Unintended Intelligence Consequences: How Yesterday’s Proxy Insurgents turned into Today’s Terrorists


During the Cold War, nations were increasingly sponsoring and/or supporting insurgencies. For instance, the United States of America supported Afghan-Mujahedin, Nicaraguan Contras, and Tibetan Buddhist fighters. The Soviet Union supported communist guerrillas in Angola, Greece, and South Africa. China supported insurgents in Vietnam. India supported Sri Lankan Tamil rebels. In fact, Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements by Daniel, Chalk, Hoffman, Rosenau and Brannan (2001) discusses how 74 operational guerrilla movements and/or insurgencies were supported. This is why the term proxy, the authority to represent someone else, became very common in discussions of the Cold War.

As such, this essay will examine how proxy insurgencies of Cold War and post-Cold War have transformed into modern terrorist organizations. Firstly, the essay will look at the implications of proxy war and subsequent transformation of state-sponsored terrorism. Secondly, it will discuss the modus-operandi, tradecraft, structure, and the anatomy of these terrorist cells. Finally, the essay will conclude by addressing the byproducts of proxies, the threat that stems from these actors, and responsive and preventative measures vis-à-vis the global war on terror.

The Implications of Proxy Wars

A proxy war is one that is instigated by a major power, but, that power does not itself become involved. Proxies, and the consequence of proxy wars, have presented serious dangers in our modern world. Intelligence agencies must learn to understand the implications of post-Cold War support for insurgents. Proxies and their support for insurgencies have transformed into a process of sponsorship for terrorism. Although it is understood that great powers were seeking sphere of influence in the global arena during the Cold War, and used proxies to advance their influence, it is less understood that this practice slowly transformed into state-sponsored terrorism.

For instance, it is understood that Iran sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in response, Pakistan supported al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan to destabilize regional powers politically, economically, and militarily. It is understood that the United States of America sponsored anti-Baathist groups in Iraq and Syria, while Russia, on the other hand, provided support to opposition groups in the wider Middle Eastern region. It is less understood that these situations worsened when state-sponsored insurgencies around the world became monsters against their own masters. To illustrate, during the Cold War, the world’s strongest democracy, United States of America, armed, trained and funded Osama bin Laden who led the Afghan-Mujahedin to fight against the Soviet Union. Eventually bin Laden turned against the United States and transformed into the enemy. A similar analogy appears when the world’s largest democracy, India, armed, trained and funded Veluppillai Pirabhakaran who led the Tamil Tigers to fight against the Sri Lankan government. Eventually, Pirabhakaran made a “U-turn” and ordered his cadres to fight against the Indian troops. India lost over 1000 troops as a result; and moreover, this resulted in the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. All in all, insurgencies transformed into terrorist organizations as a result of the support and sponsorship of proxies.

Proxies are particularly concerning because interference is often motivated by a nation’s self-interest, absent of regard for future implications. For example, the Tamil Tigers were armed, trained, and funded by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency in the early 1980’s. India’s proxy-rationale was governed by the hope that, in controlling the insurgency, they would be able to pressure the Sri Lankan government into making concessions for Tamils, and be able to pressure the Tamil militants into accepting the concessions (Richards, 2014:15). Later, the Tamil Tigers were trained by the Israeli secret service Mossad. Mossad’s nexus to the Tamil Tigers was further corroborated by ex-Mossad intelligence officer Victor Ostrovsky and his book “By Way of Deception” published in September 1990. Richards, in her paper “An Institutional History of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)”, provides a detailed account for the historical institutionalization of the Tamil Tigers as one of the most sophisticated groups ever assembled. Overall, proxies do not offer sincere aid.

For example, the present day Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) is an offspring of al Qaeda; and al Qaeda is an offspring of Afghan Mujahedin and Taliban. As noted earlier, the United States of America, as a proxy, created the Afghan Mujahedin to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Therefore, what happened on 9/11 and the subsequent wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, are interconnected and ultimately a devastating byproduct and extension of the post-Cold War proxy wars.

According to various defectors and seized al Qaeda documents, all terrorist organizations have learned their tactics and techniques from their masters. Waldman (2010), from Harvard University, explains that the relationship between nations’ security agencies and insurgents moves far beyond contact and co-existence. In fact, nations’ support and sponsorship sustains and strongly influences the movement, and this “is as clear as the sun in the sky” (Waldman 2010: 1).

