The Cycle of Terrorism

Another terrorist attack took place in Western Europe this week. Security will now be on alert around the world. The terrorists will avoid attacks during this time because the danger of interception and failure are too high. Therefore, there will be no more terror attacks in the coming days, although there will be constant alerts about empty boxes and suspicious people. In due course, the special alert will not end as much as fade away. Terrorists will begin planning for new attacks and as the events of today blur in our memory, a new attack will take place and the cycle of terrorism and counterterrorism will turn its crank once more.

Being constantly on full alert is impossible. A single human on highest alert on a permanent basis will either self-destruct from adrenaline exhaustion or will decline into a haze. The same can be said for a police or security force. Its ability to endure a constant crisis posture is as limited as for a single person - because the force consists of people. That is what drives this cycle. Any successful counterterrorism can't be carried out by security forces. It must be carried out by intelligence services. Security services create a presence that must be evaded. Intelligence services probe into the intentions of the enemy.

How do you discern intention? Most intelligence focuses on capabilities, but the capabilities required by a terrorist are readily available and transportable. You cannot track capabilities because virtually anyone could be capable of an attack. The Middle East is awash with explosives. And some of the explosives can be made in Europe, from fairly common material by those who know how to do it. And such people are readily available and can't be identified as bomb-makers just by looking at them.

The intelligence challenge is to identify those with the intent to carry out terror attacks and ability to access the material. Identifying both is critical. And the problem of intelligence is that it must assume that anyone might be a terrorist. Intelligence of this sort is a process of discarding. You begin with the assumption that you have no idea what you are looking for, and over time you find the basis for dismissing some, then more and then focusing on a few. This sounds reasonable, until you consider that the process requires you to examine virtually everyone. If everyone is suspect - and they should be - then everyone is subject to examination and no one has the right to privacy.

The problem is that terrorism, by its nature, gives out limited signals. It can be carried out by very few people. It requires little money and limited communication. So how do you find the terrorists? To the extent they can be found, it requires a massive intrusion into society. Since there is no exchange of millions of dollars, you must inspect transactions of $500. Since there is no massive flow of product, you must subject all cars to inspection.

Obviously, there is one common denominator in this group of terrorists. They are Muslims and for the most part - but not exclusively - from a region ranging from North Africa to the Middle East to Afghanistan. That is a common denominator but actually not a very useful one. Assuming that most Islamic State terrorists are part of this group, they are an infinitesimal part.

I say this not because it is politically correct but because it is true. If they were more numerous they would be easier to catch. One of the strategies of terrorism is to keep the number of terrorists extremely small. If they expand and communicate with others, they will be detected. So given the number of Muslims in Europe, the exclusion of Swedish grandmothers from the profile you are looking for still leaves a number that dwarfs police security intelligence and the army as well. Racial profiling doesn't work because terrorists aren't stupid.

So what would work given the resources available? The most important measure would be the penetration of the command structure of terrorist organizations with spies. Some would sneer at this, saying it is old fashioned and that technical means of intelligence from satellites to telephone intercepts are superior. However, I would argue that the electronic search for the infinitesimal will identify some terrorists, but not the most dangerous. They understand that every credit card transaction is being fed into the system, and every car rental and every phone call is being tracked. Even if this isn't true, they must assume it.

Human intelligence is required to win the trust of the members, carry out terrorist (but not suicide) attacks and become one of them. Human penetration of IS by reliable sources with access to all levels of the organization is stunningly difficult and likely to fail as well. But if it works, it is the one way the enemy might lower its guard.

It is possible that this is actually being done systematically. Those who know don't talk and those talk don't know. I certainly have no idea. But as I survey the strategic options and disciplined nature of terrorists, I don't see how automated collection of information can solve the problem. As for human intelligence, I fear that it is much like Will Rogers' approach to German U-boats in World War I. He suggested that the Atlantic be boiled away, and the U-boats captured on the floor of the ocean. When asked how he proposed to do that, he said that he was a policymaker, and this was a technical problem.

Security cannot defeat terrorists. It mainly can determine timing. Electronic intelligence will capture some of the less capable terrorists. Human intelligence requires people from the region prepared to undertake staggering risks, and doing it flawlessly. It probably can't be done and if it has been, I have absolutely no knowledge of it. But we either do something like this or accept the periodic presence of terror.