The Christmas Day Airliner Attack and the Intelligence Process
By George Friedman
As is well known, a Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to destroy a passenger aircraft traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. Metal detectors cannot pinpoint the chemical in the device he sought to detonate, PETN. The PETN was strapped to his groin. Since a detonator could have been detected, the attacker chose — or had chosen for him — a syringe filled with acid for use as an improvised alternative means to initiate the detonation. In the event, the device failed to detonate, but it did cause a fire in a highly sensitive area of the attacker's body. An alert passenger put out the fire. The plane landed safely. It later emerged that the attacker's father, a prominent banker in Nigeria, had gone to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to warn embassy officials of his concerns that his son might be involved with jihadists.
The incident drove home a number of points. First, while al Qaeda prime — the organization that had planned and executed 9/11 — might be in shambles, other groups in other countries using the al Qaeda brand name and following al Qaeda prime's ideology remain operational and capable of mounting attacks. Second, like other recent attacks, this attack was relatively feeble: It involved a single aircraft, and the explosive device was not well-conceived. Third, it remained and still remains possible for a terrorist to bring explosives on board an aircraft. Fourth, intelligence available in Nigeria, London and elsewhere had not moved through the system with sufficient speed to block the terrorist from boarding the flight.
An Enduring Threat
From this three things emerge. First, although the capabilities of jihadist terrorists have declined, their organizations remain functional, and there is no guarantee that these organizations won't increase in sophistication and effectiveness. Second, the militants remain focused on the global air transport system. Third, the defensive mechanisms devised since 2001 remain ineffective to some degree.
The purpose of terrorism in its purest form is to create a sense of insecurity among a public. It succeeds when fear moves a system to the point where it can no longer function. This magnifies the strength of the terrorist by causing the public to see the failure of the system as the result of the power of the terrorist. Terror networks are necessarily sparse. The greater the number of persons involved, the more likely a security breach becomes. Thus, there are necessarily few people in a terror network. An ideal terror network is global, able to strike anywhere and in multiple places at once. The extent of the terror network is unknown, partly because of its security systems and partly because it is so sparse that finding a terrorist is like finding a needle in a haystack. It is the fact that the size and intentions of the terror network are unknown that generates the sense of terror and empowers the terrorist.
The global aspect is also important. That attacks can originate in many places and that attackers can belong to many ethnic groups increases the desired sense of insecurity. All Muslims are not members of al Qaeda, but all members of al Qaeda are Muslims, and any Muslim might be a member of al Qaeda. This logic is beneficial to radical Islamists, who want to increase the sense of confrontation between Islam and the rest of the world. This not only increases the sense of insecurity and vulnerability in the rest of the world, it also increases hostility toward Muslims, strengthening al Qaeda's argument to Muslims that they are in an unavoidable state of war with the rest of the world. Equally important is the transmission of the idea that if al Qaeda is destroyed in one place, it will spring up elsewhere.
This terror attack made another point, intended or not. U.S. President Barack Obama recently decided to increase forces in Afghanistan. A large part of his reasoning was that Afghanistan was the origin of 9/11, and the Taliban hosted al Qaeda. Therefore, he reasoned the United States should focus its military operations in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, since that was the origin of al Qaeda. But the Christmas Day terror attempt originated in Yemen, a place where the United States has been fighting a covert war with limited military resources. It therefore raises the question of why Obama is focusing on Afghanistan when the threat from al Qaeda spinoffs can originate anywhere.
From the terrorist perspective, the Yemen attack was a low-cost, low-risk operation. If it succeeded in bringing down a U.S. airliner over Detroit, the psychological impact would be massive. If it failed to do so, it would certainly increase a sense of anxiety, cause the U.S. and other governments to institute new and expensive security measures, and potentially force the United States into expensive deployments of forces insufficient to dominate a given country but sufficient to generate an insurgency. If just some of these things happened, the attack would have been well worth the effort.
The Strategic Challenge
The West's problem can be identified this way: There is no strategic solution to low-level terrorism, i.e., terrorism carried out by a sparse, global network at unpredictable times and places. Strategy involves identifying and destroying the center of gravity of an enemy force. By nature, jihadist terrorism fails to present a single center of gravity, or a strong point or enabler that if destroyed would destroy the organization. There is no organization properly understood, and the destruction of one organization does not preclude the generation of another organization.
There are possible solutions. One is to accept that Islamist terrorism cannot be defeated permanently but can be kept below a certain threshold. As it operates now, it can inflict occasional painful blows on the United States and other countries — including Muslim countries — but it cannot threaten the survival of the nation (though it might force regime change in some Muslim countries).
