Catching Some Sleepers
by Daniel Pipes
From Militant Islam Reaches America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002, pp. 145-55, 293-94.
President George W. Bush provided a good definition of sleepers and the problem they pose in his 2002 State of the Union address: "Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning." Sleepers—those seemingly law-abiding individuals who live quietly and inconspicuously near the scene of their future operations, waiting for orders to spring into action—make up one of the leading security problems facing the United States. Indeed, one day after that speech, FBI director Robert S. Mueller expressed his fear that "sleeper cells" exist within the United States and declared that they require the country to remain on extended high alert.
It is important to understand that these sleepers are a vital part of Al-Qaeda's network, much of which exists outside Afghanistan. The author of a best-selling book on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, notes that Al-Qaeda "has always been divided into two halves. One is the half which is based in Afghanistan, fighting with the Taliban. And they will certainly be eliminated. But the tens of thousands of al Qaeda militants, usually well-educated, middle class people who have come into Afghanistan, trained and then left, and settled down in many foreign countries, these cells . . . are going to remain." Others estimate that an even smaller proportion—perhaps 20 percent—of Al-Qaeda's assets were ever in Afghanistan. While being secretly recorded by Italian police, a member of Al-Qaeda's Milan cell boasted that his organization is "everywhere." And indeed, according to intelligence sources, as many as seventy thousand agents trained in weapons and explosives remain at large in some fifty countries. What are they doing there?
Preparing for further acts of terrorism, of course. This requires a substantial infrastructure of individuals placed in mosques, Muslim institutions, financial institutions, law firms, government offices, and many other sensitive positions. But the key operatives are the sleepers. Documents found in Afghanistan point to larger numbers of sleepers trained at Al-Qaeda camps in that country than previously imagined. One estimate sees one thousand five hundred of them in North America and Europe. In Los Angeles, for example, the authorities are watching up to thirty individuals. Or this: in mid-September 2001, some 250 members of Al-Qaeda, thought to be sleeper agents, fled Afghanistan to an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, from which point they dispersed to parts unknown.
Nor is Al-Qaeda the only source of militant Islamic sleepers. Yonah Alexander of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies notes that Hizbullah, the militant Islamic organization of Lebanon, "has sent entire families to settle in Latin America, South Africa and Europe. It's a long-term approach that follows the Soviet model to send sleepers."
September 11 showed what damage sleepers can do. Catching them before they wake up is one of the most urgent and most difficult tasks in the war on terrorism.
Dealing with the Problem
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft understated the case when he observed in mid-October 2001 that it is "very unlikely" that all of those with a part in the suicide hijackings of September 11 and other "terrorism events" have been apprehended. Indeed, the FBI has initiated at least 150 investigations of suspected sleepers (according to CNN), confirming just how much work remains to be done.
The trouble is, the federal government has a record of proven incompetence at rooting out sleepers going back to the 1980s. The story of Ali Abdelsoud Mohamed, an Egyptian immigrant born in 1952, shows just how deep the rot has gone. An officer in the Egyptian military, Mohamed rose to the rank of major in Egypt's special forces. At some point, he joined the militant Islamic terrorist group that in 1981 assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Under growing suspicion for extremist views, he was cashiered in 1984. A year later he moved to the United States and joined the U.S. military, rising to the rank of supply sergeant as well as lecturer on Middle East culture at the U.S. Army's special warfare school in Fort Bragg in 1986–89. He also began working for Osama bin Laden then. Mohamed taught his army skills to Al-Qaeda's recruits, translated military manuals from English into Arabic, and, as one of bin Laden's oldest and most trusted aides, helped plan operations. The most important of these was in Kenya, where he admits he "took pictures, drew diagrams, and wrote a report." Bin Laden later "looked at the picture of the American embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber." His colleagues blew up the embassy in August 1998. Mohamed's case points to a massive failure on the part of both the State Department, which issues visas to foreigners, and the U.S. Army.
More recently, the chance arrest in December 1999 of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian member of Al-Qaeda, as he was crossing the Canada-U.S. border to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, opened a window into the substantial network of sleeper agents already within the United States. (Information he provided also led to the arrest of sleepers in four European countries.)
