Al-Qaeda Use of Intelligence Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) of nation-states


    Al-Qaeda (AQ) uses robust and exhaustive intelligence techniques. Consequently, intelligence officials of major states fear that AQ uses many of the same Tactics, Techniques and Procedures  (TTP) as nation-states. Its training manuals provide extensive guides on collecting open-source intelligence, conducting surveillance, interrogating prisoners, and recruiting assets working in foreign governments. The belief that it is barbaric and operate in a world of religious fervour does not carry weight. Importantly, AQ is adept at intelligence collection and counterintelligence methods.

    What is less known about AQ is that major states disseminate many of the intelligence TTPs that it uses from long and complicated relationships. In particular, the United States, Russia, Iran and Britain. Mostly, major powers did this unintentionally. Nevertheless, AQ has assimilated these TTPs to suit its needs and survive in the hostile environment in which it chooses to operate.

    What is clear is that the major powers have shared TTPs with allies and proxies. This has ultimately led to non-state actors, and AQ incorporated them into their TTPs.

    1. AQ TTP and the Iran/Hezbollah relationship

    Iranian intelligence at the start of the 20th century was inadequate. In 1957, the Iranian State Intelligence and Security Organisation (SAVAK) was formed. Its formation is attributed to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hoping to guard against Soviet expansion. They sent SAVAK personnel to the US to receive training in intelligence and counterintelligence. They estimated that close to 6000 SAVAK operatives received training from the CIA. Because of this training, Iranian operatives received valuable TTPs from the CIA.

    Also, Britain played a role in training Iranian intelligence staff. Separate from the CIA MI6 maintained a HUMINT network within the SAVAK. This demonstrates how British intelligence’s TTPs were disseminated to SAVAK agents.

    Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, SAVAK was disbanded and replaced by SAVMA. Many of the CIA/MI6 trained SAVAK personnel remained. Consequently, the major powers TTPs continued within the Iranian intelligence.   

    In 1982, Iran began supporting the Party of God, Hezbollah in Lebanon. It provided the Hezbollah organisation with operational support against Israel. Iran provided Hezbollah with intelligence support, also running training camps for the terrorist organisation.

    During this time AQ became aware of the capabilities of Hezbollah. AQ sought to increase its capabilities. Therefore, in exchange for money and fighters, Hezbollah agreed to provide training for AQ. Its operatives visited training camps in the mid-1990s where they were trained in explosives and avoiding detection by enemy forces. They have indirectly disseminated Iranian TTPs throughout this training.

    1.1. Direct Iran/AQ relations

    However, Iran facilitated a direct connection with AQ in the early 1990s when Osama bin Laden was living in Sudan. Iran agreed to provide AQ with explosives, intelligence and security training through proxies. Despite this agreement, post 9/11 Iran has tried to outwardly distance itself from any affiliation with AQ. But what is clear is that Iran was still a hub for AQ fighters and leadership to travel to Afghanistan. Furthermore, in 1995, the SVR (Russian Military Intelligence) trained Iran in the latest intelligence TTPs. As a result, Iran has disseminated the latest intelligence TTPs to both AQ and Hezbollah.

    Additionally, leaked documents published by Wikileaks provide evidence of the Iran/AQ relationship. The documents outline how Iran devised new suicide vests for AQ in Iraq. In the assessment published, they claim that new techniques for suicide attacks originated in Iran and Syria. In addition, the newly developed suicide vests contained miniature cameras that allowed for remote monitoring by the attacker’s handler. This level of sophistication points to state-level involvement, most notably by Iran.  

    Undoubtedly, the intelligence and counterintelligence TTPs that were trusted to Iran by both the UK and the US have found their way to AQ from Iran and Hezbollah.

    2. Pakistan and AQ TTP

    The British created Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Directorate in 1948, following the decolonisation of India. Because many of the personnel were British and had stayed in Pakistan, any intelligence training they received would have been passed on to their native successors. Therefore, British intelligence TTPs were part of ISI from the beginning.