In 2011, the New York Times reported that Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the USA Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army General David Petraeus, previously head of the U.S. Central Command and new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) demanded that the Pakistani military intelligence agency, Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) must discontinue their support to the Taliban and al Qaeda. This illustrates the United States’ perseverance to interfere. Nonetheless, ISI support had already influenced al Qaeda beyond repair, as they learned valuable intelligence operations and tradecraft. This demonstrates how quickly and effectively support and sponsorship impacts insurgencies.

The following is a more recent example of how nation state support for insurgencies produces terrorist organizations. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism at George Mason University reported that the “Emni”, the intelligence apparatus of ISIL, learned its modus operandi and inner workings from the former Iraqi Security forces of Saddam Hussein. The report explains that “one of the many things that multiple defectors described were the many Iraqi former Baathists leading the organization, even in Syria, who had brought with them the tradecraft and totalitarian intelligence operations they had practiced in Saddam Hussein’s government” (2016: 3). This illustrates the degree of threat and danger involved in training insurgents. The following paragraphs will describe the modus operandi of many terrorist organizations, and it will become evident how they emulate state military and intelligence agencies.

The Anatomy of a Terrorist Cell

Many have argued that, to fight in war, the most basic and important asset is that of a secret service or organization specifically dedicated to intelligence gathering operations. It may be a government agency or the military, but this is also relevant to non-state actors or terrorist groups. Thus, it is vital to analyze the anatomy and structure of terrorist cells to better understand the modus operandi of terrorist organizations. Simply put, a terrorist cell is the systematic network of the organization’s members. Even though the Terms of Engagements and/or the Rules of Engagements differ from a conventional force, a terrorist network’s secret mission and/or operation remain well-organized and professional. It was once understood that terrorist networks were not well structured; however, after incurring heavy losses, such as losing valuable agents and informants to arrest and identification by nation states’ security and intelligence agencies, terrorist organizations came to realize that they must establish a professional intelligence unit.

Because terrorist organizations don’t have the same resources that government intelligence agencies have, they mostly rely solely on Human Intelligence as opposed to more sophisticated Signal Intelligence, Electronic Intelligence, Imagery Intelligence, Technical Intelligence, etc. However, because terrorist organizations were once state-sponsored, they emulate and resemble professional military and intelligence agencies, thereby demonstrating how terrorist organizations adopt and apply the tradecraft training and intelligence they received from nation states. To illustrate, the Principal Agent Handler (PAH) and his team consist of an Agent Handler, a Deputy Agent Handler and more than a dozen Principal Agents. See the following diagram for a visual representation of the structure of the agent handling model. The PAH directs the Agent Handler, Deputy Agent Handler, and Principal Agents within the organization’s controlled areas. They work from inside offices and are known as “Desk Agents”. There is a second set of agents directed by PAH who work in the field (hostile area) controlled by the enemy. They are known as “Field Agents”. There is always a middle man who works as a “contact” or “go between” for Desk Agents and Field Agents. He is known as the Intermediary or Cut-Out.

The Hierarchical Order of Terrorist Agent Handling Model

Intelligence-gathering is, by its very nature, a difficult task, but of utmost importance. Terrorist organizations are extremely cautious when recruiting their agents and informants. Most of the time they tend to cultivate personnel from the same religious or ethno-nationalist groups who show potential for accessing enemy targets. For every member hired, each must undergo an extensive background check. The organization focuses on the individual’s profile, including his/her character, vulnerabilities, and motivation to assess if he/she is the right person for the job.

Recruits must go through a special training period to acquire the skills necessary to perform assigned tasks. These include specific techniques in the trade of espionage, which is called “tradecraft” and could include such specialties as agent-handling, covert communication, counter-interrogation, reconnaissance, coding and decoding, drawing maps, photography, martial arts, linguistic skills, and so on. Once a recruit completes the tradecraft and skill training period, the handlers assess each recruit, keeping the individual’s potential and background in mind, to confirm whether he/she is fit to become an agent or informant. This recruitment process greatly resembles that of professional military and intelligence agencies, thereby illustrating how terrorist organizations adopt and apply the training and intelligence they have received from nation-states.

Before spies and informants are assigned to a mission, they are instructed on every single detail of the target. The target could be soft or hard, such as a VIP member or a football stadium –whatever it may be, the handlers brief every detail and then debrief for further intelligence. Informants must learn about the specific physical environment beforehand so that they can easily provide updates on selected targets. To make this task easier, many organizations prefer to hire refugees, students and government employees working in the area, selecting them carefully after identifying and confirming their potential usefulness, because they have already spent years within that environment and have become a part of that environment. Their social and human capital is recognized as a valuable human resource.

