…Truth, Lies and Audio Files
Un’analisi made in Stratfor
By Fred Burton
A regional French newspaper, L’Est Republicain, recently published a report claiming that Osama bin Laden died in Pakistan on Aug. 23 after contracting typhoid fever. The newspaper cited a document it obtained Sept. 21 from the DGSE — the French foreign intelligence service — that quotes a Saudi intelligence report that mentions bin Laden’s death.
The French government quickly called for an investigation of the leak (suggesting that the DGSE document was authentic). The Saudi government said it has no evidence bin Laden is dead and that the information reported "is purely speculative and cannot be independently verified." Two days later, on Sept. 26, a Taliban official called Al Arabiya News Channel’s Pakistan bureau to report that bin Laden is alive and healthy. He said the Taliban verified this through some of its members who are close to al Qaeda. Meanwhile, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan (which has the best human intelligence coverage of al Qaeda in the region bordering Afghanistan) also has stated his belief that bin Laden is alive — possibly (and conveniently for a Pakistani leader) in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. However, there has not yet been a public response from al Qaeda or bin Laden himself.
Considering that intelligence agencies frequently obtain odd reports on a wide array of topics, it is not the report of bin Laden’s possible death that is truly interesting, but rather the reactions to it. Though it is not inconceivable that a French intelligence report accidentally made its way to the press, it seems much more likely that it was deliberately leaked. If so, it is a leak that, at this time, raises a number of intriguing questions.
Intelligence Work: Vetting Sources
The idea that the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate received a report from a source claiming that bin Laden is dead should come as no surprise. Intelligence regarding bin Laden is undoubtedly one of the highest collection requirements for the Saudi agency, as for almost every other intelligence agency in the world. The priority is enhanced in this case because Saudi Arabia is bin Laden’s home country, because he and other al Qaeda leaders have threatened the Saudi royal family and because an al Qaeda node has carried out attacks in the kingdom.
The Saudis established a robust intelligence and logistics network in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region during the war against the Soviet Union, and it is not out of the question that Saudi agents have become "reacquainted" with some of their old friends in that region. At any rate, Saudi intelligence efforts are producing a great deal of information pertaining to al Qaeda — some of it accurate, some of it not.
Of course, because the government in Riyadh is flush with cash, the Saudi intelligence service has the ability to recruit sources it specifically seeks out — but this also means the agency is faced with a steady stream of information peddlers and fabricators who are looking to line their pockets. These sources — known in the American intelligence community as "walk-ins" (because they quite often literally walk in to one’s embassy) — sometimes have legitimate information, but the majority of them turn out to have mental problems or to be fabricators. Blatant fabricators are easy to spot, but a great deal of time and effort often is required to determine whether some are legitimate sources or cunning liars.
However, even if the Saudi report was, as the French newspaper report suggests, from a normally reliable source, it doesn’t automatically count as legitimate. Sometimes good sources have bad information. Sometimes they pass off fabricated intelligence when they have divulged everything they legitimately know and — faced with a loss of income — look for ways to stay on the intelligence service’s payroll. Often, the "new" information the source reveals at such times pertains to issues the intelligence officer expressed a great deal of interest in during previous meetings. The source obviously will try to play the intelligence officer as long as he can to keep the money flowing.
Information that contains a thread of truth, or that is very difficult to confirm — like the death of bin Laden — could buy a source more time before agents labeled him a fabricator and issue a "burn notice" on him. Some very clever fabricators have sold report after report, wrapping a number of facts, easily corroborated, around a core of "interesting" information that is neither easy to corroborate nor true. Furthermore, governments and agencies within governments seem to share burn notices no more effectively than they do the information itself, which often makes it possible for fabricators to "shop" their information to several different agencies and governments.
Some in the American intelligence community have speculated that al Qaeda plants rumors about bin Laden’s death whenever the hunt starts to come too close for comfort. Of course, this would seem to be counterproductive in the long run; it would fuel speculation and uncertainty among al Qaeda supporters, and intelligence agencies would still find it necessary to confirm the death. But as a tactic for dialing back the heat for a short time, such a move could be useful.
Now, Stratfor is in no position to judge the quality of the information that Saudi intelligence officers apparently received. We have no way of knowing if the Saudis were duped by a fabricator, they received a bad report from a normally reliable source or their report was incorrect or contained disinformation. We are, however, pointing out a basic truth of intelligence work: In making great efforts to collect information on bin Laden and al Qaeda, an agency is certain at some point to hear reports of bin Laden’s death. And this certainly was not the first time bin Laden’s demise has been reported to the Saudis.
Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan disrupted al Qaeda’s training base, bin Laden’s frail health, the rough conditions of the region in which he is believed to be hiding and the odds of his demise have been frequently discussed. Many believe the longer bin Laden remains on the run, the more likely he is to die of natural causes — though in interviews, bin Laden himself has denied being ill.
Be that as it may, bin Laden has not been seen on video for nearly two years, having appeared last before the 2004 presidential elections in the United States. He was not among the al Qaeda speakers featured in recordings issued around the 9/11 anniversary. Al Qaeda’s media house, As-Sahab, has released five audio statements from bin Laden so far this year — a veritable media blitz, considering there were no statements from him at all for more than a year prior to January 2006. But notably, these audio files are shorter, issued far less frequently and involve a format that bears little resemblance to the many videos featuring Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The CIA reportedly has confirmed the voice on the As-Sahab audio files as that of bin Laden, but there are indications that at least one of the recordings was spliced together. Considering that As-Sahab is a sophisticated operation that apparently has been adding rapidly to its technical capabilities — and that voice recordings are easier to manipulate than video — there seems some possibility that the world has been watching (or, more aptly, hearing) a jihadist take on the 1989 movie "Weekend at Bernie’s." In other words, it could be possible for bin Laden to die and yet continue to issue recordings: Using samples, As-Sahab could remix his words — or even parts of words — to create new phrases and messages, and maintain the illusion that he is still alive. Bin Laden’s slow, measured phrasing and habitually steady vocal tone would seem to assist in such manipulation. Software that enables this kind of manipulation is widely available, so the continued ability to issue "messages" should not be viewed automatically as continued proof of life.
Of course, it could be argued that some of bin Laden’s messages this year — particularly the 19-minute recording eulogizing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — provide very strong indications that he is alive, or at least was at the time the message was issued in late June. Contriving such a lengthy recording entirely from archives and samples would be quite tedious; shorter recordings would be the norm. Other As-Sahab releases in which timely topics — such as cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, the Moussaoui verdict or the responses to the election of Hamas — are discussed likewise would indicate, at least on their face, that the recordings were made after those events transpired. However, no recordings containing bin Laden’s voice have been issued since July 1, well before his rumored death.
On a related note, there long have been indicators that, whether dead or alive, bin Laden has become more of a figurehead or icon, and that it is al-Zawahiri who — in addition to becoming the more prominent face of al Qaeda, with his more frequent media appearances — is the organization’s authoritative commander. For example, when al-Zarqawi was in need of correction, it was al-Zawahiri rather than bin Laden who penned the letter of reprimand. And when groups in Egypt and Algeria have joined forces with al Qaeda, it has been al-Zawahiri who announced the new alliances.
Motivations for a Leak
Considering the number of times U.S. intelligence has received reports that bin Laden has died — and the considerable public speculation on that matter that crops up from time to time — it is not really likely that the Saudis or the DGSE are taking in information about his "death," or issuing reports to document that information, for the first time. Moreover, we can be confident that the Saudis’ report in this case was shared with allied intelligence services from countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Pakistan, and not shared only with the French.
Now, since the report was not unique, there is a burning question: Why would this specific report be leaked to the French press?
It is, of course, possible that the leak was truly unauthorized. The information could have gotten to the French press from a neophyte who did not realize that reports of bin Laden’s death are not unique or earth-shattering, or even from someone who believed the report and thought the news was too good to keep under wraps.
But being a skeptical bunch, we find it difficult to place much emphasis on that possibility — French President Jacques Chirac’s calls for an investigation into the leak notwithstanding. To our minds, it is quite possible, if not likely, that the DGSE leaked the document for a particular reason.
There are three possible scenarios here.
First, it could be that the DSGE found the Saudi report believable — or that French intelligence believed bin Laden was dead even prior to receiving it. However, because of al Qaeda’s operational security (which, by definition, means that only a few, trusted people have access to bin Laden), it would be very difficult to verify bin Laden’s death by natural causes; either access to a body or the capture of someone in his inner circle would be required. Therefore, one might argue that the DGSE leaked the report in an attempt to force a response from al Qaeda. Failure to reply quickly and convincingly could undermine the efforts of al Qaeda or bin Laden’s protectors to maintain the illusion that he is alive.
Alternatively, the DGSE might have leaked the intelligence report not because they believe bin Laden is dead, but in hopes that he — needing to disprove the rumors — would make an appearance and elevate his chances of being caught. If bin Laden is alive, al Qaeda theoretically should react by producing some "proof of life." But any such "proof" creates a chance for American and allied intelligence services to track it back to its origin.
Finally, France — for reasons of its own security — might have had cause to make sure the intelligence report was leaked. Al-Zawahiri recently announced the merger of Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat into al Qaeda (which, of course, has threatened France directly in the past as well). It is possible the French are making a proactive effort to target al Qaeda’s apex leadership themselves, or are hoping to use the recent report to spur the Americans to solve the problem for them.
Under any circumstances, the report has been leaked — and an implicit challenge posed. It will be quite interesting to see how al Qaeda responds.