Using Human Sources in Counterterrorism Operations

Understanding the Motivations and Political Impact

By Simon De Block
Stock image of two men in silhouette talking outside with mountains in the background.

A recent study indicated that the majority of Americans know about government agency surveillance programs; however, only 25 percent of those aware of these activities have changed their patterns of technology use.1 What holds true for the public also applies to criminals. Presumably, offenders are included in the quarter of the population who modified their use of new technologies. When suspects hide their communications with encrypted technology or meet in person at a public swimming pool to avoid electronic and physical surveillance, law enforcement agencies find it nearly impossible to gather information.2

More than 2,400 years ago, Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”3 Recently, the 9/11 Commission emphasized the importance of human intelligence in the identification of potential threats.4 The use of human sources today is critical for the success of law enforcement operations; however, employing these individuals for counterterrorism (CT) operations differs from using them in organized crime efforts.

Source Motivation

Similar to human sources in organized crime, CT informants often have common motivations, such as jealousy, revenge, a green card or work permit, a more comfortable life, or avoidance of a prison sentence. However, individuals recruited into the inner circle of terrorists may have different reasoning for covertly cooperating with law enforcement agencies. Their motives can be political or philosophical and sometimes are difficult to discover and understand.

Human sources do not work for free; they expect a return on investment. This holds true whether applied to organized crime or terrorism. Informants often are motivated by monetary rewards, the classic, easy way to compensate a source for information.5

Counterterrorism intelligence is valuable, but it is difficult to estimate the worth of the information provided by a source. In drug operations, compensation often is based on seizures of narcotics and arrest warrants. In CT endeavors, success occurs when nothing happens and terrorist attacks do not take place. What is the price of an avoided terrorist plot? How much are saved lives worth? What is the cost of a new life for an endangered source?

Determining the price of knowledge always presents complications. Paying a source too much or too often creates a risk of pushing the individual to provide data just for money. In that case, agencies can receive an overabundance of information to check, which costs additional time and resources. In the worst case scenario, the person provides false reports. Paying too little could result in losing critical information or, even worse, the source. Sometimes, the person may decide to cooperate with a more generous agency.

Often, the informant disagrees with a group’s violent actions. In this case, using a nonconfrontational interrogation approach is a sensitive point.6 Playing “good cop, bad cop” does not work and can increase the risk of losing the individual. Handlers trained to understand the terrorist mind-set and prepared to take the time to conduct an interrogation are essential. State-of-the-art handling requires fortitude. Sometimes, human sources share relevant information after talking for hours about personal views on ethical issues. Inexperienced handlers can lose patience and, consequently, information.

Occasionally, individuals attempt to infiltrate law enforcement agencies to collect intelligence on strategies, tactics, and techniques. These persons are not as innocent as they appear; therefore, managers first must consider officer and staff safety. Consistent guidelines are imperative. Sharing the same standards and cooperation among agencies is important not only for budgetary concerns but also for security reasons. Without appropriate controls, one source could provide the same information to multiple agencies, resulting in a biased picture of the threat.

Political Impact

The security of human sources embedded in terrorist groups is essential. Globalization increases the risk that peril can occur anywhere. To this end, use of intelligence in counterterrorism sometimes can lead to unintended consequences.Tasking a source can endanger that person’s life or the lives of family members. However, to some law enforcement professionals, the safety of one informant may seem less valuable than the benefits for thousands of people.

Briefings with associates help determine what a source will be allowed to do, keeping in mind that failure to prevent an incident could result in political criticism at home and abroad.7 An impact on international cooperation and security and welfare of the law enforcement agency can occur if personnel obtain information regarding a threat in a foreign country and do not share the data, resulting in an attack.

CT human source handlers deal with political concerns. Frequently, they encounter foreign agencies, some allies and some not. Occasionally, foreign officials become sources. If unveiled, the informant, the handler, the agency, and the government face major security and diplomatic issues.

Public Recognition

When combating organized crime, law enforcement agencies achieve tangible and measurable results, such as arrest warrants and seizures of illegal goods. Afterward, police chiefs can share information and put their officers in the spotlight. This does not hold true in CT operations. Success occurs when nothing happens, and it is difficult to communicate about something that did not take place. Law enforcement supervisors should consider this when recruiting and managing CT staff. The lack of public recognition can be paramount.

Long-Term Operations

CT operations are characterized by their duration. Terrorist activities are defined by material facts—the intention of the perpetrators and the context. It can take months or years to gather enough evidence to take a case to court.

Handling a human source within the same operation for many years can be complex. An informant does not always understand legal or procedural contingencies. That person wants to see concrete results after sharing information.


Terrorist organizations recruit and work with people from various countries. All law enforcement agencies must work the same way to combat these groups. Building trust takes time, but it vanishes in a word. It is important for CT personnel to meet both domestic and international partners and explain who they are, how they work, and what can be expected from them. To avoid disappointments and distrust, agreements must be clear.

Restricted information is a fundamental point for discussions with partners. Establishing equilibrium proves difficult. Often, CT intelligence is classified and only shared with individuals who have the appropriate clearance and need to know. Sometimes, associates do not accept restrictions of information regarding citizens living or working in their jurisdictions. They work closely with their communities to prevent extremism and terrorism and are key partners.8 However, protecting human sources and affiliations with foreign agencies helps guarantee long-term security. It requires a sensitive balance.


Handling human sources in counterterrorism operations differs from working with those in organized crime. However, links between organized crime and terrorism must not be disregarded. Criminals and terrorists often grow up together and live in the same neighborhoods.

Felons selling forged documents or weapons do not care how people use those items—in bank robberies, gang wars, or terrorism. Sometimes, criminal offenders are unaware that they have relevant information about a terrorist. In these cases, cooperation between CT units and other law enforcement agencies is critical.

Frequently, ethical issues arise when combating terrorism. Law enforcement officers must strike a balance between securing the world while respecting human rights and sharing information with their associates.

This article was written prior to the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris.

Mr. De Block serves with the Federal Criminal Police in Brussels, Belgium. For additional information the author may be contacted at


Lee Rainie and Mary Madden, “American’s Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden,” Pew Research Center, March 16, 2015, accessed December 29, 2015, americans-privacy-strategies-post-snowden/.

Roger Billingsley, Covert Human Intelligence Sources: The ‘Unlovely’ Face of Police Work (Sheffield on Loddon, United Kingdom: Waterside Press, 2009).

Sun Tzu, “The Use of Spies,” in The Art of War (South Australia: University of Australia, 1910), accessed December 29, 2015,

9/11 Review Commission, The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century, Report of the Congressionally Directed 9/11 Review Commission to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, by Bruce Hoffman, Edwin Meese III, and Timothy J. Roemer (Washington, DC, March 2015): 41-43, accessed December 29, 2015,

Larry F. Jetmore, “Investigations: Confidential Informants,” Law Officer, September 30, 2007, accessed December 29, 2015,

John J. Guzman, “Nonconfrontational Interrogation: Obtaining Confessions from Streetwise Gang Members,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 2015, accessed December 29, 2015,

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America 2014, accessed December 29, 2015, 2014_NIS_Publication.pdf.

Dan Silk, “Community Policing to Prevent Violent Extremism,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2012, accessed December 30, 2015,