In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, critics cited the failure to detect increased activity and prevent the catastrophe as an intelligence deficiency. Given the fragmented nature of al Qaeda and the lack of specifics in the intercepted ‘chatter’, historians will debate for years whether the plot could have been foiled. In the years since, much has been done to overcome identified flaws. Brian Michael Jenkins, author of International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict and senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, spoke to the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies about the challenges intelligence agencies still face.
We have achieved undeniable success in degrading the operational capabilities of al Qaeda and affiliated groups responsible for the 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. This is due, in large measure, to unprecedented international cooperation among intelligence services and law enforcement agencies, which has continued despite the political differences that occasionally arise even among allies. We have not yet put the global jihadist enterprise out of business – that may take decades. The continuing campaign also underscores many of the new challenges to intelligence.
The elimination of easily accessible training camps in Afghanistan removed centers that have provided not only indoctrination and instruction, but also provided opportunities for powerful bonding through shared hardships and danger, creating lasting relationships among a brotherhood of veterans now dispersed throughout the world. The international connections created in Afghanistan and the throughput of volunteers also gave al Qaeda’s operational planners access to a global reservoir of recruits enabling the group to operate at a higher level than any previous terrorist organization.
The total number of jihadists arrested or detained worldwide has less significance as a measure of progress. The ‘terrorist population’ is not fixed but dynamic. Continued recruiting expands it while losses erode it. Even within this population individuals calibrate and re-calibrate this level of commitment depending on their own circumstances and their perceptions of how the struggle is going.
Of greater significance is the removal of key operational planners – a loss of talent not easily replaced. Yet new leaders have emerged, as we see in Iraq and elsewhere. They are preparing the next cohort of operations.
Iraq has become their academy. Experience gained there in urban guerrilla warfare, bomb-making, sabotage of vital infrastructure is far more relevant to new terrorist campaigns than any kind of experience gained in Afghanistan. We will be dealing with consequences of Iraq for many years.
There are failures, too. We have not captured Osama bin Laden or some of his other top al Qaeda leaders. Some see this as evidence of divine protection. We have not blunted the jihad appeal. We have not broken the cycle of radicalization, recruitment and indoctrination. Indeed, some of the events that have occurred – the invasion of Iraq, the revelations of prisoner abuse – have galvanized and facilitated jihadist recruiting.
We have not been successful at discouraging people from joining, encouraging them to leave once in the jihad, or turning them around when they are in custody. We are, to be sure, dealing with hard men – the task will not be easy, but neither have we devoted sufficient attention to this component of the counterterrorist campaign.
Al Qaeda has transcended its historic organizational skin to become a powerful ideology capable of inspiring a continuing campaign of terrorism. Although the jihadists must now operate in a tougher environment, they have remained active, communicating, recruiting, training and preparing operations. Since 9/11, jihadists around the world have carried out more than 20 major terrorist attacks.
Many of these have been a local initiative. We now confront many little al Qaedas inspired by the jihadist ideology, although it would be premature to write off the center. They pose new challenges to intelligence. Some cells are connected, others purely independent. There are fewer interceptable communications; less movement of money that can be traced; fewer border crossings that can be monitored. We need to enhance our intelligence collection capabilities at the local level. In many instances, local police through routine criminal investigations, community policing, or dedicated intelligence efforts, will be the first to pick up vital information. They need to be connected with the intelligence services and with each other.
Our very success paradoxically threatens to produce complacency and erodes support for continuing extraordinary measures. We are impatient.
In contrast, our jihadist foes regard war as a perpetual condition. They have no timetables. They may think strategically, but not in terms of a linear or sequential strategy as we do. For them, this is not merely a military contest but a missionary enterprise. Recruiting is not driven by operational needs but to expand influence. Fighting is an obligation that brings its own rewards, ultimately paradise.
It will require new skills in psychological and political warfare to deal with these inspired adversaries, but we are only beginning to understand their mindset and operational code. During the Cold War, a great deal was invested in understanding how our Soviet adversaries thought about warfare and strategy. Apart from some earlier futile attempts to identify a terrorist or terrorist-prone personality, we have tended to pay less attention to their thinking. Instead, terrorists were dismissed as crazies or consigned to the realm of evil – descriptions that have discouraged inquiry lest it somehow lend their acts a measure of legitimacy. Of course, one can go too far in the opposite direction and view terrorists as ‘rational’ actors who think like us. Terrorists are not crazy. Neither do they think like us.
We have thwarted a number of terrorist attacks; exactly how many is hard to say. It is difficult counting events that don’t occur. Failures are obvious and invariably are blamed on inadequate intelligence.
The determination of today’s terrorists to carry out large-scale violence and their fascination with unconventional weapons makes a traditional reactive law enforcement approach risky. We cannot possibly protect all possible targets. Prosecution after carnage is unsatisfactory. We are pushed toward prevention and pre-emption. This, in turn, creates new problems.
Moving in sooner means pre-emptive detention, arrests on lesser charges – immigration violations, fraud, petty crime. Often authorities are unable to prosecute on any charges, allowing critics who look at the small percentage of convictions to erroneously conclude that authorities are overreacting, harassing certain populations, or deliberately and cynically provoking alarm.
In most democracies, the legal framework for pre-emptive intervention is weak and undeveloped. The absence of well-defined rules encouraged broad interpretations of unlimited execution power in wartime, or worse, extra-judicial actions, which, even if arguably useful in extreme circumstances, certainly should not be allowed to become routine. The preservation of values is a strategic, not merely a moral, issue.
Arbitrary round-ups, apprehensions that look more like abductions, abuses of those in custody, public arguments against any constraint on authorities and radicalize populations inspire vengeance, confirm enemy propaganda, facilitate enemy recruiting, erode our legitimacy, and eventually reduce the domestic and international support upon which we must retain to win. All actions have consequences.
Adopting a more aggressive posture means that inevitably mistakes will be made. Oversight is sometimes seen as a constraint, but it is necessary. It prevents intelligence services from going too far. It can protect them from ideologically motivated attacks when honest mistakes are made.
The majority of terrorists captured (outside of battle zones) have been the result of intelligence and enforcement activity, not military operations. In counterterrorism, indeed more broadly in contemporary warfare, law enforcement and military operations are increasingly merging.
We are entering an era of ‘super precision warfare’, war waged not against a state, not even against armies, but aimed narrowly at command and control functions, individual regimes, even individuals who are branded as criminals. This is certainly true in the war on terror, but it was also true of the invasion of Panama and apprehension, prosecution and conviction of its president. It was also true in the Balkans where the mission narrowed down to dissuading President Milosevic and his key lieutenants from pursuing their campaign, to delivering Milosevic and others to an international tribunal. And it was true in Iraq.
The blending of military force with law enforcement creates new challenges for intelligence. How can we apply pressure on the leaders of a specific regime? How can we get better at tracking terrorist fugitives?
We deal today with multiple threats, constantly mutating, rapidly evolving. Many conflicts are chronic but crises demanding intervention also arise suddenly, sometimes in unpredictable places – Darfur, Haiti, piracy off the coast of Somalia. We have to develop the capability to get smart fast. Rapidly deploying platforms for intensive surveillance, penetrating difficult environments, mobilizing reserve knowledge, mining open sources, coalescing around new issues unimpeded by bureaucratic structure, sharing information among agencies within government and among like-minded governments are prerequisites to success in the future.
Brian Michael Jenkins is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation and a leading authority on terrorism. A former member of the US Special Forces, he founded the RAND Corporation's terrorism research program in 1972, and has served as an advisor to the federal government and the private sector.
This commentary originally appeared in Vanguard on March 2, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.