How to Spot a Terrorist Mastermind

Some helpful hints for the Pakistani government


A number of U.S. officials have expressed skepticism that Osama bin Laden could have been hiding in plain sight for years in Pakistan without the government's knowledge. Abbottabad, where bin Laden was hanging out, is home to three army regiments. The military swings a lot of weight in Pakistan.

Moreover, the Pakistani government is not exactly looking over its shoulder in fear of a stern letter from the ACLU. Freedom House's annual "Freedom in the World" report on Pakistan is filled with terms like "excessive force," "arbitrary detention," "collective punishment for individual crimes," "impunity for human rights abuses," and "extrajudicial killings."

This has led to the widespread assumption that if the Pakistanis were curious as to who was living in the giant compound less than a mile from the Kakul Military Academy, they had means of finding out.

Well, those of ye without sin may cast the first stone. Once the Pakistani news shows get around to interviewing bin Laden's neighbors, no doubt they will say the same sorts of things that Americans say when someone on the block turns out to be a serial killer:

"He was always very quiet and polite."

"He never caused any trouble."

"We're all in shock. That sort of thing just doesn't happen around here."

"Did I think it was weird that he was stockpiling fissile nuclear materials in his garage? Well, maybe, now that you mention it. But hindsight is always 20/20, you know?"

Why would anyone assume spotting a terrorist mastermind is easy, anyway? It's not like spotting a suicide bomber. Your typical suicide bomber gives himself away with a dozen telltale signs: the bulky overcoat, the chanting under the breath, the glassy stare, the hand glued to the detonator in his pocket. And of course the explosion. That's usually the biggest giveaway of all.

A terrorist mastermind, on the other hand, is much harder to spot. So for the benefit of Pakistan's ISI and any other secret police forces out there that aren't sure what to look for, here are some helpful hints.

(1) Check the mailbox. If the name on the plate says Ayman al-Zawahiri, Saif al Adel, Abu Yahya al Libi, or—better write this one down—Sa'ad bin Laden, you might want to post a surveillance team.

(2) Look at the residence. Does it have high walls, security cameras, armed guards, and batteries of surface-to-air missiles? Does it look like the sort of place that would appeal to someone named Tony Montana, Hugh Hefner, or Ted Kennedy? Would news organizations describe it as a "compound"? If so, then it could be a terrorist hideout.

(3) Ask around. Remember what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said: "Homeland security begins with hometown security." Neighbors are often a surprisingly good source of human intelligence, or HUMINT. Ask people who live nearby if the resident inside the compound ever shows himself. Does he go to block parties, attend PTA meetings, run in the Race for the Cure, or participate in Neighborhood Watch? Or does he stay inside, emerging only when chauffered in an armored limousine with bulletproof tinted windows and run-flat tires? Details such as these might not seem like much on their own, but over time they can help flesh out a profile.

(4) Go through his trash. Sure, it's kinda gross. But the juicy, smelly glop inside that Hefty bag can yield up a treasure trove of clues. Does your mark's trash contain bits of detonation cord, lots of empty shell casings, used poison ampules, hermetically sealed containers marked BIOHAZARD, bloody duct tape, severed fingers and toes, or gouged-out eyeballs? If so, he might be up to something. Does your mark burn his trash inside his compound and bury the ashes? This might be an indication that he has something to hide.

(5) Monitor his purchases. Many ordinary items can be used to fashion crude weapons of mass destruction. No matter how innocent they might appear, pay particular attention to purchases of unusually large quantities of acetone, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium nitrate, sulfuric acid, C4, Semtex, or highly enriched uranium, as these are often used to make homemade explosives.

(6) Google him. Nowadays most people have an online presence of some kind—a Facebook page, a blog, a network of associates on LinkedIn. Look for patterns and themes. A single post reading, "Death 2 Infidels!!!!!" does not mean much by itself. But it grows in significance if your suspect also Tweets, "@AQAPfan — yes death 2 infidels; see sura 9:5 you ignorant spawn of apes and pigs." If the suspect also posts a video of himself decapitating an American hostage or vowing to rain the fires of hell upon the American sons and daughters of Shaitan, all the more reason to keep an eye on him.

Not every recluse who lives in a fortified compound and wages holy war is a terrorist, and mistakes are bound to happen. But when you're tasked with preventing the nuclear immolation of a major metropolitan area, it's better to err on the side of caution. Share this information with your coworkers in the security community. And remember: If you see something, say something.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.