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Ex-Cia Operative: Islamist Groups Virtually Impossible To Penetrate


This week marks the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. And while al-Qaida remains a threat to the United States, the Islamic State or ISIS is clearly the terror group that's grabbing headlines right now.

The effort to combat the militant group is likely to require coordination from intelligence agencies, but confronting the ISIS threat is somewhat different than post-9/11 efforts to shut down al-Qaida. Former CIA field officer Robert Baer says right after 9/11, intelligence agencies shifted their focus to technical collection.

ROBERT BAER: Collecting on cell phones, running algorithms through them, determining who was in al-Qaida, who was in the Taliban. And in this, you know - integrating this with the drone photography from cameras because they turned away from human sources. The enemy was up in the tribal areas of Pakistan where officers couldn't go up there, just impossible.

NEARY: Well, now the terrorist group that, of course, is most prominent that most people are concerned about is ISIS. How distinct are they from al-Qaida and do these two different groups require a different approach?

BAER: Well, it's night and day with ISIS. First of all, they're technologically head and shoulders above al-Qaida. They are dealing in communication systems, encrypted communications systems. In fact, it's the same encryption the United States government has. It's almost impossible to pin down their location.

NEARY: So how do you get ahead of them?

BAER: To get ahead of them - I don't know that we can get ahead of them. What we're left with is essentially invasions or turning the locals against them. I think it's dismal what our intelligence is. When I first came into the CIA, you could go everywhere, talk to everyone. And it was pretty good. But then again, it was easy in those days.

Today, it's virtually impossible to penetrate these groups. You look at the ISIS hostage takers. How do you get inside that group? Fine. You could take somebody and, you know, send them to Syria hoping they could join. But chances are they would be found out and executed. And no one is going to make that decision to send somebody in to try this.

NEARY: Well, I was going to say - 'cause it seems like it might be easier to infiltrate ISIS because of the fact that they use Western recruits.

BAER: Well, the problem is that these people are psychopaths. I mean, I hate to put it in those terms, but they are. I mean, you would be expected to join ISIS and to really get inside and go fight. And when you've captured a Syrian soldier, you would have to show that you're prepared to execute him, women, children, the whole thing.

I mean - so we're really between a rock and a hard place. I don't - if I were in the CIA and someone said fix it, I wouldn't have a clue how to do it 'cause the terrain has changed so much. And these people are so militant, radical that, you know, you can take a regular officer and send them. So what you're really hoping for is that someone comes out of that war zone, changes their mind, knocks on a CIA door and said hey I want to volunteer.

NEARY: Robert Baer is a former CIA field officer in the Middle East. Thanks for being with us.

BAER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.