All these agents work together to analyze, assess, and exploit the intelligence they have gathered. The final intelligence product is sent to the decision-makers, that is, the top leader such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who decides whether or not to take advantage of the information for tactical, operational, or strategic purposes. Whether the decision makers take action or not, the Principal Agent Handler and his staff make weekly assessments to update the Data Bank.

Once all intelligence has been gathered, it must be centralized in the Data Bank: a large repository of data on a particular topic that is only accessible by a limited number of users. The Principal-Agent Handler oversees the Data Bank. He is provided with thousands of situational briefing reports every day from various sources, including intelligence wing operatives (spies) who operate all over the world; foreign fighters, students, and government employees (informants) across the world; special reconnaissance teams; local-patrolling and open-source intelligence-gathering.

Successful intelligence gathering depends on secure and covert communication. Without security, there is no intelligence; therefore, it is of utmost importance that an organization protect its human assets. This can only be done if there is a systematic way for intelligence to flow from hostile areas to the organization’s Data Bank. It is the Principal Agent Handler’s responsibility to make sure that his sources are safe and secure. This structure of ranking and communication protocol is also adopted from state military agencies.

Within hostile areas, there are well-established agents working for the PAH known as Resident Agents (RA) who organize and direct compartmentalized “cells” that are operating in the field. Each RA deals with a maximum of 4-5 Agents (e.g. A, B, C, D, E) who are cultivated or hired and trained by those Desk Agents. See the diagram below for a visual representation of the cells. Since agents work under a considerable amount of risk, they are proactively given a cover story to ensure their security. For instance, the perfect cover story for an RA would be a well-known journalist who lives in the area, sending and receiving information from all parts of the country. A marine engineer working in a harbor would be the perfect cover story for an informant. 

The Networked Order of Compartmentalized Terrorist Cells

When an RA contacts one of his agents and/or informants to exchange information, he must be extremely careful so as not to expose or compromise them to anyone. The RA would, therefore, meet with them in different Safe Houses, and afterward, the Intermediary would meet with the RA in a separate Safe House to pass the information on further to the Desk Agents.

In special cases, an Agent might contact the PAH directly without going through the RA and/or the Intermediary. In such instances, the Agent would use covert communications and code sheets to pass along the information. These kinds of cells are not only used for transferring information but are also used to transfer other resources such as weapons and personnel. For example, when al Qaeda planned an attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, they commenced with the acquisition of field blueprints. To acquire these blueprints, al Qaeda members would identify themselves as employees at the facility. This Agent/Informant is then instructed to contact the RA or a separate cell on a regular basis to provide contemporary intelligence. An Intermediary would contact the RA to obtain the information in order to pass it along to the Principal Agent, or mail the information in segments directly to him.

Terrorist organizations also hire other agents who work, for example, as a cleaner to provide technical information such as storage, electric boards, the number of employees in the building, opening and closing hours, and so on. He/she would give the information to the RA or mail it directly to the Principal-Agent or even the Principal Agent Handler. Throughout this intelligence gathering, the Data Bank provides information to the Intelligence Wing for the building of a model of the target while another cell becomes engaged in training personnel on how to execute the mission, using the same process of agent handling.

Finally, the attack squad would be trained and briefed about the plan and sent to different locations using different routes. Since 9/11 was an airborne attack, in which civilian aircraft were used as weapons, the RA would’ve coordinated the hijackers. Since many suicide bombers would be required for such a coordinated attack, they would have been pre-emptively cultivated as “sleepers” to be used in the long-term. A sleeper is an inactive undercover agent who is cultivated over a long period of time to be used over such time. Sleepers would be contacted by the Principal Agent Handler to be briefed on the plan and provided with instructions and resources through different cells. The Principal Agent Handler would not, under any circumstance, expose or compromise the sleeper to the rest of the cells or vice versa, to ensure everyone’s security. Overall, the complexity of the modus operandi of terrorist organizations illustrates the value that nation-state training offers. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, so we must focus on how to address the byproducts of proxies. 

Addressing the Byproducts of Proxies

How do we prevent refugees and foreign fighters from entering and targeting open democratic nations? We must allow refugees to escape and settle in our countries thereby showcasing the soft power of nations. This will allow the NATO-led hard power strategy to unfold. That is the bombing of ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. This highlights a long-term strategic advantage. The new challenge and threat to law enforcement agencies are about distinguishing between refugees’ motives. As influxes in European and North-American immigration occur, nations are faced with an overwhelming security concern. This forces us to consider how to identify and weed out potential members of ISIL who may infiltrate nations as disguised civilians.

The best way to prevent and deter future terrorist attacks is to separate or isolate the terrorists from the general populace. By weeding the insurgents out of legitimate refugees, we can eventually apply Mao Zedong’s theory, “insurgents are like fish in an ocean of people”. By separating the “ocean” (the general populace) from the “fish” (insurgents), we will be able to determine the survival of the enemy insurgents/terrorists. So, how does one separate the populace ocean from the insurgent fish?

We can achieve separation through the core strategy of the COIN doctrine: if we’re able to win the hearts and minds of the general populace, then the general populace will do the job for us. Thus, we have to win the hearts and minds of the people. This is where soft power comes into play. Although hard power is vital to safeguard a nation’s interests, when we are confronted by an enemy with many different faces, we must explore other tools to combat the enemy through non-military means. As Sun Tzu reminds us, the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting; eliminating the will to fight and destroying the spirit of the enemy’s potential to fight is paramount.

It is against this backdrop that we must come up with a strategy on how law enforcement agencies can prevent terrorists from infiltrating and/or exfiltrating western nations. Decisively, there is a method called “Spotter Force Multiplier Theory” (SFMT), which is successful tradecraft in human intelligence also known as “Link Analysis”. That is, in any organization, albeit police, intelligence, military, or even non-state organizationssuch as gangs, mafia, drug cartels, or terrorist organizations, you can only identify the members by using the organization’s very own members. As we confront terrorist organizations, state security organizations come across and identify at least one genuine member. This member must be utilized as a “spotter” for governments to identify others. In other words, the member who is arrested and/or defected must undergo a brief rehabilitation process – instilling them with compassion and indoctrinating them with soft power contrary to aggressive interrogation techniques – and in turn, work for the state’s security agencies. As more individuals are found, the “spotter force multiplier” emerges and continues until the “big fish” is caught. The advantage of using SFMT is that we would have a complete picture and understanding of insider information regarding enemy organizations, that is, valuable tactical intelligence. 


The global powers, including, but not limited to, American, Russian, Chinese, and Indian governments and their intelligence agencies, supported and sponsored insurgencies around the world. This ultimately transformed insurgencies into terrorist organizations. Global powers must come to understand the implications of supporting insurgencies and learn from the consequences of past proxies – especially in a globalized world that is experiencing an increase in the number and severity of terrorist attacks. Therefore, global powers should be held accountable, and adopt the COIN doctrine and SFMT as a responsive and preventative measure.

Image credit: ahram online


Bumiller, E., & Perlez, J. (2011, September 22). Pakistan’s Spy Agency Is Tied to Attack on U.S. Embassy. Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/world/asia/mullen-asserts-pakistani-role-in-attack-on-us-embassy.html

Criminal Intelligence. (2011) Manual for Analysts. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Vienna. United Nations, New York, Retrieved March 05, 2017, from https://www.unodc.org/documents/organized-crime/Law Enforcement/Criminal_Intelligence_for_Analysts.pdf

Daniel. B, Chalk. P, Hoffman. B, Rosenau. W and Brannan. D. (2001) Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements: National Security Research Division, RAND Corporation, Washington. D.C, Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/2007/MR1405.pdf

Krebs, V. E. (2002) Mapping Networks of Terrorist Cells: Connections 24(3): 43-52, INSNA,   Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://ecsocman.hse.ru/data/517/132/1231/mappingterroristnetworks.pdf

Ostrovsky, V., & Hoy, C. (1991). By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer: New York, NJ: St. Martin’s Paperbacks.

Richards, J. (2014) An Institutional History of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE): The Centre on Conflict, Development, and Peacebuilding, The Graduate Institute Geneva. Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://repository.graduateinstitute.ch/record/292651/files/CCDP-Working-Paper-10-LTTE-1.pdf

Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016) The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus: Retrieved March 05, 2017, from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573/html

Waldman, M. (2010) The sun in the sky: the relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan insurgents: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Retrieved March 05, 2017, from https://www.thebaluch.com/documents/SIS%20FINAL.pdf


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