How to tell who might be a sleeper? Don't ask the feds; Mohamed himself, when pleading guilty to his crimes, dismissed current profiles of sleepers as "invalid." He was probably referring to the fact that the sixteen men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and related conspiracy cases had a specific profile that reigned for many years afterwards: uneducated, "conspicuous hotheads, young immigrant men from the poorest and most radicalized Arab countries, clustered around a fire-breathing preacher at an established mosque," all of them working for a "state sponsor" of terrorism. Other than being young immigrant men, the September 11 hijackers have none of these characteristics.
Nor are other governments better prepared: Hassan Butt, a twenty-two-year-old British Muslim, who claims to have helped recruit more than two hundred British volunteers to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan, disdained the British ability to protect the society, maintaining that "The security forces and intelligence services within Britain are not competent to deal with sophisticated Mujahideen." Magnus Ranstorp of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland criticizes Western intelligence in the 1990s for having "take[n] the eye off the ball" on the sleeper issue.
For Washington to get serious about this problem requires some substantial changes. In particular, Congress should review current laws to protect the country from them. Here are four specifics that need changing:
Many other institutions besides the government also have a major role in protecting the country, something John Ashcroft recognized when he called for the establishment of a "national neighborhood watch." Some local programs have sprung up, such as the New
Jersey–based Community Anti-Terrorism Training, which deputizes community groups and citizens by training them to spot possible dangers by becoming more aware of their environment, but the bulk of the responsibility falls on institutions, especially corporations. Recall how airport security operators, flight instruction companies, and airlines had their shortcomings brutally exposed on September 11. Manufacturers of weaponry and paramilitary equipment have been lax in controlling their sales. Banks have not cracked down on money laundering. Hi-tech firms have scoffed at the need for controls on their products. Educational institutions have taught anyone qualified the secrets of electrical engineering.
Proving that hardly any business is exempt, consider what happened to ABC News when it employed Tarik Hamdi of Herndon, Virginia, to help secure an interview with bin Laden in early 1998. The network transported Hamdi to Afghanistan, unaware of his real purpose in going there—to carry a replacement battery to bin Laden for the satellite telephone he would later use to order the embassy bombings in East Africa.
In some cases, private institutions have done a better job of discerning sleepers than has law enforcement. Most notable is the case of the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Minneapolis, where the flight instructor became immediately suspicious of his student, Zacarias Moussaoui, who showed no interest in basic aviation skills but wanted only to practice on an advanced commercial jet simulator. "Do you realize how serious this is?" the instructor asked an FBI agent. "This man wants training on a [Boeing] 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!" In this case, at least, the FBI did arrest Moussaoui. But when Pan Am's Phoenix branch called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to report on Hani Hanjour, who later piloted the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, the FAA responded by sending an employee to observe Hanjour. The result? He discussed with Pan Am the issue of Hanjour's poor English and finding someone to help him with this obstacle to his becoming a pilot! "The school was clearly more alert than federal officials," observes Representative Martin Sabo of Minnesota.
Ira A. Lipman of Guardsmark, a leading private security firm, warns that "sleepers are one of the most dangerous elements facing the United States in the years ahead" and argues that private organizations must be vigilant no less than public ones. In particular, he notes the need for comprehensive background investigations and proactive protective systems. Although it is hard to find anyone who will dispute these points post–September 2001, it is true that this good advice is only sometimes implemented in full.
Granting that sleepers can do terrible damage, how does one recognize them? While the great majority of sleepers to date have been young Middle Eastern Muslim men, this pattern must be used with caution. The fact is, militant Islam is an ideology open to all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. David Belfield, the Iranian agent who assassinated a man outside Washington, D.C., in 1980, and Clement Rodney Hampton-El, a culprit in the first World Trade Center attack, are both African-Americans. A plot in 2001 against the U.S. Embassy in Paris depended in part on so-called white Moors, or French converts to Islam such as the two French brothers, David and Jerome Courtailler. Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, is half-English and half-Jamaican.
Nor does looking piously Islamic offer much of a clue. Most pious Muslims, of course, are not terrorists, a fact that came home when a state trooper on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in September 2001 stopped the car carrying Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America in order to check out what one person called "something fishy." In fact, Kabbani—who wears a flowing robe and has a full beard and is a patriotic citizen—was driving home from a private prayer session with the president of the United States.
