FBI’s Spider Group in Solo Action in Pakistan
Having established its own high-tech espionage network in the four provincial capitals and the border areas of Pakistan, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) seems determined not to rely any further on Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) support in its ongoing anti al-Qaeda campaign in Pakistan. In many cases now, the FBI is flying solo – mainly because of lack of ISI cooperation in locating the al Qaeda and Taliban remnants. According to well-informed sources in the Pakistani intelligence agencies, who are working in tandem with the FBI operatives in Pakistan – and talked with DEBKA-Net–Weekly – the US investigation agency has finally set-up its own surveillance network in the country. Since the ISI maintains deep and long-standing ties to the Taliban and is largely believed to be the government control, the sources said, the FBI was left with no other option but to form its own ad hoc group of military and intelligence natives, some of whom are of high rank up to brigadier and colonel.
The FBI was on its own now after concluding that the intelligence information provided by the ISI, especially about the whereabouts of the suspected al-Qaeda operatives, had deteriorated of late and was in most cases faulty and flawed. Indeed it may have done more harm than good. Our sources note that only four of the 44 operations the FBI carried out in the last twelve months on the strength of tips from the Pakistani intelligence agency proved successful.
After installing a system of electronic intelligence and communication never seen before in Pakistan, the FBI has launched Spider Group, a band of former army and intelligence officers, to step up and intensify the hunt for remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives in Pakistan.
The Spider Group’s members include experts in intelligence, interrogation, linguistics, cyber crime, communications and forensic investigations. Some of the veterans owe their experience to action in Afghanistan, even as far back to the American-backed war against Soviet troops in the 1980s and as recently as the Taliban era from the mid-1990s till 2001. The Spider Group’s mission is to track down fugitive al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in the border areas as well as in the big cities of Pakistan. Released from their collaborative ties with the ISI, FB agents of the Spider Group will command a much freer flow of information on the movements of fugitives hiding in Pakistan than hitherto.
Less reliance on tip-offs, more on cash rewards
Three and a half years after making Pakistan a frontline state in the US-led war on terror, the work of the US intelligence agents in Pakistan has yielded successes in the hunt for the Most Wanted FBI fugitives.
Notable early successes were the March 2002 arrest of al-Qaeda’s No. 3 man, Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad, Punjab. Another FBI operation led to the September 2002 arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh in Karachi, Sindh. Ramzi allegedly planned the September 2001 suicide hijackings in the United States. Similarly, al-Qaeda’s chief operational commander, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was arrested in Rawalpindi in March 2003, followed by the capture of Waleed bin Attash Karachi, Sindh in April 2003, and the June 2004 nabbing of Ahmed Khalafan Ghailani from Gujrat, Punjab, again with FBI assistance.
The United States’ administration has so far paid out $57 million in reward money to Pakistani nationals who provided the FBI agents in Pakistan with information leading to the arrests of al Qaeda leaders. Advertisements carrying images of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar are broadcast on the state-run and private television channels in English, Urdu, Sindhi, Balochi and Pushto languages. They include a voice-over that asks, “Who can stop the terrorists? Only you!”
More rewards are offered – from $5 million to $25 million – for information leading to the capture of Bin Laden and his lieutenants. Special units are assigned to the cases of the three top al Qaeda men.
The FBI teams also draw on data and analysis based on electronic and signal intercepts focused on al Qaeda suspects all over the world. Valuable input also comes from the detailed debriefings of the arrested suspects and their follow-up.
Pakistani and US intelligence and communication experts have in the past worked both independently and jointly in information-gathering that led to the capture of al-Qaeda leaders. In the past, the FBI kept a low profile in Pakistan and worked in the shadows alongside the ISI operatives in tracking down the Most Wanted fugitives. Today, however, the FBI is autonomous. Its organization runs communications networks to track mobile and land telephone calls as well as sophisticated bugging devices.
FBI field offices have literally established direct control over Pakistani law enforcement agencies, such as the police, who take orders from the Bureau agents.
A senior interior ministry official told DEBKA-Net-Weekly on condition of anonymity that he estimates as many as 200-250 FBI agents are working with their Pakistani agents in the border areas and the big cities, including Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Quetta, Karachi and Faisalabad.
FBI runs 28 field offices in Pakistan
The American intelligence agency tailors its presence in Pakistan to the requirements of the hunt for al-Qaeda suspects. The interior ministry official added that over 200 Pakistanis generally known as permanent legal attaches or legats (mostly belonging to the Spider Group) also assist FBI agents. These agents are often directly involved in questioning terrorist suspects or criminals; sometimes they provide interrogators with pertinent questions, and not only to Bureau agents, also Central Investigation Agency officers. The legats feed information gleaned from the interviews back to the US for further investigation, sometimes resulting in more suspects being put under surveillance or homes being searched.
The interior ministry official further claimed that the FBI has set up 28 field offices inside Pakistan including border areas and the cities to conduct the pursuit of al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives.
“Around a dozen of these offices are located in Pakistan’s border areas, while 16 others operate in the cities. Working under tight security provided by Pakistani security agencies, the FBI offices are equipped with high-tech surveillance equipment”. After the September 11 attacks, the official said, the Bush administration approached General Pervez Musharraf with a request to set up at least 100 such offices. “However, permission was granted for only two dozen, and only after Pakistan and America signed a biilateral pact to fight out terrorists under a joint working-group program. This program provides for FBI field offices to be established in Pakistan and draw assistance from its intelligence agencies.
Well-placed sources in Pakistani intelligence further conceded that the FBI has already established two high-tech communication and intelligence centers on the Pakistani-Afghan border and in the tribal area of Pakistan to help coordinate the anti al-Qaeda operation. The FBI is also monitoring the Pakistan-Afghan border with the help of sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment which includes global-positioning trackers and software imaging systems, anti-bugging devices, concealed cameras with remote-recording capability, cell-phone direction finders, call interceptors and voice analyzers, all-terrain vehicles, helicopters and radio communications gear.
Moving forward, the FBI has already installed a hi-tech Transaction Tracking Server (TTS) at Quaid-e-Azam International Airport, Karachi, and Allama Iqbal International Airport, Lahore, to monitor arrivals and departures. The Transaction Tracking Server is connected to the FBI databank and the newly upgraded Interpol data store through satellite for instant transmission and retrieval of information. The TTS is backed by a hi-tech Pisces (Personal Identification Secure, Comparison and Evaluation System), which is a top-of-line computer system and has a software to identify and check any wanted Pakistani citizen boarding international flights.
Hi-tech Personal Identification System monitors Karachi and Lahore airports
The system contains data on worldwide bomb explosions, suspected, wanted and convicted terrorists as well as information regarding car thefts the world over. Its software can provide matches between suspected passengers and known terrorists by their physical features, such as height, skin color, prominent identification marks, fingerprints, eye color and type of hair. All passengers have to go through the Pisces scanning system to board any flight. To check passports and other identification papers, the Pisces is supported by flex-cam cameras connected to special software, which can film the subject from any direction and magnify it manifold.
This system was installed primarily to screen traffic for the large number of fleeing Afghans and Arab volunteers who participated in the war against the US alongside the Taliban. US State Department computer experts installed this system at the Karachi airport on December 9, 2001. The entire set-up is stationed in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) headquarters in Islamabad and its Karachi offices, where US experts along with the IB officers control its operations.
The FBI has further been allowed access to the country’s main communication network for monitoring and scanning targeted landlines linked directly or indirectly to the Working Transit Exchanges (WTE) of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL).