July Surprised

By

July 29, Faisal Saleh Hayyat, Pakistan's interior minister,
announced

the arrest of a high-ranking Al Qaeda figure on local television.
After a tense standoff in Gujrat, a city some 100 miles southeast
of Islamabad, Pakistani security forces had capturedthe Tanzanian jihadist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the FBI's
twenty-second "Most Wanted" terrorist and a suspected conspirator
in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A
proud Hayyat dubbed the arrest "another crowning success of
Pakistan's security apparatus in the fight against terrorism." But
it is doubtful Hayyat was really addressing his fellow Pakistanis:
He made the announcement at midnight. More likely, his intended
audience was half a world away--in the United States, where, in the
middle of the afternoon, John Kerry was preparing to deliver his
nomination speech to the Democratic National Convention.

While media coverage of the capture didn't exactly overshadow
Kerry-- Ghailani isn't Osama bin Laden--the announcement's timing
seemed suspicious. Ghailani wasn't apprehended on July 29 at all,
but rather four days earlier. Last month, The New Republic reported
that the Bush administration was pressuring the Pakistanis to
deliver a "high-value target" (HVT) in time for the November
elections ("July Surprise?" July 19). According to an official with
Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), a White House
aide told ISI chief Ehsan ul-Haq during a spring visit to
Washington that "it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any]
HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight
July," during the convention. When asked this week if the
announcement of Ghailani's capture on July 29 confirmed tnr's
reporting, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack told
the Los Angeles Times, "There is no truth to that statement."

But some American and Pakistani intelligence and counterterrorism
officials do question the timing of the announcement. After his
arrest, Ghailani's Pakistani captors, with assistance from FBI
officials, set to work getting him to talk. While they had little
initial success, a source privy to the interrogations says, "It
might have taken awhile, but he would ultimately have broken down,"
at which point Ghailani might well have shared information, such as
the names of Qaeda associates, that the Pakistanis could have acted
on. But, before that could happen, according to an ISI officer, FBI
officials, who had initially insisted on keeping the arrest secret,
told officials in Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government
that Islamabad should announce Ghailani's capture. An ISI official
explains, "When it comes to matters especially pertaining to Al
Qaeda, it is always the U.S. administration that takes most of the
decisions, while the Pakistani government simply plays the role of
a front man." This official and another ISI official believe that
the driving factor behind the announcement was U.S. politics. "What
else could explain it?" the second official says.

Though there is no policy governing how long to keep such arrests
secret, standard intelligence practices dictate that the capture
should not have been made public until investigators had finished
with Ghailani (and the laptop and computer disks he had been
captured with). Indeed, Ghailani may still talk, but some current
and former American officials fear that, by broadcasting his name
around the world, the Pakistanis have reduced the value of the
intelligence that interrogators can extract from him. "Now,
anything that he was involved in is being shredded, burned, and
thrown in a river," a senior counterterrorism official told the Los
Angeles Times. "We have to assume anyone affiliated with this guy
is on the run ... when, usually, we can get great stuff as long as
we can keep it quiet." Adds former CIA operative Robert Baer: "It
makes no sense to make the announcement then. Presumably,
everything [Al Qaeda] does is compartmented. By announcing to
everybody in the world that we have this guy, and he is talking,
you have to assume that you shoot tactics. To keep these guys
off-balance, a lot of this stuff should be kept in secret. You get
no benefit from announcing an arrest like this. You always want to
get these guys when they are on vacation, when they are not
expecting you."

In fact, Al Qaeda has a history of adapting to intelligence
penetrations. In 1998, a leak to The Washington Times detailing "an
intelligence bonanza" from intercepted cell phone calls made by bin
Laden and his cohorts resulted in the abrupt abandonment of the
phones--and the end of the bonanza. Some CIA counterterrorism
officials believe the premature announcements of the arrests of
important Qaeda terrorists like Abu Zubaydah and Tawfiq bin Attash
limited the value of the information they possessed about their
comrades, who are believed to discard cell phones and e-mail
addresses every two or three days. Daniel Benjamin, a
counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration, says he
doesn't know all the facts behind Ghailani's arrest, but he
observes, "If you have that much stuff on a guy, I would think you
would want to keep it quiet for awhile to follow up all the
leads."

And there could well be leads to follow up, just as there were after
the apprehension of Qaeda associates Musaad Aruchi in Karachi on
June 12 and Muhammed Naeem Noor Khan in Lahore on July 13. Both
suspected terrorists were captured along with laptops, computer
disks, and maps indicating surveillance of U.S. installations in
preparation for an attack, and their information led investigators
to Ghailani--and contributed to the announcement of this week's
Code Orange alert. "There is not a single significant Al Qaeda
arrest that didn't yield us more," a senior Pakistani intelligence
official told The Washington Post. But the arrests of Aruchi and
Khan were kept secret for weeks-- until reporters started
investigating the Ghailani capture. "I'm definitely cynical enough
to believe the timing [of these announcements] is always
political," says a recently retired intelligence official. "I think
the timing of a success announcement or a failure announcement is
always optimized as much as whoever controls it can optimize it."
But American and Pakistani security officials remain skeptical as
to what the Ghailani announcement really optimized--the war on
terrorism or George W. Bush's reelection campaign.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.