In this strategy, there are two goals. The first is preventing the creation of a jihadist regime in any part of the Muslim world. As we saw when the Taliban provided al Qaeda with sanctuary, access to a state apparatus increases the level of threat to the United States and other countries; displacing the Taliban government reduced the level of threat. The second goal is preventing terrorists from accessing weapons of mass destruction that, while they might not threaten the survival of a country, would certainly raise the pain level to an unacceptable point. In other words, the United States and other countries should focus on reducing the level of terrorist capabilities, not on trying to eliminate the terrorist threat as a whole.
To a great extent, this is the American strategy. The United States has created a system for screening airline passengers. No one expects it to block a serious attempt to commit terrorism on an airliner, nor does this effort have any effect on other forms of terrorism. Instead, it is there to reassure the public that something is being done, to catch some careless attackers and to deter others. But in general, it is a system whose inconvenience is meant to reassure.
The Challenge of Identifying Potential Terrorists
To the extent to which there is a center of gravity to the problem, it is in identifying potential terrorists. In both the Fort Hood attack and the Detroit incident, information was in the system that could have allowed authorities to identify and stop the attackers, but in both cases, this information didn't flow to the places where action could have been taken. There is thus a chasm between the acquisition of information and the person who has the authority to do something about it. The system "knew" about both attackers, but systems don't actually think or know anything. The person with authority to stop a Nigerian from boarding the plane or who could relieve the Fort Hood killer from duty lacked one or more of the following: intelligence, real authority and motivation.
The information gathered in Nigeria had to be widely distributed to be useful. It was unknown where Abdulmutallab was going to go or what he was going to do. The number of people who needed to know about him was enormous, from British security to Amsterdam ticket agents checking passports. Without distributing the intelligence widely, it became useless. A net can't have holes that are too big, and the failure to distribute intelligence to all points creates holes.
Of course, the number of pieces of intelligence that come into U.S. intelligence collection is enormous. How does the person interviewing the father know whether the father has other reasons to put his son on a list? Novels have been written about father-son relations. The collector must decide whether the report is both reliable and significant, and the vast majority of information coming into the system is neither. The intelligence community has been searching for a deus ex machina in the form of computers able not only to distribute intelligence to the necessary places but also to distinguish reliable from unreliable, significant from insignificant.
Forgetting the interagency rivalries and the tendency to give contracts to corporate behemoths with last-generation technology, no matter how widely and efficiently intelligence is distributed, at each step in the process someone must be given real authority to make decisions. When Janet Napolitano or George Tenet say that the system worked after an incident, they mean not that the outcome was satisfactory, but that the process operated as the process was intended to operate. Of course, being faithful to a process is not the same as being successful, but the U.S. intelligence community's obsession with process frequently elevates process above success. Certainly, process is needed to operate a vast system, but process also is being used to deny people authority to do what is necessary outside the process, or, just as bad, it allows people to evade responsibility by adhering to the process.
Not only does the process relieve individuals in the system from real authority; it also strips them of motivation. In a system driven by process, the individual motivated to abort the process and improvise is weeded out early. There is no room for "cowboys," the intelligence community term for people who hope to be successful at the mission rather than faithful to the process. Obviously, we are overstating matters somewhat, but not by as much as one might think. Within the U.S. intelligence and security process, one daily sees good people struggling to do their jobs in the face of processes that can't possibly anticipate all circumstances.
The distribution of intelligence to the people who need to see it is, of course, indispensable, along with whatever other decision supports can be contrived. But, in the end, unless individuals are expected and motivated to make good decisions, the process is merely the preface to failure. No system can operate without process. At the same time, no process can replace authority, motivation and, ultimately, common sense.
The fear of violating procedures cripples Western efforts to shut down low-level terrorism. But the procedures are themselves flawed. A process that says that in a war against radical Islamists, an elderly visitor from Iceland is as big of a potential threat as a twentysomething from Yemen might satisfy some ideological imperative, but it violates the principle of common sense and blocks the authority and the motivation to act decisively.
It is significant that this is one of the things the Obama administration has changed in response to the attempted bombing.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced Jan. 4 that anyone traveling from or through nations regarded as state sponsors of terrorism as well as "other countries of interest" will be required to go through enhanced screening. The TSA said those techniques would include full-body pat downs, carry-on luggage searches, full-body scanning and explosive detection technology. The U.S. State Department lists Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism. The other countries whose passengers will face enhanced screening include Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. A rational system of profiling thus appears to be developing.
In all likelihood, no system can eliminate events such as what happened on Christmas, and in all likelihood, the republic would survive an intermittent pattern of such events — even successful ones. Focusing on the strategic level makes sense. But given the level of effort and cost involved in terrorist protection throughout the world, successful systems for distributing intelligence and helping identify potentially significant threats are long overdue. The U.S. government has been tackling this since 2001, and it still isn't working.
But, in the end, creating a process that precludes initiative by penalizing those who do not follow procedures under all circumstances and intimidating those responsible for making quick decisions from risking a mistake is bound to fail.