What’s a sleeper cell?

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Sleeper cells are secret agents trained to assimilate into another country’s culture and society, living undercover until activated by their handlers to commit acts of terrorism. Members may not be aware of each other, making it difficult to track and dismantle cells. The events of 9/11 highlighted the dangers of sleeper cells, and they are often discovered through covert surveillance and double agent infiltration.

One of the most insidious tactics available to a terrorist organization is the implementation of a sleeper cell. These are secret agents who receive specialized training in their home countries and are then assigned to assimilate into another country’s culture and society. These agents can spend years performing their normal duties while living undercover, only to suddenly receive orders from their handlers overseas to commit an act of terrorism or provide aid to those who will.

Individual members of a sleeper cell may not even be aware of each other, as plausible deniability during police interrogations can be vital. One sleeper agent may work for an airline ticket office, for example, while another may work at a car rental company or chemical plant. When the commanders of the terrorist organization want to activate a cell, each agent can only receive the name of a contact person or receive only specific orders from her. The airline ticketing agent, for example, can only be told to provide tickets for four men traveling from Germany to New York. The car rental agent can only be told to pick up these men from the airport and deliver them to the chemical plant. This process ensures that no individual is aware of the entire plan.

It can be extremely difficult for government agencies to track down and dismantle sleeper cells due to their nebulous construction. If individual members are well prepared and dedicated to their cause, they can easily blend into society without arousing suspicion. A cell does not necessarily need to hold regular meetings or undergo additional training to carry out its missions. Members just go about their daily routines until a manager contacts them for an assignment. Some agents may not even be fully aware of their obligations, believing that a benevolent government agency has simply paid for their education and immigration expenses.

The events of 9/11 highlighted the dangers of such cells, as a number of US citizens provided material assistance to the real terrorists. While some may have simply been performing their normal duties, others were most likely members of sleeper cells activated to perform crucial support operations. A student pilot who has only studied takeoff procedures, for example, would be an ideal member. Also useful would be an airline baggage handler who could smuggle guns onto a plane without warning.

Some agents may be fully aware of their roles in an operation, while others may be deliberately kept in the dark until called upon to act. This is why an attack can be notoriously difficult to counter. A cell is often discovered through covert surveillance and double agent infiltration.

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