Harmony, Disharmony, and the Power of Secrets

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Messing with the Enemy, an excellent book by Clint Watts. In 2002, CIA director George Tenet created the Harmony data base as the intelligence community’s central repository for all information gathered during counterterrorism operations. This data base served as a single place for bringing together information of the conduct of the emerging field of DOMINEX (document and media exploitation). At first , the Harmony database assisted soldiers picking up clues about enemy whereabouts and communications from many different babble fields and helped support the prosecution of alleged terrorists.

A Major Steve saw al-Qaeda’s secrets from a different perspective. He focused on the strategic deliberations of terrorists, their biases and preference, expense reports, likes and dislikes, and successes and failures, as well as what they thought of one another. In sum these documents yielded insights into the group’s strategic weakness and internal fractures.

Major Steve moved to the Combat Terrorism Center at West Point, which offered an interface for the military and government to connect with top experts in new cultures, regions, languages, and politics challenging effective counters operations. Major Steve could unlock the Harmony database’s secrets, create am open-source repository for the public, and enlist highly educated military officers stationed at West Point to study and collaborate with top professors around the world. In 2005, the CTC launched the Harmony Program “to contextualize the inner-functioning of al-Qaeda, its associated movement, and other security threats through primary source documents. In addition to conducting initial research on the materials, the program aimed “to make these sources, which are captured in the course of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters, available to other scholars for further study.

The first study was tiled Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities. The study reviewed the employee contracts which showed that Arab recruits were paid more than African recruits, and married volunteers with children received more benefits and vacation than single members. The report noted that ineffective terrorists, instead of being plucked off the battlefield, should not be removed from the network if they can be reliably be observed, even if they present easy targets. The report’s justifications for this recommendation were pulled from a 1999 email sent by Ayman al-Zawahiri to a Yemeni cell leader in which he scolded a subordinate, saying, “With all due respect, this is not an accounting. It’s a summary accounting. For example, you didn’t write any date, and many of the items are vague. Watts writes, “Nearly twenty years later, Zawahiri’s letter offers some insights into why terrorists in the ranks sought to defect to ISIS after bin Laden’s death: he was a stickler of a boss.”

The key recommendation from the report follows: “increase internal dissension within al-Qaeda’s leadership.” Communique’s between al-Qaeda subordinates challenged the direction put out by the group’s leaders and questioned whether orders should be obeyed. One member said that faulty leadership held the group back, asserting that bin Laden had rushed “to move without visions,” and asked Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, to reject bin Laden’s orders.

Another study using the Harmony Database found that al-Qaeda, as a military organization, had never been particularly strong, and its success as a media organization masked deep internal divides between its leaders over strategic direction.

The Russians recognized that transparency movements relied on content, and compromising information seeded to WikiLeaks provided a new method for character assassination.The Russian intelligence services forged ahead compromising adversaries in cyber through the late 1990s and early 2000s. They secretly placed child pornography on the computers of defectors and intelligence officers and leaked sex videos of political opponents on the internet, creating a media feeding frenzy. Outlets like Wikileaks were a perfect vehicle for widespread character assassination of enemies worldwide, an open-source vehicle for planting information that allowed for plausible deniability.

Watts concludes this chapter as follows: “Many of the great chess masters have been Russian, and their leader, Vladimir Putin, is a lover of judo. Both require strategy, and victory routinely goes to those who employ their adversary’s strengths against them. As Putin famously demonstrated his judo skills on Youtube, Edward Snowden settled into a Kremlin-provided safe house. Julian Assange stowed away in the Ecuadorian embassy. The Kremlin trolls practiced on audiences in Ukraine and Syria, and occasionally heckled me. As for the hackers swirling around the Syrian Electronic Army, some of them went offline, busy working on a new project. And Russia’s cyber team came together for a new mission, with some new methods the world had yet to see and still doesn’t quite comprehend.”

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One Response to “Harmony, Disharmony, and the Power of Secrets”

  1. russvane3 Says:

    Thanks!

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