Has American intelligence had any success in penetrating Al Qaeda cells? What efforts has it made to recruit Al Qaeda members to learn about the organization’s inside workings? Those questions are frequently asked, but there is remarkably little anecdotal information to be found. In a piece in the New York Observer, Aram Roston gives us an intriguing look at one project focusing on Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, also known as “Shakir el Iraqi.”
Shakir worked as a VIP greeter for Malaysian Airlines and was clearly present during some Al Qaeda operations planning, possibly including the September 11 attacks. He was “tall as a mushroom, fat and gay,” one source told Roston, and the idea was to turn him–possibly blackmailing him by using evidence of his homosexuality. But the plan didn’t work out; the CIA’s expectation that he was blackmailable might have been somewhat naïve.
The CIA observed Shakir at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where he greeted and accompanied Khalid al-Mihdhar, a Yemen-born Al Qaeda operative:
As the C.I.A. watched, Messrs. Mihdhar and Shakir climbed into a taxi outside the airport and drove to an upscale apartment complex near a golf course. For the next three days, Mr. Mihdhar and about half a dozen other high-level terrorists planned future strikes against America, including the hijackings of 9/11, according to multiple intelligence experts. In anti-terrorism circles, Kuala Lumpur is seen as a critical stop on the road to the attacks. It’s uncertain whether Mr. Shakir participated in the meetings. But clearly, he was connected. And as the terror summit went on, the C.I.A. became convinced that it had found the perfect mole to help the agency crack the jihadi circle. Mr. Shakir seemed to have excellent contacts among the radical jihadists, and, according to intelligence sources, he certainly didn’t look like a terrorist or a spy.
Another source described Mr. Shakir to The Observer as a potential “access agent,” espionage jargon for an informant whose function is to spot other potential spies and turncoats. Though he may not know secrets or terrorist plots himself, the access agent is likely to know people who do, and is expected to facilitate meetings. As this officer explained, the agency “looked to him as a social broker.”
After searching his apartment, the agency made overtures to Shakir that were rebuffed, and the matter appears to have ended with that. Oddly, however, the CIA failed to report back to the FBI that Mihdhar possessed a U.S. visa. A key piece of information in the hands of American intelligence never got passed to U.S. authorities who could have done something with it.
Roston’s account of the operation targeting Shakir does not exactly inspire confidence in the professionalism of the CIA operatives involved. It was not just a failed recruitment operation but also resulted in the suppression of information collected which could have helped flag the September 11 operation itself. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of the story is how the 9/11 Commission was limited in its ability to research it.