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The President, each morning, would ask Tenet, "What've you got on the mubtakkar?"
Tenet would reply, "Not much more, but we're doing anything we can to pin down who these guys are."
In the middle of March, as the invasion of Iraq directed the energies and focus of the Administration, CIA chiefs huddled in Langley. They simply had no context for either the trio in Bahrain or the ones in Saudi Arabia. The White House and CIA pressed officials in both countries with a single message. We're on the case. Just don't let these men go free.
It has been generally acknowledged that the United States has never had any significant human sources or, in intelligese, humint assets inside al-Qaeda.
That is not true.
It was, in fact, not true by early 2003. There was a source from within Pakistan who was tied tightly into al-Qaeda management.
Call him Ali.
Ali was, not surprisingly, a complex character. He believed that bin Laden might have made a mistake in attacking America. This was not an uncommon sentiment among senior officials in the organization. It is, in fact, periodically a point of internal debate, according to sigint signals intelligence picked up in this period. Bin Laden's initial calculation was that either America wouldn't respond to the attacks or that its response would mean the U.S. Army would soon be sinking in an Afghan quagmire. That, of course, did not occur. U.S. forces despite the mishap of letting bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and most of the organization's management escape had managed to overthrow the Taliban and flush al-Qaeda from its refuge. The group was now dispersed. A few of its leaders and many foot soldiers were captured or dead. As with any organization, time passed and second-guessing began.
That provided an opening. The disgruntlement was enough to begin working a few potential informants. It was an operation of relationship building that reflected traditional European spycraft. Build common bonds. Show sympathy to the sources' concerns. Develop trust. While al-Qaeda recruits were ready for martyrdom, that was something its more senior officials seemed to have little taste for. As one CIA manager said, "Masterminds are too valuable for martyrdom." Whatever Ali's motivations, his reports over the preceding six months had been almost always correct, including information that led to several captures.
Now, in late March 2003, the CIA was in a jam. The Saudis were complaining that they couldn't hold prisoners without some evidence of wrongdoing. The trio directly connected to the Bahrainis, they could hold for only a few more weeks. The other trio, they had already released. They had nothing on them.
It was time to call on Ali.
His handler contacted him through an elaborate set of signals, and a meeting was set up. CIA operatives mentioned to him the names of the captives in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the existence of the mubtakkar designs.
Ali said he might be able to help. He told his CIA handlers that a Saudi radical had visited bin Laden's partner al-Zawahiri, in January 2003. The man ran the Arabian Peninsula for al-Qaeda, and one of his aliases was Swift Sword. Ali said the man's name was Yusef al-Ayeri. Finally, the United States had a name for Swift Sword.