    ISI grew in stature and effectiveness following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, where support was largely from the CIA. ISI provided support to the Mujahideen both financial and in training. The relationship between the ISI and the CIA allowed the CIA to have plausible deniability. The CIA codenamed this operation Cyclone. It was the most expensive operation the CIA has ever conducted. It also gave ISI access to large sums of cash and the ability to nurture its relationship with the Mujahideen. Furthermore, this relationship meant that ISI operatives were given intelligence training in the US by the CIA.

    The relationship between ISI and the Mujahideen resulted in the latter receiving training in intelligence tactics. This included surveillance, counter-surveillance of targets, moving undetected behind enemy lines and communication security. It was also at this time that ISI established communication with Osama bin Laden.

    2.1. AQ/Pakistan relations into the ’90s

    The relationship between ISI and Osama bin Laden continued to grow stronger throughout the 1990s. ISI actively participated in leading training camps for Al-Qaeda. It is highly likely that they have taught AQ members the TTPs of ISI and CIA, because ISI intelligence staff gave the training camps. Therefore, they would have undoubtedly reached AQ, eventually as ISI and Hezbollah knew the same TTPs. Moreover, AQ actively offered intelligence training before 9/11 and to this day still puts intelligence at the heart of its operations. Importantly, ISI built this relationship to aid in its war in Kashmir against the Indian government.

    In addition to this historical relationship, in September 2019, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan confirmed that ISI had provided training to AQ. In his statement, Khan surmised that even after the 9/11 attacks there were those within the ISI that maintained close links. Subsequently, these links remained until the US killed Osama bin Laden because it was the ISI and Pakistan military that trained AQ to fight Jihad.

    Therefore, ISI intelligence TTPs, which British intelligence and the CIA created, were likely passed on to AQ. AQ has successfully used these TTPs to ensure the group’s survival and continued ability to target major powers.

    3. Al-Qaeda – Learning from Opensource

    The West aids AQ in its intelligence collection and development of its TTPs. Western powers aid this by the continued publication of both military and intelligence doctrines. AQ and other non-state actors only have to conduct a quick internet search to find the latest operating procedures of both the US and UK military. This provides AQ with an updated version of the TTPs used by the UK and US in the military and intelligence actions against it. Therefore, AQ is able to implement more robust counterintelligence methods. This is because it is able to study its enemy in greater detail.

    4. Major powers continue to disseminate their TTPS

    Without a doubt, the Global War on Terror has diminished AQs capabilities. However, the knowledge gained from the direct and indirect relationships with major powers is now digitised and on the internet.  

    Because the West continues to support and train unstable states and questionable allies, such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan AQ will consequently have updated TTPs. American intelligence agencies have trained Iraqi intelligence services since the fall of Saddam Hussein, which Iranian agents have undoubtedly penetrated. It is this penetration, given the Iran-Hezbollah-AQ relationship that will keep AQ’s TTPs up to date. Finally, in Syria, the CIA has been arming and training opposition forces whilst this relationship is currently beneficial to both parties. The loyalties of those being trained are impossible to guarantee. Therefore, it is likely that some of the training given by the CIA in Syria will make its way to AQ and other terrorist organisations like the Islamic State.

    5. Summary

    Major powers have inadvertently been supplying their TTPs to terrorist organisations throughout the last century. AQ has benefited from its relationships with states like Iran and non-state actors like [email protected] by continually being able to update its TTPs. Whilst AQ does not possess the resources of the major powers, it can adapt these TTPs to suit its goals and the environment that which it chooses to operate in. The continued willingness of major powers to support questionable allies whose

    Bobby Payne
    Bobby Payne
    Bobby has ten years experience in contracts management and business ownership. He is an alumni of the University of East Anglia where he studied history, focussing on Spanish colonisation. He is currently studying MA Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University. His research focus is on terrorism and geopolitics.

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