Bin Laden Hunter Philip Mudd Talks About Boston at ‘Manhunt’ Screening
“One of the things to watch, for those of you who haven’t done this for a living, is whether whoever did this is on the grid or not,” Mudd, former deputy director of the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis, told a crowd Tuesday night at the Council on Foreign Relations. The prospect of “finding them is not whether it’s a terrorist or an Islamic terrorist,” Mudd said. “It’s whether someone is on the grid—and by ‘grid’ I mean not only electronically, which is critical, but I also mean talking to people. As soon as you are on the grid, you expose yourself to risk…Our opportunities expand exponentially.”
At a screening of the HBO documentary Manhunt, the true story of the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden that was dramatized—and fictionalized—by Zero Dark Thirty, Mudd said government investigators are using the techniques of “targeting analysis” developed in the hunt for bin Laden and other al Qaeda principals. They can locate and track potential suspects through a variety of high-tech and low-tech means.
“It’s phone calls to the wrong person; maybe you start buying the wrong stuff,” Mudd said. “Maybe you travel to the wrong place; maybe you talk to the wrong friend. There’s a lot of opportunities as soon as you touch this expanding 21st-century revolution.”
Mudd—who was joined at the screening by Nada Bakos and Cindy Storer, two former CIA analysts who targeted al Qaeda and also are featured in the documentary—cautioned that law enforcement authorities and intelligence professionals are not “magicians.” He recounted that his own 81-year-old father, who should know better, mused, “I’m surprised there wasn’t an informant in Boston.”
“I couldn’t believe it—and I’m not joking,” Mudd said as the audience chuckled. “I’m thinking there’s 330 million people in the land of the free and the home of the brave—and we can’t control automatic weapons. If we think we can control three kids, or two kids, off the grid, buying stuff over the counter for a recipe they got off the Internet, forget about it. It’s not gonna happen.”
The 51-year-old Mudd, a former English literature maven whose specialty was the Victorian novel, quit a distinguished two-decade career at the CIA in 2010 after President Obama nominated him to be intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security. After several senators questioned his role in the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” program, raising the prospect of a tough nomination process, Mudd withdrew his name and today works as a financial analyst in the asset management business.
In an interview, Mudd speculated that the bombing in Boston was more likely the handiwork of homegrown terrorists than of foreigners. “First, the crudeness of the weapons,” he said, enumerating his reasons. “Second, the fact that you don’t have an iconic target. [A foreign terrorist] would typically pick a subway, a building that everybody can recognize…I would say we recognize the Boston Marathon in the United States; I’m not sure they would. I’m trying to understand why someone who had one opportunity would pick an event that a lot of people overseas wouldn’t recognize—unless it’s domestic terrorists, and I think there’s a pretty good prospect of that.”
He added that the apparent primitiveness of the “pressure-cooker” devices used in Boston also argued against foreign terrorism. “If you compare them to what we saw in Madrid [in 2004] and London [in 2005], and what we saw in failed plots in New York City, those all have common characteristics” that are not present in Boston. Unlike Monday’s crude bombs, the previous explosive devices bear the sophisticated hallmarks of bomb-making training “from people who came out of the camps in Pakistan—and it’s something different here,” Mudd said.
In the days since the bombing, several media outlets have pointed out that al Qaeda’s digital propaganda magazine, Inspire, published a how-to three years ago on building a pressure-cooker bomb. “I think it’s had a modest impact,” Mudd said of Inspire, though he said the magazine was a potentially effective tool for “people who want to spread a message using the power of the Internet” and offered “the ability to proliferate knowledge of explosive devices.”
However, Nada Bakos, a consultant based on the West Coast since leaving the CIA in 2007, said the magazine’s impact seems negligible. Noting that it is a slick product of al Qaeda’s media wing, she said Inspire “was a good way to formalize what their message was, but you don’t hear a lot of observations about the magazine itself” among intelligence professionals.
Cindy Storer, who lectures on intelligence analysis at Coastal Carolina University, said the magazine is a “glossier, updated version” of Jihad, the 1980s propaganda organ of the Islamic opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Storer, by the way, was the first CIA analyst to brief the White House on bin Laden during that period.) “What they’re trying to do with Inspire magazine is grow the international jihad and they’re focusing on trying to get more of a network here,” she told me. “They do best where they can get some kind of mass following—so they’re always beating that drum.”
It hardly matters, Storer said, that the original editor, American-born al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in September 2011. “We fired him [as editor] in a different way,” Storer quipped, noting that Inspire continues to publish. “What people fundamentally don’t understand about al Qaeda is that it’s still a bureaucracy…They are still filling holes as we make the hole.”
During a panel discussion after the screening, Mudd responded angrily when moderator Fareed Zakaria suggested that the CIA only redoubled its years-long effort to get bin Laden after Obama made it a priority.
“Oh really? Really?” Mudd demanded incredulously. “I spent 20 years of my life chasing these guys and I need somebody to say bin Laden’s important? I respect what the president has done; he has been brilliant at exercising his authority to put his boot on the neck of an adversary that is dying or dead. But I think it’s a misperception to say that we needed to be told that the head of a terrorist organization that murdered 2,500 people in New York City has to be a priority.”