Who Were Noor Khan’s Real Controllers?

The case of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, the 25-year-old Pakistani computer wizard, raises more questions than answers.

Much about his capture just doesn’t compute, which is why Washington, London and Islamabad seem to be swapping semi-private recriminations over who leaked his capture on July 13 while he was picking up a package at Lahore airport purportedly sent by his father – and why.

Then, who was responsible for his name surfacing in The New York Times of August 1? Some publications referred to him as a successful penetration agent of al Qaeda and claimed the leak was a sting operation.

Equally mysterious is the hand that on August 2 deliberately placed Noor Khan’s photo on the wires of international news agencies, thereby putting a face to the published name. Both messages raced together around fundamentalist Muslim groups – whether affiliated with al Qaeda or not – effectively enabling its terror operatives to decide for themselves if they had met the captive or not, possibly under an alias, and if their own or their cell’s cover had been blown.

We have since discovered from British announcements that that some of the people Noor Khan was in contact with during his London visits treated the news as a wakeup call and vanished.

British security services are trying to pick up their trail.

US Democrats fighting an election may believe that the story was leaked to support the Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s alarm that was based on years-old information of a terrorist peril confronting the financial sector. But whoever did indeed drop Khan’s name and photo into the public domain 18 days after his arrest in Pakistan was undoubtedly out to end the Pakistani’s career as an undercover agent against al Qaeda.

This conclusion arises from any of three alternative “operational” scenarios:

  1. A tip was received by his American and Pakistani controllers that al Qaeda or some other terrorist group had rumbled his sting operation and was set to liquidate him. He was therefore taken into protective custody rather than captured.

  2. Alternatively, Pakistan’s SIS intelligence service which activated Noor Khan on the ground decided to end his mission because he was thought to have gone too far in cooperating either with the Americans or al Qaeda – or both. This would account for Pakistan’s refusal to let American interrogators directly access their prisoner. While the Bush administration lavishly praises the close US-Pakistani intelligence collaboration in the war on terror, in reality Washington gets no more than second or third bite at the interrogation data after it is carefully censored at SIS headquarters. It is extremely hard for Washington to get to the bottom of the story behind Noor Khan’s capture, when US intelligence is confronted in Pakistan with the same handicap it has always suffered with regard to terrorists in Saudi custody.

  3. Conversely, the Americans may have decided to put the kibosh on Khan for undisclosed reasons.

Sting and counter-sting

Equally puzzling is why the information found on his computer hard drive on potential al Qaeda targets in the United States was all pre-9/11 or some four years’ old. Again, it could all be smoke and mirrors – perhaps it’s what the puppet masters want us to believe, when in fact the information was more current but tagged “no need to know” for the general public.

Or, maybe Khan’s mission goes back no more than two or three years and was based on the method of operation described here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly.

Khan would send messages over the Internet that implied he was working closely with operational cells of al Qaeda or its affiliates. Recipients of those messages were drawn into the Web trap and spilled the beans about their own operational plans. As their sting agent, he would have been supplied by Pakistani or US intelligence with genuine e-mail addresses – especially in the United States and Britain. His directive would have been to present himself convincingly as offering assistance and training materials on behalf of a branch of al Qaeda or some allied fundamentalist organization to any group willing to join the war against America.

But there might too have been a counter-sting.

All Qaeda may have been tipped off by a friend in the SIS that Khan was a bogus and fed him dated but credible information, while withholding any hint of their current plans and preparations for attacks. Khan’s home and base of operation were situated in a neighborhood full of SIS officers and their families. That proximity makes it more than likely his outgoing and incoming Internet correspondence was closely monitored by Pakistan and American surveillance if not actually dictated by SIS controllers. The material on his hard disk must therefore have held no surprises for his “captors.”

Equally puzzling are the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Tanzanian Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who has figured on the FBI’s list of 25 most wanted al Qaeda terrorists list since 2000 for complicity in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

His arrest is generally dated to July 24 – after Khan’s computer data located him in the town of Gujarat, 110 miles (175 km) southwest of Islamabad.

Intelligence sources involved in the war against al Qaeda in Pakistan told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the Tanzanian arrived in Gujarat with his family immediately after the embassy bombings and has been living there for the last six years. His presence there was known to Washington from information passed by Indian intelligence. The contents of Khan’s computer were not needed to find him. In any case, there are few enough Africans in Gujarat for Ghailani and his family to attract attention. He must have been under surveillance all this time and his movements and contacts carefully recorded. So, why delay his detention?

The double agent trap

These enigmas lead to four main conclusions:

Khan was not the only undercover sting agent planted against al Qaeda. He was most probably part of a buried network. The CIA, SIS and British MI6 may well be running several dozen double agents from Pakistan, the Gulf emirates and other places, in order to confuse, expose, deceive and subvert al Qaeda followers and cells.

That is good news. On the other hand, al Qaeda cannot yet be said to have swallowed the bait and fallen into any US intelligence traps. The terrorist organization usually manages to identify hostile plants and use them itself, evidence that its electronics capabilities are equal to American or Pakistani gadgetry.

The fourth conclusion is that global intelligence against terror has reverted to the counterintelligence tactics employed by the United States and the Soviet Union in the days of the Cold War, principally the use of double agents for hostile penetration of the opposition. The trouble with those tactics is that they were ultimately self-defeating because in the end no one could tell where their agents’ real loyalties lay, with their own side or with the enemy. Double agents were perfectly placed to penetrate and subvert their own services. The deeper the sting, the greater the potential for the enemy to turn the tables, as the Americans discovered in their 40-year intelligence war against Moscow.

Penetration agents like Khan are even less suited to operations against Muslim jihadist organizations, because as Muslims themselves, they may tend to identify with their coreligionists and what they may come to accept as a holy war – as will be shown in the article below on Yemen.

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