From Strategic Forecasting, Inc :
Framing the 'Sleeper Cell' Argument
By Fred Burton
Sleeper cell.The very phrase conjures up an image of evil plotters burrowing deep into the fabric of a society, hiding under deep cover until they are called upon to strike at an unsuspecting host. Because it is a "sexy" phrase that arouses deep emotions and commands attention, it is frequently used in the public sphere. In fact, it has so much currency that Showtime even created a dramatic series called "Sleeper Cell" -- and you knew people would watch it on the strength of its name alone.
Psychologically, it is the word "sleeper" that arouses the greatest angst in the post-9/11 context -- the world by now has grown familiar with the concept of "terrorist cell," and that phrase no longer carries the emotional impact that the word "sleeper" does. As a result, the term not only is used frequently, but also often is used incorrectly -- not only by reporters and academics, but even at times by senior officials with agencies like the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, in testimony before the U.S. Congress and in other public statements.
The issue is not one of mere semantics; the overuse of the phrase "sleeper cell" tends to blur important distinctions and contribute to general confusion about the nature of the jihadist threat the United States is fighting. Precise language is needed both for clear-eyed analysis and more effective defense and counterterrorism efforts.
Defining a 'Sleeper'
In simple terms, a sleeper is an operative that is infiltrated into the society, or even into the government, of a targeted country -- there to remain dormant ("sleep") until being activated, perhaps by a prearranged signal or a certain chain of events.
The concept of a sleeper operative dates back to the Cold War. In that context, a sleeper would be an officer working with a foreign intelligence service -- which would exercise maximum care in infiltrating him into the target country, to avoid detection by counterintelligence and security forces. The operative could be tasked with carrying out acts of sabotage if war should break out between the country that deployed him and the target country, but barring that, his job was to do nothing but blend into society, until the time came to act.
A sleeper differs from what the Soviets (and now the Russians) would refer to as an "illegal", or what the CIA calls a "NOC" (an officer under "non-official cover"), in that a sleeper is not to take immediate operational activity, but rather must remain dormant until activated.
There are great dangers in submerging a sleeper operative for long periods in a target society, so intelligence agencies are very particular about what kinds of people are selected for such assignments. Such operatives must be mentally prepared for the stress they will endure in infiltrating the country, as well as capable of enduring the monotony of being in place for years without engaging in operational acts and without betraying their true identity or purpose. Only highly disciplined people qualify for such assignments.
Moreover, extensive training in operational tradecraft is needed; any contact between the operative and deploying government is extremely risky for the mission, so a highly sophisticated command-and-control system is needed for communication. This requirement would be multiplied in the case of a sleeper cell, given the need to avoid rousing suspicions or linking members of a cell together.
In short, an operation involving a sleeper must be -- by definition -- a long-term, strategic project that may take years or even decades to reach fruition. Great vision, sophisticated planning and deep reservoirs of patience are required of the government or group that prepares and deploys such agents, which are assets to be held in reserve until a time of great need. In the Cold War context, sleeper operatives were a fallback or redundant intelligence network that could be activated in a crisis situation -- for example, if both the primary intelligence network (consisting of diplomats) and the secondary network (NOCs or illegal intelligence officers) were rolled up, leaving the deploying government blind. Sleeper officers would be the safety net to ensure that the sponsoring agency could still gather intelligence about what was happening in the targeted country.
Al Qaeda and Covert Operatives
Given this definition, we are not aware of any jihadist organization -- including al Qaeda -- that has ever created and run a true sleeper operation or cell. Perhaps the most significant reason for this is that an organization with limited resources would find it difficult to afford an operative who sits in place and does nothing. As the 9/11 attacks and other operations have made clear, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups certainly have used clandestine operatives in the past. However, it is important to note that simply because an operative is hidden does not mean he is a sleeper.
Consider the 9/11 operatives as an example. The men were divided into two groups -- the pilots and those who might be termed the "muscle hijackers," who wielded box cutters while the al Qaeda pilots took control in the cockpit. Some in the media have equated the pilots with sleeper operatives because they began to arrive in the United States in early 2000, long before their planned attack, but this would be a misnomer. After arriving, these men quickly engaged in operational activities, such as attending English classes and enrolling in flight schools. The 9/11 pilots clearly were sent to the United States with a mission, which they began pursuing shortly after arriving.
The same holds true for the muscle hijackers, who began arriving in the country by July 2001. Rather than trying to embed themselves in American society, they remained more or less aloof; they kept to themselves, lifted weights and waited for the green light from an operational commander -- in this case, Mohammed Atta -- to execute their mission.
One of the key aspects to consider in any discussion of al Qaeda -- and one that often is overlooked -- is that al Qaeda is a nonstate entity. That means not only that it is a network set up to carry out attacks, but also that it must sustain itself; it has nodes dedicated to fundraising, recruitment, and logistics and training activities. Examples of such nodes can be clearly seen in a historical review of al Qaeda's activities, and at times these can confuse the sleeper cell discourse.
In the mid-1990s, al Qaeda established a node in East Africa -- with headquarters in Nairobi -- that opened a charity called Help Africa People, as well as a gem-trading business, a fishing business and a branch of Osama bin Laden's Taba Investment Company. Alongside these non-terrorist activities, the Nairobi cell was busy with operational planning -- having surveilled the U.S. embassy in Nairobi as early as 1993. The group's planning activities (and its connection to al Qaeda) attracted so much attention that in August 1997, Kenyan and U.S. authorities visited the home of cell leader Wadih El-Hage, seized his computer and other evidence, and strongly suggested that he leave the country.
