ISSN 2330-717X

The Role Of Human Intelligence In Counter-Terrorism


By Siddharth Ramana


The uncovering of recent terror plots, including the arrests in Europe and the detection of letter bombs targeting synagogues in the US can be credited to human intelligence or humint. Humint is a category of intelligence derived from information collected and provided by human sources. Humint is an indispensable source of intelligence gathering, which has grown in importance after the limitations of technological intelligence gathering systems, electronic intelligence and signals intelligence have revealed themselves.

Historical narratives on war and strategy are replete with stories of spies. Chinese strategist Sun Tzu had said that “dispositions of an enemy are ascertainable through spies and spies alone;” while Indian philosopher Chanakya wrote that “The ruler should act upon the information given to him by his secret spies about every effort, initiative, political desire and treaties of his enemies.” More recently, humint’s importance was highlighted by the fact that nearly all terror plots in France have been foiled thanks to it, according to a member of France’s main counter-terrorism force.

The modern day terrorist is adept at counter-surveillance skills, and the efforts made into training terrorists to cover their tracks have paid rich dividends. It is important to note here that while terrorists may be ingenious in their usage of modern tools, they are essentially low-level technicians, with only a minority engaging in communication systems which can be traced and monitored.

The difficulties faced by law enforcement agencies in relying on modern intelligence gathering methods was admitted by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 when he stated that it was  years since he received useful intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden. This is traceable to bin Laden’s judicious use of modern communication technology, relying more on human couriers. It is reported that bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone as early as 1998 when he realized that his conversations about the African embassy bombings were being monitored.

In uncovering recent plots, intelligence was garnered through interrogations of captured suspects. But intelligence services have also infiltrated or bought up members of terrorist groups.The infiltration of terrorist cells has helped counter-terrorism officials to gain good intelligence on the activities and membership of a group, and they have also been used in the execution of terrorist leaders. For example, the Israeli security agencies used a local contact to replace Hamas bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash’s phone with an explosive device which killed him in 1996.


One of the problems with using human intelligence sources is the difficulty in infiltrating a terrorist organization due to obvious fears of detection and murder of the asset. In one instance, Egyptian security forces blackmailed their assets in an attempt to assassinate Aymaan al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The plan backfired with Zawahiri surviving and executing his betrayers.

Gaining assets in jihadist groups is particularly difficult owing to their allegiance to a larger community based on faith rather than a solitary-cause movement. For example, the member of a pan-Islamic jihadist group owes allegiance to the Ummah (Islamic community) beyond the group. Under these circumstances getting him/her to betray the cause becomes even more difficult.

The fear of being double-crossed by an asset also plays on the minds of his/her handler. A member of a terrorist group used as an asset by intelligence agencies can cause significant damage because of his/her ability to play both sides. This was most effectively demonstrated in the case of Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor, who was recruited by the CIA to infiltrate al Qaeda in Pakistan. Balawi scheduled a meeting with his CIA handlers in an American base in Afghanistan, and when he arrived he blew himself up, killing seven Americans. Significantly, the attack killed senior veterans of the CIA, and has been described as a serious blow to the agency’s efforts in the region.

The setbacks faced in using human intelligence tools should not come in the way of expediting their recruitment for intelligence gathering. Human intelligence should not be limited to intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, but adopted at the grassroots levels of policing. Cooperative community policing being adopted worldwide is indicative of this trend.

A key element to bolstering the intelligence apparatus should be developing cooperation between the different security wings. Human intelligence should be shared quickly and followed up with equal speed, as this could be the game changer in a ticking time bomb situation. The example of the Nigerian bomber’s father, who tried to warn the authorities about his son before he attempted to bomb a plane bound for the United States, is a case in point.

The need to further develop India’s human intelligence capabilities  is acutely felt with increasing concerns of religious extremism gaining momentum in the country. With technical and signals intelligence being boosted in recent years, the focus of attention should be on human intelligence for the security of the country. {jcomments on}

Siddharth Ramana, Research Officer, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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