Friday, May 16, 2008

Criminals, terrorists all too human

I had the great pleasure yesterday morning of attending a lecture by Chin Ko-lin, the reputed scholar of all things criminal from Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of, among other works, Heijin (“black gold”), about the interaction of organized crime, business and politics in Taiwan. Mr. Chin was briefly in Taiwan before heading for Southeast Asia do conduct research on the sex trade in the region for his upcoming book (to be published by Cornell University press later this year).

After giving a brief overview of what turned him on, about two decades ago, to the underworld and providing an update on the crime situation in Taiwan and East Asia, Mr. Chin fielded questions from the audience, about two dozen journalists and members of the media who had gathered at café Ting Ting Cui Yu on Anhe Road.

What had particularly piqued my curiosity during his enlightening presentation was the access he had been given from members of various criminal organizations (prostitutes, “snakeheads,” movers, gang leaders and so on) in Taiwan, China, the US and elsewhere. What intrigued me even more was the fact that many of the individuals he interviewed were aware that he had received a grant from the US government to conduct his research, which anyone with an instinct for self-preservation would have construed as proof that Mr. Chin was an agent, or tool, of the US government.

My questions to him, therefore, were (a) how he had managed to win the trust of individuals who, most assuredly, stood to gain nothing from having their modus operandi and structure published in an open-source publication accessible to all; (b) did any of them suspect he might be working undercover for the police; and (c) whether the need to maintain access to the underworld might not have had an impact on his freedom to write what he wants. After all, what good would it be to him if, by publishing a book or a report, he ended up “burning” his sources (e.g., they get arrested), news of which, given the interconnectedness of criminal groups, would quickly spread? The analogy I used while formulating the latter question was the following: Let’s say that I travel to Beirut, Lebanon, to write a book about Hezbollah — what it is, its leadership, structure, and how it operates. Then, once my book is published (and has been read by various intelligence agencies), I decide to write a second book, this time about, say, the Palestinian Hamas, or Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), two organizations that, according to intelligence, are believed to have contacts, at some level, with Hezbollah, in similar fashion to how the Bamboo Union, for example, would have ties with other organizations in China.

According to Mr. Chin, while there was some danger involved in his penetration of the criminal world, criminals were quite eager to discuss their trade, which reminded me of what I had been told during training as an intelligence officer a few years ago: Human beings, no matter what they do, like to talk — about themselves. In other words, regardless of the nature of one’s work, a flattered ego often trumps the need for secrecy. Mr. Chin also pointed out that he relied heavily on individuals in situ — contacts, family, etc, who could put him in touch with other participants in the long criminal chain. Speaking the language — the local dialect, even — was primordial.

Ultimately, however, the main reason why criminals accepted to discuss their activities and lowered their guard, as it were, in a way that prima facie would seem counterintuitive, was that the very nature of crime syndicates — who does what, how and where — is in constant flux, with no congealed or even predetermined channels of operation. From the drug trade to human trafficking, the cargo is moved around in extemporary fashion rather than following predetermined routes. For example, a woman who “bought” her way to the US (at a cost today of about US$82,000) could be smuggled from Fujian Province to, say, Bangkok, Thailand, where she will remain in a safe house until the next leg of her journey opens up. It could be 24 hours before she is moved, or a week. The next transit point on her way to the US is changeable, too, and often unknown to the movers themselves until an opportunity shows up (a bit like how packets of information choose different routes, sometimes even splitting, as they travel from query point to destination on the World Wide Web).

This ongoing systemic reconfiguration — the result of the fluidity of transit points and the need to stay one step ahead of and adapt to law enforcement — means that by the time a study or a book is published, the structure of the organization will have changed dramatically, to such an extent that it will be of little use to police. As such, the seemingly inherent danger in sharing information with the likes of Mr. Chin is much lower than one would think, and will rarely result in the dismantlement of a criminal organization or even the arrest of a single individual. Egos can be flattered, principles of criminality can be discussed in academia, but the insiders, or “sources,” run very little risk (of arrest, or of being seen as traitors by the organizations they belong to) in talking about themselves.

While Mr. Chin’s presentation pertained to the criminal world, intelligence agencies dealing with non-state actors and terrorist organizations could also take away a few lessons from this. First, sources may be more willing to talk about themselves and their organizations than is generally assumed because, as with criminal organizations, of the constantly changing nature and structure of terrorist organizations. Given the inherent slowness of paperwork-heavy governmental organizations and the targeting and warranting process that precedes an investigation (which we could equate with the time it takes before a manuscript is turned into a book), sources can probably assume that by the time a government agency actually acts on whatever information he or she has provided, the terrorist group will have mutated to such an extent as to be virtually unrecognizable from what it looked like at the time the information was provided. This is even truer for sources who, like Khaled Sheikh Mohammed of al-Qaeda, have been in detention for years and whose picture of the structure of the organization they belonged to before their capture will bear little resemblance to what it is today.

As such, just as with law enforcement, intelligence agencies targeting sub-state groups with loose structures, such as al-Qaeda, will have to rethink how they gather information about them and find ways to drastically accelerate the process through which collection of information translates into action. Under the current system, by the time, say, a warrant for a wiretap has been approved, the individual whose line is to be monitored may very well have moved on to something different.

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