Thus, even though the East Africa cell was present and active for several years before the 1998 attacks at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, it could not correctly be categorized as a sleeper cell, given its open relationship with al Qaeda and recruiting and fundraising operations.
Grassroots Groups and Sleepers
Since 1979, thousands of Muslim men have fought jihad in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and, most recently, Iraq. These men, along with others who have never been to jihad, have left their home countries or place of residence to attend training camps in places like Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan -- where they also were ideologically indoctrinated. During the jihad in Afghanistan and Bosnia, many of these men were recruited by Muslim "charities" associated with the Maktab al-Khidmat, or MAK -- known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau -- and many even had their travel expenses paid in whole or in part by these charities. These men eventually returned to their home countries but retained their paramilitary skills, their radical mindsets and their relationships with the men with whom they had fought and trained.
Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have used such networks to their advantage. When Abdel Basit (perhaps more widely known as Ramzi Yousef) arrived in the United States in September 1992, he was able to use contacts at Brooklyn's Alkifah Refugee Center -- which was one of the U.S. branches of the MAK -- to quickly cobble together a team that helped him plan and execute the first World Trade Center bombing. In that case, Basit was not a sleeper because he came to the United States with a mission in mind and quickly got to work on it. Nor would the others arrested in connection with that case fit the definition of sleeper operatives; though they were living in the United States and were, to some degree, embedded in society, they were not deployed for that purpose by al Qaeda but rather came to the country of their own accord.
Mahmoud Abouhalima, Mohammed Salameh and their colleagues were what might be termed "grassroots" operatives who were organized by an operational commander (Basit), who was dispatched to the United States from "the base" in Afghanistan. The grassroots pattern has been used by al Qaeda far more often than the 9/11 model, in which all the operatives were sent into the United States from overseas. As al Qaeda's evolution from an organization to a movement continues, the odds of another centrally planned, funded and executed attack like 9/11 will grow ever more remote.
Instead, it is the combination of operational planners and grassroots cells that will continue to pose the most significant and most persistent threat. This is the model that was evident in the Madrid and London attacks. Grassroots cells lack the strategic reach and punch demonstrated by the 9/11 cell, but they will continue to pose a tactical threat in their areas of operation for the foreseeable future.
Again, it is critical to distinguish between grassroots militants or supporters of jihadist causes and sleeper operatives. If al Qaeda or any other transnational organization were to demonstrate the strategic reach and capabilities necessary for deploying true sleepers, there would be far-reaching implications for the war against terrorism -- ranging from U.S. counterintelligence policy all the way down to how immigration laws are written and enforced.
The Weight of the Evidence
Now, having said all of those things, it is quite interesting that Osama bin Laden, in the videotape issued in January 2006, implied that al Qaeda operatives are today present within the continental United States, and there have been media reports that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is in U.S. custody, discussed the existence of sleeper cells in the country. At the very least, it is logical to assume that the issue would have been near the top of the list of questions posed by interrogators during his debriefing.
Al Qaeda leaders of such high rank do command a certain amount of credibility, particularly when it comes to threatening and then carrying out specific attacks, and it would be foolish to dismiss their claims out of hand. But it also is important to note that they have strong incentives to spread disinformation, so as to confuse counterterrorism efforts in the United States and elsewhere. Moreover, it is difficult to know how al Qaeda itself defines concepts such as a "sleeper" -- and it is entirely possible that their definition differs from that used by state intelligence organizations.
Thus, while there is strong evidence that al Qaeda has contacts within the United States, the only answer to the question of whether it has sleeper agents in place is that we cannot know for sure. However, we tend to discount the possibility for several reasons.
For one thing, as previously discussed, the deployment of sleeper operatives is a strategic capability that takes a great deal of planning, coordination and training. And since 9/11, al Qaeda's strategic capabilities have been seriously degraded; the U.S.-led counteroffensive has denied the organization places to train, plan and operate, and has inflicted serious damage to its financial and communications networks. As a result, the operational tradecraft of al Qaeda field operatives has degraded to a level below that prior to the 9/11 attacks.
It follows, then, that even if al Qaeda possesses the strategic vision and patience necessary to embed sleeper operatives in the United States, the organization no longer would be capable of training the personnel or coordinating such an operation today. If there is a bona fide threat of al Qaeda sleepers in the United States, it would mean they were present in the country prior to 9/11.
Now, while the leadership of al Qaeda certainly has an attention span and takes a view of history longer than that of many Americans, there is evidence that it also has a relatively short planning cycle. History has shown that key planners and operatives frequently were engaged with more than one operation at a time. In other words, it is not sufficient to use successful al Qaeda attacks to extrapolate a planning cycle; this model does not take into account failed or foiled attempts, such as the shoe bomber plot and other planned spectaculars, that also were being implemented during the same time frame.
When one also factors in the large number of senior al Qaeda planners who have been captured or killed since 9/11, it is clear that the organization is under enormous pressure.The question, then, is this: How much longer could al Qaeda wait before activating any sleeper cells it might have? Logic would argue that any sleeper operatives still out in the cold either must be getting exceedingly nervous at this point or they do not exist. If they do exist, the ability to remain hidden so long after 9/11 implies that they possess a degree of professionalism on par with that of the KGB -- and far exceeding anything exhibited by al Qaeda operatives to date.