Training terrorists to catch terrorists

Philip Knightley describes how the Saudi-CIA operation that foiled the latest al Qaeda bombing plot, employed a technique first used in the Soviet Union.

When the story of the foiled bomb plot first broke it seemed too good to be true. The security authorities had intercepted a man carrying a supposedly undetectable bomb which was being examined at the FBI laboratories in Quantico, Virginia. This suggested an amazing piece of intelligence work. What had led the authorities to the man? Why were they suspicious of him? Had they been tipped off? As details emerged it became apparent that the action was rather more straightforward.

In the tradition of [the founder of the KGB, Felix] Dzerzhinski, the Saudi intelligence service had apparently “dangled” one of its agents in front of known al-Qa’ida members hoping for a “bite”. To make the bait attractive, the agent, it later emerged, was a British passport holder. Al-Qa’ida was fooled and handed him the bomb with instructions to smuggle it on a plane bound for the United States. He handed it over to the Saudis. It seems likely that the Saudis passed on the information the agent had gathered on al-Qa’ida to enable the US to mount a drone attack on an al-Qaida leader in Yemen. The Saudis are thought to have planned more operations for its star undercover agent but were forced to abandon them when the story leaked to the Western media. Thus espionage history repeated itself, and echoes can be heard of the most famous of all counter-espionage operations in the Soviet Union, the Trust.

The Trust appeared to be a huge anti-Bolshevik organisation working from Moscow to overthrow the Communists and reverse the revolution. Instead,Dzerzhinski used it to identify anti-communists. All he needed to do was set up the organisation and wait to see who joined it. He could then choose when to roll it up and arrest its members or whether to let it run in the hope of revealing bigger prey.

In intelligence circles the Trust became a textbook operation and its principles copied worldwide. But to be most effective required a ruthlessness that Western services often felt unable to carry out. For instance, if the authenticity of a front organisation was questioned, the KGB did not hesitate to initiate a terrorist incident to reinforce the organisation’s reputation. So the Trust would plant bombs that would kill innocent people just so that possible recruits would think it a genuine organisation.

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