Intelligence Officials: More Warnings of al-Qaida Terror Plots Coming

Monday, 09 May 2011 01:54 PM

By Ronald Kessler

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The FBI Laboratory has custody of the more than 100 items seized in the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound, and clues from this material will likely lead to warnings of more al-Qaida plots, intelligence officials tell Newsmax.

The bureau played a key role in helping to train U.S. Navy SEALs for their mission, focusing on the commandos' task of gathering evidence about al-Qaida in the compound. After 9/11, the FBI took on the role of safeguarding any material seized in U.S. counterterrorism actions around the globe. It helped to preserve the chain of custody should the material be presented as evidence in a prosecution by the United States or by other countries. In addition, the FBI is in the best position to analyze fingerprints, DNA traces, and handwriting.

The material taken from the bin Laden compound includes documents such as letters and handwritten notes from bin Laden, shoulder weapons and handguns, digital thumb drives, computer hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and cell phones. At the CIA’s direction, the FBI has distributed copies or photographs of the material to the CIA Counterterrorism Center and other agencies poring over the treasure trove of leads.

“The documents could have fingerprints on them,” a counterterrorism official says. “The loose media can have fingerprints, they can have DNA on them. Many people actually transfer DNA when they handle something. So we’re looking for those kinds of things.”

The clues leading to bin Laden’s location in Pakistan go back to when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded in 2002. He gave up information about bin Laden’s couriers as well as information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a member of bin Laden’s inner circle. After being subjected to coercive techniques, Abu Faraj al-Libi provided more detail on the couriers. In turn, clues from Abu Zubaydah and bin al-Shibh led to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 plot. After being waterboarded, KSM confirmed knowing the courier who turned out to be the key to finding bin Laden but denied the man was connected to al-Qaida, creating suspicion that he was indeed important.

CIA Director Leon Panetta has publicly confirmed that coercive interrogation techniques helped lead the CIA to bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad, about 35 miles from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.

Working with those leads and more recent ones, the CIA zeroed in on Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a pseudonym used by bin Laden’s main courier. Last year, the courier took a phone call that allowed the CIA to track him to bin Laden’s compound.

Four months ago, the CIA told the FBI that it had honed in on a high-value target. From National Security Council meetings, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III knew the target was bin Laden. Without knowing the identity of the target, FBI agents began training with Navy SEAL Team 6 in Afghanistan on what material should be seized and how it should be handled.

“The training was so they knew what to look for, what was of greatest value,” an intelligence official says. “They would quick grab an item, bag it, tag it, drop it into a bin, zip it up, put it on the aircraft.”

By the time the SEALs hit the target, “They’d already practiced and done this literally hundreds of times,” the intelligence official says.

“They could do it in their sleep. They knew to pick up those things they thought were really important.” However, “They did not have time to dig into every drawer and look for hidden crevices,” he says.

While the FBI has the materials, the CIA decides which agency should have copies.

“At the end of the day, it was the CIA’s operation,” the intelligence official says. “It was their opportunity, and they’re going to make the judgments about how you action things. For the most part, anything that has a domestic nexus or U.S. interest nexus is going to get optioned into the FBI or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) if it’s threat-related. If it’s going to be an overseas or ‘get’ action, it will be handled by the CIA or by the State Department for disclosure to a friendly service. Anything that happens in the theaters of operation where the combined commands have an interest or an active role, you get action to the military.”

Sending in a ground team to capture or kill bin Laden was considered, but the CIA and SEALs decided that going in by helicopter was the safest course. The raid took place at 1 a.m. Pakistan time on May 2.

“They flew in by helicopter because they wanted to get a lot of forces on the objective very quickly, and they had to have a very quick evacuation capability,” a counterterrorism official says. “They could very easily have snuck in, but arguably, we probably couldn’t get that number of forces all the way that deep in Pakistan clandestinely to execute an assault like that.”

If the American assault came from the ground, bin Laden’s people could have repelled the SEALs by spilling gasoline at entrances and igniting it.

“So the decision was, it was better to come in overhead by fast ropes, and then also have the ability to evacuate everybody very quickly,” the official says.

During the raid, one of the Black Hawk helicopters stalled, forcing a hard landing that disabled the helicopter. That forced the SEALs to abandon their plan to rappel down into the main building. Instead, they assaulted the compound from the ground after all.

Under a covert action finding signed by President Obama, the SEALs were to kill bin Laden “unless he was completely in a surrendering posture,” the official says. “He was going to look for any crack at all to escape, and I’m sure he had no reservations about taking SEAL team members with him. The outcome was in the hands of UBL [the intelligence community designation for Usama bin Laden], and he did not surrender himself to capture.”

Bin Laden had 500 euros, equal to $715, sewn into his clothes, along with two telephone numbers. When the discovery of the phone numbers leaked to the press, intelligence officials became more cautious about parceling out the material to different agencies.

“The disclosure of the two telephone numbers potentially undermined an opportunity for us to exploit,” the official says. “You want time to track and follow the people who have those numbers. The one thing about phone numbers, they’re usually easy to get rid of and cut all your ties to them.”

So far, no evidence has indicated that anyone in the Pakistan government supported bin Laden at the compound.

Besides the FBI and CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA) and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) have copies of the materials and are running down leads.

“These agencies are scrubbing the data against their databases,” an intelligence official says. “Are there indicators, has this number shown up before? Has this name shown up before? And then they come back together and coordinate every day. They found this, this is what we found, and the CIA is taking a lead role in this and making sure what is then disseminated in the form of IRs—intelligence reports— is coordinated, is controlled, and is disseminated so that the appropriate agency, such as the FBI, could properly take action.”

Already, DHS has alerted law enforcement agencies to a plot bin Laden was considering against the rail sector on the upcoming tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

“Very likely in the next few weeks, there will be notices and bulletins put out about this risk, that threat, this possibility,” the intelligence official says. “In today’s day and age, you’ve got to get the information out and at least start taking the preventative measures and then run everything to ground.”

While it will take weeks to go over the information seized, “We will develop more sources, and they will develop more intel on targets, and they will develop new targets of opportunity, and it might take months or potentially years before we realize that this sensitive site exploitation resulted in this action two years down the road,” the counterterrorism official predicts.

The process is similar to the one that led to bin Laden.

“Much like the information that came from some of the interrogations early on, maybe the information doesn’t thread together initially,” the official says. “But over time, it builds a picture. In this case, by identifying couriers, it led to our objective.”

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is a New York Times bestselling author of books on the CIA and FBI. His latest, "The Secrets of the FBI," is to be released in August. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Click Here Now.

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