The Limits of Counter Terrorism

WASHINGTON – The failure by US counter terrorism authorities to use the information they had in hand to prevent the would-be Nigerian bomber from flying is a remarkably egregious debacle, as he had been flagged by his own father to the CIA at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. Beyond that, other leads pointed to a future attack to be performed by a Nigerian. When information is provided on a silver plate, for it to be lost in a morass of stovepipes and miscommunication that we thought belonged to another era is really bad.

In this case, we no longer have the excuses that applied to the disorganized pre 9/11 environment in which relevant officials could not have connected the dots, as the FBI did not talk freely to the the CIA, and so on. This instance is frankly about the US security apparatus being dense, grossly incompetent or plain stupid, take your pick. Still, even though eventually we may come up with a hapless “culprit” or culprits, somewhere between the US Embassy in Nigeria, data fusion centers in the US and maybe somewhere else, this is unfortunately not the real point about the broader issue of appropriate counter terrorism strategies and means.

Not just an intelligence failure

Sure enough, failure to act when a clear lead is provided is a big deal. So big that President Barack Obama had to publicly denounce this level of incompetence as unacceptable. But, unfortunately, in many, if not most, cases, we do not have and shall not have conscientious fathers who will at least try and sound the alarm when they believe that their own children may represent a serious danger. We did not have this luxury on 9/11. We did not have it in other cases of successful or prevented acts of terror; and it is unlikely that we shall have it in many future instances.

Who is at fault?

So, the current fixation with who missed what in this particular case, while helpful in trying to address what President Obama correctly defined a mix of human and systemic failures, is small consolation when we review the general picture of what we are confronted with in this ongoing conflict that has been called, not accidentally, asymmetric warfare. In this type of bizarre conflict, the attackers always have an inherent advantage. They retain the initiative. They can fail repeatedly; but if they score only once or twice they have won the round. Whereas, we have to win every time, preventing each and every attack.

We live in an open society

But we live in relatively open societies that cannot be hermetically sealed. Try as we may, we cannot check on everything and everybody everywhere in the world all the time. Sure, as in all other intelligence and police work, timely, actionable information is a fantastic bonus. And this is why police pay informers and intelligence services do their best to recruit agents and intercept communication among the bad guys. And this is good and we should keep trying this. But an impregnable, airtight system is virtually impossible. Which is to say that we cannot rely only on more and more countermeasures to eventually defeat this terrorism threat. In this particular case, had the sytem worked as intended, we could have seized the Nigerian suspect way before he got on that Detroit bound flight. But, as a general rule, we need much more than successful interdiction. We need to demotivate the would be attackers. We need to create plausible alternatives to political violence, now believed by many to be the only effective tool to bring about change.

Who is the enemy and how do we fight this war?

It has been said before; but it is worth repeating. We do fight the good fight in Afghanistan in order to deny sanctuary to the Taliban, al Qaeda and assorted loonies. It is good to chase them and keep them off balance, if we can. But they and their many associates and copy cats are still out there somewhere, spread in several countries, tied to one another through a variety of networks. And we do not need that many of them to cause major damage. If this deranged Nigerian young man had succeeded, all by himself he would have caused a major loss with untold psychological and economic consequences in terms of disruption of air travel worldwide.

These are not common criminals

And we should remember that this is not just like fighting criminals. Criminals, as bad as they can be, usually have some residual rationality. They will calculate opportunity, risks and rewards and they will go for soft targets, if others have been hardened enough to represent a heightened risk of failure. But we now know that psychotic, deranged people who are intent, whatever their ideological motivation, on committing a dramatically violent act without any consideration for their personal safety, can dare where others would not, precisely because they have no fear of consequences, generally accepting that they will die in the course of their (pathologically inspired) action.

This is not that different from the many cases of unstable persons who buy guns and go to the office/place of work/ school/shopping mall and start shooting everybody in sight. The difference between these persons and the religiously inspired fanatic is the type of motive; but the approach, regarding the implict acceptance of their own death in the execution of their plans, is quite similar. Having said that, a qualitative difference is that usually the lone deranged person would go and get a couple of guns in order to accomplish his goals. He will not have access to military explosives and thus cause real mass murder.

The nature of the fight

So, let’s take all this in and concede that, while we should do our best to create credible defense barriers, we cannot be totally successful all the time against these kinds of enemies spread around the world aspiring to martyrdom and perfectly willing to die in the pursuit of their goals. Inevitably, some more security lapses will occur, somebody will get through, somebody, sometime will succeed. This is not a reason for getting depressed and giving up. We should keep trying. But we also have to be aware that we cannot hope to find a real solution for this threat just by beefing up security some more, plugging more holes as we identify them. Short of creating police states, there is only so much that we can do in the sphere of “point defense”, that is, in our efforts aimed at identifying and blocking the enemy before it can strike.