The problem, rather, has to do with a person's subscribing to militant Islam, the Islamic-flavored totalitarianism that fuels violent movements from Egypt to the Philippines, that has brought low Iran and Algeria, and has devastated Afghanistan and Sudan. Its adherents seek to bring this radical utopian program not just to majority-Muslim countries but even to Western Europe and North America. About one of every eight Muslims worldwide accepts militant Islam. These today are the prime threats to the United States and other Western countries. They have proven themselves to be ideologically dedicated, ruthless, and technically sophisticated. They will stop at nothing to harm or even destroy the countries they hate.
In normal circumstances, militants take pride in making themselves conspicuous through their appearance and clothing, their actions and statements. For obvious reasons, however, sleepers prefer to blend into the nonmilitant majority, so they take precautions to hide themselves. They "don't wear the traditional beards and they don't pray at the mosques," Mohamed testified. Al-Qaeda instructs its agents to wear Western clothes and (advised some poorly spelled English-language class notes found in a training house in Afghanistan), "Don't taike any thing wich belong to Islam." A captured Al-Qaeda encyclopedia, Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants, instructs sleepers to "have a general appearance that does not indicate Islamic orientation," and specifically mentions the need for men not to wear a beard. The book also admonishes sleepers not to denounce the inequity in their midst, not to use common Islamic expressions such as "peace be on you," nor to frequent Islamic locations, such as mosques.
Sleepers might be married to non-Muslims; indeed, they make a practice of using their families as cover. "They often avoid Muslim communities, living blameless lives, paying their taxes, holding down steady jobs," notes Simon Reeve, the biographer of Osama bin Laden. And while the leaders live abstemiously and according to Islamic precepts, the lower ranks are more self-indulgent, with a taste for pornography, women, liquor, and drugs. The man accused of planning to ram an airplane into the fifty-five-story Rialto Towers, Australia's highest building, often turned up twice a week at the Main Course brothel in downtown Melbourne, where he became notorious "as a bit of a sneak, always trying to get more than he paid for."
Such duplicity makes it much harder to discern who should be suspect. "It's like a ghost in front of you," commented a senior French official about the September 11 gang in general. "They didn't do anything to raise eyebrows," said an acquaintance about two of its members in particular. For sleepers, this deception also has the advantage of bringing the Muslim population as a whole under suspicion, which both provides cover and raises questions of bias (often proving an obstacle to effective law enforcement).
Despite these difficulties, ways do exist to distinguish the likely sleepers from other Muslims. To begin with, all known sleepers until now have been young men. (The only women arrested for Al-Qaeda activities were two Algerians producing fake credit cards and passports in Leicester, England.) Perhaps the militant Islamic networks will one day go beyond this self-imposed limitation, but for now it appears to be one way of winnowing down the pool of potential suspects.
It is hard for sleepers to maintain a perfect cover. Connections to foreign countries offer one set of warning signals:
Sleepers much prepare themselves for their operations, and this can leave telltale indications:
Some attitudes raise red flags:
Problems having to do with identity are a further indication:
Social activities can offer clues:
Other miscellaneous pointers to look for include:
These are admittedly imprecise indicators; a Muslim who exercises and makes anti-Hindu statements cannot automatically be suspected of planning a suicide operation. Rather, the above signals must be seen in the context of a whole personality and a wider pattern of behavior. Precisely because the legitimate search for sleepers is open to abuse, it requires an unusual degree of common sense, sensitivity, and restraint.
 White House, "The President's State of the Union Address," 29 January 2002.
Nov. 2, 2008 update: I report today at "How to Catch Sleepers - Confirmed" on a test of the above article by Daniel B. Kennedy, Robert J. Homant, and Erick Barnes, and t that their analysis "established that the items derived from Pipes constitute an internally consistent scale and that our insider judges adopt a consistent pattern in evaluating the items."
Jan. 18, 2012 update: The Obama administration, well-known for its counterterrorism brilliance, convened a conference at the White House for 46 senior federal, state and local law enforcement officials to (among other things) offer its analysis of signs that suggest a terrorist in the making. Some details ahead of time:
Of course, analysts found that "a person's origin, ethnic background and socioeconomic status are not good indicators for potential violent extremist activity."
June 28, 2012 update: The Interior Ministry in the German state of Lower Saxony has issued a brochure, Radikalisierungsprozesse im Bereich des islamistischen Extremismus und Terrorismus, that lists the indicators of Muslim radicalization. These include "an increasingly strict moral code," "rejection and aggression against all that is 'Western'," and "visiting Islamist websites and consuming films that promote violent jihad." The brochure has prompted heated opposition among Muslim and leftist elements.
Reader comments (8) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes