Pakistan: U.S. blew undercover operation
Al-Qaida suspect was secretly cooperating with counterrorist sting
MSNBC staff and news service reports
Updated: 7:18 p.m. ET Aug. 6, 2004
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The al-Qaida suspect named by U.S. officials as the source of information that led to this week’s terrorist alerts was working undercover, Pakistani intelligence sources said Friday, putting an end to the sting operation and forcing Pakistan to hide the man in a secret location.
Under pressure to justify the alerts in three Northeastern cities, U.S. officials confirmed a report by The New York Times that the man, Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, was the source of the intelligence that led to the decision.
A Pakistani intelligence source told Reuters on Friday that Khan, who was arrested in Lahore secretly last month, had been actively cooperating with intelligence agents to help catch al-Qaida operatives when his name appeared in U.S. newspapers.
Monday evening, after Khan’s name appeared, Pakistani officials moved him to a secret location.
“After his capture [in July], he admitted being an al-Qaida member and agreed to send e-mails to his contacts,” a Pakistani intelligence source told Reuters. “He sent encoded e-mails and received encoded replies. He’s a great hacker, and even the U.S. agents said he was a computer whiz.”
The Times published a story Monday saying U.S. officials had disclosed that a man arrested in Pakistan was the source of the bulk of information leading to the security alerts. The Times identified him as Khan, although it did not say how it had learned his name.
U.S. officials subsequently confirmed the name to other news organizations Monday morning. None of the reports mentioned that Khan was working under cover at the time, helping to catch al-Qaida suspects.
In addition to ending the Pakistani sting, the premature disclosure of Khan’s identity may have affected a major British operation in which 12 suspects were arrested in raids this week, one of whom U.S. officials said was a senior al-Qaida figure. One of the men was released Friday.
British police told Reuters on Friday that they had been forced to carry out the raids more hastily than planned, a day after Khan’s name appeared in the Times.
Such raids are usually carried out late at night or in the early morning, when suspects might be at home and less likely to resist. But showing clear signs of haste, British police pounced in daylight. Some suspects were taken in shops; others were caught in a high-speed car chase.
A British anti-terrorism police source would not comment on the reason for their quick action, but he confirmed the raids were carried out faster than planned: “It would be a fair assessment to say there was an urgency. Something can happen that prompts us to take action faster than we would,” he told Reuters.
U.S. officials told NBC News this week that one of the 12 British detainees, known as Abu Eisa al-Hindi, was a key al-Qaida operative in Britain.
Britain’s Press Association, quoting his father and one of his professors, described Khan as an unusually gifted computer expert in his mid-20s from Karachi, Pakistan.
The PA said Khan, who was arrested in Lahore on July 13, led authorities to another major al-Qaida figure, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than 200 people.
Zafar Qasim, a computer science professor at Nadir Eduljee Dinshaw Engineering University, where Khan graduated in 2001, told the PA that Khan was a “genius student” who finished near the top of his class. He said Khan never appeared interested in any militant activity and never missed a class.
A senior intelligence official said Khan's wife was the sister of a “top ranking” leader of the Taliban, the former rulers of Afghanistan. The official said Khan had been to Britain four times, always on reduced-price tickets he got through his father, a flight attendant with Pakistan International Airlines, the PA reported.
Experts taken by surprise
Intelligence and security experts said they were surprised that Washington would reveal information that could expose the name of a source during an ongoing law enforcement operation.
“If it’s true that the Americans have unintentionally revealed the identity of another nation’s intelligence agent, who appears to be working in the good of all of us, that is not only a fundamental intelligence flaw. It’s also a monumental foreign relations blunder,” security expert Paul Beaver, a former publisher of Jane’s Defense Weekly, told Reuters.
Kevin Rosser, a security expert at the London-based consultancy Control Risks Group, said such a disclosure was a risk that came with staging public alerts but that authorities were supposed to take special care not to ruin ongoing operations.
“When these public announcements are made, they have to be supported with some evidence, and in addition to creating public anxiety and fatigue, you can risk revealing sources and methods of sensitive operations,” he said.