Agents of influence in undercover operations
The key to undercover operations is understanding that self-interest is the most powerful motivator of the human species
By Bill Majcher
As a long term undercover (UC), I enjoyed a 100 percent success rate of engaging each target that I was sent out to meet. I have never once had the luxury of having a cooperating witness (CW) or another well placed UC to introduce me into the target group. On every occasion, I have had to make a "cold approach" to a target or a targeted organization.
This has included the Medellin Cartel, Sikh terrorists, Vietnamese gangs, Chinese triads, outlaw bikers, traditional organized crime (Italian, Greek Mafia), corporate CEO's, lawyers, bankers and Iranian groups.
I am an average white male and I only speak English (and some French). I grew up in a normal middle class military family. I am Catholic, relatively athletic with average intelligence, and yet I was able to engage each and every target, even though I had no cultural, religious, political or even language commonality with many of them. In some cases, I met targets in countries or cities that I had never visited before. Many of these targets were paranoid by nature and living violent lives.
Why was I successful? Because I understood early in my career that self-interest is the most powerful motivator of the human species. I didn't care what country the targets were from, what their religion was, what group or gang they belonged to, how many wives they had or how rich they were. I just needed to make sure we could communicate. This fundamental understanding of "self-interest" was taught to me by my father, and I have never forgotten the lesson.
My father's lesson
During the Cold War, my father was a Canadian military representative at NATO. Popular books and movies at that time often showed Russia as an evil empire, ergo suggesting that all Russians were evil. I was about 12 years old and I commented on an article in the newspaper describing some alleged Russian atrocity. I said that I hated Russians and it was too bad that they couldn't all be wiped out. My father stopped what he was doing and asked me why I would make such a statement.
He asked if I had ever met any Russians, and I said no. He asked if I thought Russians laughed and cried just like us, and I said yes. He said he had a counterpart in the Russian military and most likely his counterpart had a family with children. My father asked me if I thought this Russian father wanted his children to be safe and happy and to have a better life than what he probably had growing up, and I said yes. He then asked me if I thought these Russian children would rather play with me or kill me, and I said that they would probably want to play. My father went on to tell me that he had family members who had been murdered by the Soviets and that his aunt had spent time in a Siberian Gulag, and that he hated their political system but not the Russian people.
My father said that, but for the grace of his parents immigrating to Canada when they did, I could easily have been a Child with a father in the Soviet military. The point that resonated with me from this conversation was simple…people have similarities in goals and aspirations, regardless of race, religion or creed. It is often the methods that some people utilize to attain their objectives that we must fight against.
I am confident that Osama bin Laden was happy when his children were born. I suspect he gets angry or sad when they do something he doesn't like. If I am able to facilitate satisfying bin Laden by facilitating his achievement of a need or desire, will he have a relationship with me? Under the right circumstances, of course he will. Whether it is criminals lusting for money and power, or terrorists driven by ego and alien beliefs, they are still open to methods and people who can facilitate their desires, thus making a proper undercover approach possible.
On June 23, 1985, an Air India 747 with 329 people on board left Montreal bound for India via London. A bomb exploded on the aircraft just off the coast of Ireland, killing all aboard and representing the single deadliest terrorist attack involving an aircraft prior to 9/11. Two hundred eighty Canadians were murdered that day. A second bomb designed to blow up a Canadian Airlines flight bound for India from Vancouver had gone off moments earlier, killing two blown out of the sky with another 300 or so fatalities. The previous year, Sikh militants had assassinated Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister who had ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple, the most sacred of Sikh temples, and arrest insurgents and terrorists who were hiding there. The storming of the Temple enraged many Sikhs worldwide and created a schism within the Sikh community that pitted extremists against moderates in temples around the world. The Golden Temple was more than a holy baggage handlers at Narita Airport as they were preparing to reload the plane for continuation of the flight to India. Because the flight was delayed arriving at Narita, it was two hours late departing for India, otherwise it, too, would have been site alone. Pitched gun battles took place there for many days before the Temple was overtaken by the Indian Army, which found a large weapons cache hidden in the basement of the Temple.
It would be many years before a number of suspects were identified as having masterminded and contributed to the events surrounding the horrific aircraft bombings. One of the accused was active in the Sikh community as a business leader, with close links to the Baba Khalsa and the World Youth Sikh Federation. Both groups are identified today as terrorist organizations. Both groups were very active in drug trafficking as part of their fund raising efforts.
I was tasked with engaging the Sikh business leader who was widely believed to have financed these bombings. He was arrested. In jail, I became his cell mate. My bosses were not expecting me to obtain evidence or a confession. They were mostly interested in gaining some insight before interrogation teams were set upon him. I learned what I could about this target and it was apparent to me that he was simply a greedy, narcissistic man who saw that the militants were taking over the various Sikh temples, and that whoever controlled the temples controlled the temple finances, which totalled millions of dollars. By aligning himself with the militants and by demonstrating his support for them, he gained control of much of the money flowing through the temples. He thus contributed financially to the terrorists bent on causing as much death and destruction as possible in order to destabilize the Indian government.
When I met this individual, I portrayed myself as an arrogant stockbroker who had been arrested for fraud and, after proclaiming my innocence, I used my "facilitator of commerce" line. He opened up and was happy to talk with me, telling me about his various business interests and how I should meet his wife and sons when I got out of jail to see if we could do business together. He did not appear overly stressed about being in jail and, in My view, seemed to almost be enjoying his "special" status. He appeared to be guided by ego and greed and was easy to engage. My views on this subject were later affirmed.
He had wanted others to carry bombs onto planes and sacrifice themselves for the greater cause, but he wasn't prepared to martyr himself or sacrifice the lives of his children as de facto suicide bombers. Self-interest, as he saw it, decided the actions that he took.
Greed, power or ego
When I met a target, I knew that I only had to identify what the agent of influence would be for me to successfully engage, manipulate, and ingratiate myself to the target. I only needed to determine which agent of influence — greed, power or ego — or which combination of agents would allow me to become a person of interest to the person I was targeting. Obviously, I often had the benefit of surveillance reports and detailed profiles that provided me with intelligence and insights regarding the target or the organization that they were a part of.
We tend to complicate and overanalyze the people we are after. I have always believed in the "keep it simple" approach. Let's face it, organized crime (OC) does not exist to sell drugs, commit fraud or intimidate people. OC exists to make money, pure and simple. Greed and ego were, for me, the most common points at which to develop a relationship.
When I did a cold approach into one of the primary "cambionistas" for the Medellin Cartel in 1993, I already knew that the target fancied himself a sophisticated financial player. I was able to sit beside him on a long flight and, by the time the flight ended, we had agreed to meet for dinner. This was the Beginning of a three year relationship which grew to the point where I was asked to be the financial front man for the legitimate investments the Cartel wanted to make in North America.
They were already alive to the ramifications of the North American Free Trade Agreement that would soon be implemented, and were looking to buy trucking and warehousing facilities along the Canadian/US and US/Mexican borders. Even then, they were investing heavily in infrastructure and businesses in Mexico.
It was during this undercover operation that I developed "the line" and the persona that worked so well for me throughout my career. When the Colombian asked me what I did for a living I replied, "I am a facilitator of commerce. I don't care where the money comes from and I don't care what the investment opportunity is, I simply try to match money to opportunities." The beauty of using this line is that I could be flexible, either having money laundered on my behalf or being the one doing the laundering. Thus, it allowed me to keep my options open.
The concept of self-interest reared its head often during this lengthy operation. One conversation that I recall occurred when a major Cartel money launderer advised me that he wanted to move out of Colombia. When I asked him why, he became hardened and said his oldest son would be 17 the following year and would be drafted into the army. He advised me that he did not raise his children and send them to private schools around the world so they could be killed in the jungles by some narco-terrorist! Interesting that he didn't mind facilitating the most murderous criminal group on the planet because he made a good living from it, but when it meant that his son might die in the jungle fighting the very group that he worked for, he wanted to bail.
Obviously, there were many other factors and scenarios that had to play out before I had the opportunity to meet these targets. Considerable effort went into my interactions with the various targets I met throughout my career. Through it all, however, I always remained focused on the fact that they were human beings and, as such, were vulnerable to the imperfections in character that all human beings possess. Working undercover is nothing more or less than relationship building. The skilled undercover just has to keep it simple and recognize that base people are guided by base ideals, and that it is the job of the undercover to recognize what type of motivation is at work and exploit it.
About the author
Mr. Majcher retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as an Inspector after 22 years of service. The author was a highly decorated undercover officer who spent much of his career working on behalf of U.S. agencies. He continues his role as a "facilitator of commerce" overseeing international business for Baron Group, a Hong Kong based Merchant Bank.