

Spies' cover blown
At the same time, those agencies have made their task harder by blowing the cover of some promising informants and mishandling others.

In January, Spanish police arrested 14 men in Barcelona who they suspected were preparing to bomb subways in cities across Europe. Investigators disclosed in court documents that the arrests had been prompted by a Pakistani informant working for French intelligence.

The revelation infuriated French officials, who were forced to withdraw the informant -- a rare example of an agent who had successfully infiltrated training camps in Pakistan. Spanish authorities expressed regret but said they had no choice; after they failed to find bombs or much other evidence during the arrests, the case rested largely on the informant's word.

"Suicide attacks don't allow for a lot of margin to make a decision," said Vicente Gonzales Mota, the lead prosecutor. "Acting after an attack would be a tragedy."

Ten years ago, on Feb. 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring it "the individual duty of every Muslim" to kill Americans and their allies around the world. Looking back, some U.S. and European intelligence officials said their governments had underestimated the enemy and thought they could rely on old methods to destabilize al-Qaeda.

Not like old days
During the Cold War, for example, the CIA had enjoyed some success in recruiting KGB moles and persuading Soviet officials to defect. The agency was also able to buy off Afghan warlords with suitcases of cash, persuading them to fight Soviet forces in the 1980s and to turn on the Taliban in 2001. A similar approach has worked, to a limited extent, against insurgents in Iraq: An informant's tip led directly to the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006.

But al-Qaeda's core organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan has so far proved impervious to damaging leaks.

Part of the problem is that the CIA and FBI had very few Arabic-speaking officers who could handle or recruit informants. Instead of making it a priority to develop human sources, the agencies assumed they could rely on spy satellites and other high-tech tools.

Arab and Pakistani spy agencies, preoccupied with domestic politics and other threats, weren't much help either, officials said.

From 1992 until November 2004, "we worked side by side with the Egyptians, the Jordanians -- the very best Arab intelligence services -- and they didn't recruit a single person who could report on al-Qaeda," said Michael Scheuer, who in the 1990s led the CIA unit dedicated to finding bin Laden. He left agency in November 2004.

After Sept. 11, U.S. officials tried another tried-and-true tactic: offering huge rewards for information leading to the capture or death of al-Qaeda leaders, including $25 million apiece for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

That lure, however, has proved largely ineffective in Pakistan and Afghanistan. No rewards have been publicly announced under the program in either country since Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the organizer of the Sept. 11 attacks, was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in March 2003.

Scheuer said 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."

Craig Whitlock
updated 1:01 a.m. ET, Thurs., March. 20, 2008

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