The real strategic objective

The real strategic objective and thus the nature of the battle underway is different and, if anything, much more complex than going after the bad guys. The real strategic objective is the elimination or at least the  drastic diminution of the motivation that somehow leads people to become engaged in violent attempts on the basis of bizarre, and completely fantastic ideas of political transformation, inspired by some form of twisted interpretation of this or that religion. This is ultimately the real goal and the real challenge.

Can we do this? Difficult to say. At least in principle, in the case of the brands of Islamic fundamentalism that have become the fertilizer, breeding here and there dedicated foot soldiers willing to engage in martyrdom for the cause, it should largely be the responsibility of those societies to identify this germ and to fight it intelligently. However, the evidence is that some are fighting this germ and some are not, or at least, they are doing so without sufficient vigor and conviction, thereby, tacitly, if not explicitly, condoning terror as a legitimate tool to advance political goals.

This is our real weak spot and this is where we need to redouble our efforts. True, President Barack Obama delivered a well received speech to the Muslim world, indicating America’s peaceful intentions and willingness to engage in fruitful dialogue with Islamic societies. This was a good step. But one speech will not transform decades of miscommunication, damaged relations and gross misrepresentations of what America is and what its aims are. America is and will continue to be a target.

Still, while the task of dramatically changing perceptions of others who see us as the source of their sorrows is monumental, we have to work with those societies in an effort aimed at de-legitimizing distorted fundamentalism and the implicit acceptance of political violence, while at the same time providing credible alternatives that will funnel in a more constructive way any reformist enthusiasm. As difficult as this may sound, we have to propose other models that will motivate and inspire people otherwise tempted to follow radicalism because it seems to be the most effective guidance to bring about needed change.

An alternative to radicalism?

Ultimately, this is about devising a path to modernity for societies constrained by a political culture altogether inimical to change and transformation. But, unless we can constructively work with these societies with this shared goal in mind, we shall have to fight this never ending battle with intelligence and police tools alone. We shall succeed in some cases and inevitably suffer losses in others. It is impossible to keep an eye on everybody all the time, successfully snuffing all plots and all clever plans.

Enlist moderate support

There again, unless we enlist the genuine support of the main stream Muslim religious and cultural leaders in the vast Islamic world, so that violence will be unequivocally condemned, while alternatives will be produced, we shall be engaged in an indefinitely long struggle that we may eventually win only assuming that our enemies, for whatever reasons, recognizing the craziness of the belief system that motivated them, at some point will simply give up and stop. While this scenario is altogether quite possible, as most ideologies do indeed lose their luster after a while, the danger for us is that in the meantime we may suffer some more catastrophic losses, due to bad luck, (witness the “near miss” with the would-be Nigerian bomber), or to the clever planning of our enemies.

The strength of healthy values

As always, major ideological struggles are struggles about the intrinsic worth of value systems. In the end, we did not defeat Soviet style Communism in the battlefield. Once the systemic untruth of the ideology became apparent to a critical mass of people within those societies, this realization, coupled with the massive inefficiencies and inequalities created by the system, caused its collapse from within.

In the case of religious fundamentalism it is difficult to say which will be the tipping point that will convince the zealots that the cause is wrong and that it is time to change course, abandoning dreams of radical change through a blood bath in favor of something more constructive. But, as at least some of the people under Communism could be aware of an alternative based on liberal democratic principles, in the same way today’s radicals and their assorted admirers should have the chance to see that there are alternatives to their distorted worldview.

However, for this strategy to be successful, the alternatives have to be real, credible, home grown and “touchable”. The West won against Communism not because we were good at brainwashing public opinion in those societies with clever propaganda. The West, despite many mistakes, eventually won on the basis of the intrinsic, self-evident superiority of the values that constitute the foundations of our open societies.

The problem of culturally insulated societies

The problem with many Muslim societies is that they have been culturally closed to the outside world for too long. Lack of awareness as to real world alternatives allows the semi-unchallenged growth of distorted world views based on totally fantastic interpretations of history and major trends in human, scientific and cultural development. So, this is the real battle ground. Our best tools are the true values of free societies. The trick is in devising better ways to effectively communicate these values, without indulging in any hubristic arrogance.

If we cannot do this, if we cannot enlist the leaders and the mainstream of the many Muslim societies in this ideological struggle against the distorted offshoots in their midst that they have tolerated for too long, we shall have to rely on our military, our intelligence and police services alone to protect us. This is better than nothing, of course. But, whatever the circumstances of this case of the would-be young Nigerian bomber, we should have no delusions as to how effective a strategy ultimately relying on defensive measures alone can be.


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