WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Local and federal law enforcement officials are using sophisticated infiltration and disinformation campaigns to expose and neutralize al Qaida sleeper cells operating in the United States, U.S. intelligence officials tell United Press International.
FBI officials say that al Qaida cells are embedded in most U.S. cities with sizable Islamic communities. New York, Detroit, New Jersey, Los Angeles, the Virginia area, Florida and cities in North Carolina like Charlotte are all believed to contain cells and their supporters, usually living in run-down sections of urban areas or towns, these officials say.
"Information indicates that quite a few al Qaida cells have been established within the continental United States," an FBI official said. "The cells are up and active." He added that there had been recent electronic intercepts of communications between some groups that show they are in the United States and "talking to each other."
In a review of ongoing U.S. operations, UPI was briefed on the al Qaida investigations by several current and former intelligence officers, all of whom asked not to be identified by name.
According to former CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency officials, the terrorists choose run-down, seedy neighborhoods because "in a place like that, you are invisible. People don't care about you, they don't want to look at you and don't look at you," as one put it.
The terrorists will tend to dress poorly as well. "If you're going to blow up something, you don't walk down a street in a nice suit and tie. If you dress like that, there is the assumption you should have somewhere to go and not be seen loitering around," he said.
A former very senior U.S. intelligence official explained: "The members of cells don't think of themselves as raiding parties, but as the front end of an invasion," he said. "If they can attack, blow things up and disrupt society, they believe there will be mass defections to Islam and society will collapse. They can then set up an Islamic state."
The cells, these sources said, are made up of U.S.-born Moslems and well as young male Muslims from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Yemen, Somalia and Indonesia, among others. Most are thought to have entered the country some time ago, singly or in pairs, and to be now deeply entrenched in their communities, working or running small businesses that may act as a cover for their activities.
To root them out, the FBI has been busy developing a network of informers in Muslim neighborhoods -- everyone from a nightclub owner, waiters in restaurants, gym owners, motel proprietors, lawyers, or merchants -- each with his own contribution to make to the growing file of intelligence on the suspected cells, according to a federal law enforcement official.
U.S. law enforcement agencies believe that intelligence is their chief tool in the war on terror, according to a very senior former Pentagon intelligence official.
"Intelligence is really just a giant research operation where you rely on huge archival files," he said. "It's the most effective weapon you've got."
The next and best weapon in the war against the cells is infiltration. According to a longtime covert operations specialist, law enforcement is currently using agents who are Arabs and fluent in Arabic who then look for ways to get inside the community where the cell members worship.
Their next goal: "to find about the social structure: where do they worship, where do they entertain, what do they talk about?" he said. If it is known where they socialize and there is probable cause, local police might be able to place microphones on the premises, he said. The goal is to identify and eliminate leaders, a former CIA official said.
As the FBI and other law enforcement agencies gain knowledge, any rivalries between group members can be exploited, using disinformation to convince some cell members that others are informers or traitors. One FBI official explained that the purpose is to "disrupt" hostile organizations and that FBI tactics go back to 1956 when the FBI established its COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program.) This official said that the program pitted one group -- or even members of a single group -- against each other "like gladiators in ancient Rome."
The program was used successfully against such groups as the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, he said.
According to several former U.S. intelligence operatives, the most urgent task is to create a fictitious source of information, a "straw man," a person who doesn't exist, according to the longtime U.S. covert operations specialist.
Using straw men works on the theory that anxiety makes people more susceptible to suggestion. "The cell members know they are doing something illegal and expect to be caught and believe that everybody is a spy," he said.
As a key device to disseminate disinformation, the FBI and other law enforcement officials are using pro-al Qaida Web sites and Web chat rooms, U.S. government officials said.
An FBI official confirmed this, adding that what the FBI agent does is go to a city, use a public library computer and create a onetime Hot Mail account. The FBI agent will then enter the chatroom conversation, producing the name of a cell member and labeling him as disloyal, perhaps as an informer for the U.S. government. The agent then flies to another city, and opens another account, and using the name of a different but equally fictional person, enters the chat room "to support and endorse his own story," a longtime undercover operative said.
"It's wonderful mechanism to use. I've done it," the specialist said.
A former CIA official pointed out that similar campaigns used by the French against nationalist rebels in Algeria in the 1950s resulted in internecine conflict within the movement -- including leaders turning against and killing each other.
FBI officials said that they used phony Black Panther sources to place incendiary information in the hand of the Jewish Defense League, which then retaliated against the Panthers.
The phony information -- that the Black Panthers were anti-Semitic -- was leaked to the newspapers, damaging their appeal and reputation, the FBI official said.
The FBI itself carefully crafts these interventions before planting them with informants, to ensure maximum embarrassment and disruption of the targeted extremist group, U.S. officials said.
According to a half-dozen serving and retired federal officials, secret federal intelligence reports put the numbers of al Qaida operatives trained in Afghanistan or elsewhere and currently in the United States at between 2,000 and 5,000.
The estimates are based on immigration and census data, plus numbers of terrorists trained in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden. "They are only conjectural probabilities," said an FBI source.
Former senior counter-terrorism official Larry Johnson told UPI he thinks al Qaida cell members in the United States may number "around 2,000."
Johnson doesn't underestimate the danger, but noted that some skills taught cell members by training in Afghan camps are "perishable. Skills grow dull."
But the intelligence challenge has become urgent and more dangerous because U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have dispersed the leadership of al Qaida worldwide. As a result, the command and control structure have become much looser and cells have been "given more autonomy," a federal law enforcement official said.