NIGHTWATCH: Terrorist Threat Analytics 101 — US Has Neither Improved Capabilities Nor Learned Anything New Since 9/11

Government, IO Sense-Making

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Terrorist Alert: Special Comment. It is always hazardous to comment on events without having had access to the underlying source material about them. This is especially true of threatening developments. Thus it is not possible to comment on the quality or accuracy of the information on which the current terrorist alert rests.

What makes this threat warning even trickier is that terrorist groups have long known that the US and others eavesdrop on their conversations and chatter. Terrorist knowledge of US eavesdropping practices creates the condition for a perfect set up for deception. It also makes warnings based primarily on that intelligence evidence unpersuasive.

Long experience in crisis management by FEMA and its predecessors established the information criteria for a persuasive warning of every threat, ranging from an epidemic of poisonous bootleg liquor to general war.

When an analyst judges that risks have gestated and emerged as threats, the most important question is whether the threat is real. The answer to that question hinges on judgments about the credibility of the sources and the relevance and weight of the information they provide about the following eight components that define all threats.

1.Nature of the threat – What kind of damage is expected?

2.Actor – who will inflict the damage and what is its capability?

3.Probability of occurrence – how likely is the damage to occur, barring prevention?

4.Extent of expected damage – how bad can it get?

5.Location and direction of the threat – where is the target and whence will come the threat?

6.Duration – how long will it last?

7.Timing- when will it take place? How far advanced are the attack preparations?

8.Escape opportunities – what are the options for avoiding damage or, failing that, for minimizing damage– how can we be safe?

The persuasiveness of a warning hinges on the extent to which the warning message conveys answers those questions, according to studies done in the 1960s that were compiled by Alexander George. Readers may use the above list of issues to judge for themselves the adequacy of information in the public domain on a wide variety of threats.

Cumulatively, the quality and quantity of the answers to the above questions also drive the answer to the second most important question: what is the appropriate response?

As for the information about the latest terrorist threat that is in the public domain, some experts have asked rightly, so what is new? There is no news in the proposition that terrorists have the motive and the intent to attack US and Western diplomatic and other targets and have some capability to execute that threat. Those are constants that underpin the judgment that the international environment contains a constant risk of terrorist attack somewhere at some probability. Those conditions define general intent.

The critical judgment that the US administration has made is that the intelligence establishes that some terrorists have made the transition to formulate specific intent to attack a specific target at a time of their choosing. That means that some government agency has filled in answers to all eight questions above to some degree of specificity based on credible sources. Assuming that to be the case, the warning and precautions are righteous.

That assumption, however, is undermined by the number of diplomatic facilities that have been closed for an indeterminate period. The extent of closures indicates the US does not know the target, which is a key component in a persuasive warning that justifies precautions. The evacuation of 75 staffers from the embassy in Yemen, on the other hand, indicates that some refinement has occurred in the analysis of likely targets.

A disturbing corollary is a suspicion that 12 years after the 9/11 attack agencies remain challenged in differentiating bluffs from real threats. That suggests little progress has been made in improving analytical techniques for warning of terrorist threats.

NightWatch uses a template for monitoring and registering information on terrorist attack preparations. It refines and tailors the eight components of a threat to a terrorist attack. The template is a composite derived from more than three dozen actual attacks, such as the Bali bombings in Indonesia and the bombing of the La Belle disco in Germany.

Information in the public domain about the latest threat enables activation of one of the 14 indicators, but at a low level.

Did the government overreact? The 67 years of US experience with intelligence warning is that the cost of absolute safety is high and not sustainable. There is no penalty for a warning and precautions that were not followed by damage. People tend to be grateful for government vigilance even if no damage occurs. They will tend to credit the government for a success of warning.

The cost of safety under all circumstances, for all probabilities of threat and for all likely targets is high and not sustainable. Ultimately, embassies must open and become vulnerable. It is not necessarily a warning success if no attack takes place when the evidence is not conclusive that an attack was actually threatened and because closing embassies is not a deterrent to or safeguard against an attack. Embassy closures prevent potential loss of life, but they are at most damage limiting, not damage avoiding. Closures concede terrorist success, even without an attack.

What is apparent is that the terrorists have the ability to force the US to take stressful action and pay high costs to be safe. The death of bin Laden has had little apparent impact on al Qaida’s leadership effectiveness. The terrorists have learned a lot about US sensitivity to real or phony threats in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack and about the quality of US intelligence analysis.

The third most important question is what is the way ahead? The answer is not clear at this time. Certainly, large numbers of embassies cannot be closed again any time soon. Drone attacks have already been increased, according to information from Yemen, but they have not had a deterrent effect on attack planning. Decapitation of terrorist leaders is not a permanent solution to threats in living systems, but keeping them on the run is effective for as long as that threat can be maintained.