Stratfor’s George Friedman discusses the purpose and significance of the October 3rd alert warning of possible terrorist attacks in Europe and contemplates the broader problem.
The world is awash in intelligence about terrorism. Most of it is meaningless speculation, a conversation intercepted between two Arabs about how they’d love to blow up London Bridge. The problem, of course, is how to distinguish between idle chatter and actual attack planning. There is no science involved in this, but there are obvious guidelines. Are the people known to be associated with radical Islamists? Do they have the intent and capability to conduct such an attack? Were any specific details mentioned in the conversation that can be vetted? Is there other intelligence to support the plot discussed in the conversation?
The problem is that what appears quite obvious in the telling is much more ambiguous in reality. At any given point, the government could reasonably raise the alert level if it wished. That it doesn’t raise it more frequently is tied to three things. First, the intelligence is frequently too ambiguous to act on. Second, raising the alert level warns people without really giving them any sense of what to do about it. Third, it can compromise the sources of its intelligence.
The current warning is a perfect example of the problem. We do not know what intelligence the U.S. government received that prompted the warning, and I suspect that the public descriptions of the intelligence do not reveal everything that the government knows. We do know that a German citizen was arrested in Afghanistan in July and has allegedly provided information regarding this threat, but there are likely other sources contributing to the warning, since the U.S. government considered the intelligence sufficient to cause concern. The Obama administration leaked on Saturday that it might issue the warning, and indeed it did.
The government did not recommend that Americans not travel to Europe. That would have affected the economy and infuriated Europeans. Leaving tourism aside, since tourism season is largely over, a lot of business is transacted by Americans in Europe. The government simply suggested vigilance. Short of barring travel, there was nothing effective the government could do. So it shifted the burden to travelers. If no attack occurs, nothing is lost. If an attack occurs, the government can point to the warning and the advice. Those hurt or killed would not have been vigilant.
I do not mean to belittle the U.S. government on this. Having picked up the intelligence it can warn the public or not. The public has a right to know, and the government is bound by law and executive order to provide threat information. But the reason that its advice is so vague is that there is no better advice to give. The government is not so much washing its hands of the situation as acknowledging that there is not much that anyone can do aside from the security measures travelers should already be practicing.
The alert serves another purpose beyond alerting the public. It communicates to the attackers that their attack has been detected if not penetrated, and that the risks of the attack have pyramided. Since these are most likely suicide attackers not expecting to live through the attack, the danger is not in death. It is that the Americans or the Europeans might have sufficient intelligence available to thwart the attack. From the terrorist point of view, losing attackers to death or capture while failing to inflict damage is the worst of all possible scenarios. Trained operatives are scarce, and like any strategic weapon they must be husbanded and, when used, cause maximum damage. When the attackers do not know what Western intelligence knows, their risk of failure is increased along with the incentive to cancel the attack. A government warning, therefore, can prevent an attack. …
the warning might well have served a purpose, but the purpose was not necessarily to empower citizens to protect themselves from terrorists. Indeed, there might have been two purposes. One might have been to disrupt the attack and the attackers. The other might have been to cover the government if an attack came.
In either case, it has to be recognized that this sort of warning breeds cynicism among the public. If the warning is intended to empower citizens, it engenders a sense of helplessness, and if no attack occurs, it can also lead to alert fatigue. What the government is saying to its citizenry is that, in the end, it cannot guarantee that there won’t be an attack and therefore its citizens are on their own. The problem with that statement is not that the government isn’t doing its job but that the job cannot be done. The government can reduce the threat of terrorism. It cannot eliminate it.
This brings us to the strategic point. The defeat of jihadist terror cells cannot be accomplished defensively. Homeland security can mitigate the threat, but it can never eliminate it. The only way to eliminate it is to destroy all jihadist cells and prevent the formation of new cells by other movements or by individuals forming new movements, and this requires not just destroying existing organizations but also the radical ideology that underlies them. To achieve this, the United States and its allies would have to completely penetrate a population of about 1.3 billion people and detect every meeting of four or five people planning to create a terrorist cell. And this impossible task would not even address the problem of lone-wolf terrorists. It is simply impossible to completely dominate and police the entire world, and any effort to do so would undoubtedly induce even more people to turn to terrorism in opposition to the global police state.
Will Rogers was asked what he might do to deal with the German U-boat threat in World War I. He said he would boil away the Atlantic, revealing the location of the U-boats that could then be destroyed. Asked how he would do this, he answered that that was a technical question and he was a policymaker.
Read the whole thing.
George Friedman is clever and cynical as always, but I think he’s wrong about the United States and her Western allies being unable to boil the Islamic sea.
Terrorism is really war by another name, and war is labor intensive and consequently costly. Terrorism exists because funding, weapons, material support, and ultimately safe havens are made available by the only entities capable of providing the necessary scale of support: governments.
We are in denial about the collusion of hostile states like Iran and supposedly friendly states. A major debate occurred some years ago in foreign policy and intelligence circles on the possibility of the existence of non-state actors operating in complete isolation from any state or government. The liberal side of the debate was articulated most prominently by Paul Pilar, chief of analysis at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and expressed most completely in his book Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Pilar’s position, that unicorns exist and spontaneously generate, has become the Intelligence Community’s orthodoxy and it is nonsense. The Taliban have been able to pay their fighters more than than the Afghan government pays members of its security forces. The Taliban have an estimated 20,000-30,000 fighters. $300 a month times 20,000-30,000 men is $6,000,000-$9,000,000 or $72,000,000-$108,000,000 in minimum base salaries alone per annum before adding in higher compensation for officers and ncos, arms and ammunition, clothing, rations, and medical supplies.
We have a multi-hundred million dollar per year enterprise underway in the Afghan mountains and other insurgencies operating in Iraq, in the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa, and to some extent in Europe and the United States. A certain amount of all this activity is self-funded by kidnapping, robbery, and extortion, but it must be obvious that enormous amounts of monetary and material support are coming from somewhere.
It is also obvious that what makes the expenditure on NGO terrorism possible for governments, groups, and wealthy citizens of the Islamic world is the vast transfer of wealth from the civilized and developed world exchanged for oil at artificially high prices created by the manipulation of prices and supplies by the OPEC oil cartel.
To boil the sea that terrorism swims in, the US government merely needs to destroy OPEC, return petroleum to prices to the mercies of the real world market, and thereby reduce the economic surplus that flatters Islamic egos and enables Islamic extravagances.
The first step, of course, would be to defeat the liberal security orthodoxy that protects state supporters of terrorist surrogates and immunizes them by enabling deniability.