IF SUCCESSFUL COUNTER-TERRORISM REQUIRES INTELLIGENCE,
HOW DO YOU GET IT?
Broadly speaking, intelligence breaks down into HUMINT (information gained directly from people) and ELINT (information gained from electronic eavesdropping). That is much simplified, but it will give you the general idea.
The U.S. has a very mixed track record regarding HUMINT including the extremely unfortunate habit of treating defectors badly—which scarcely encourages one’s enemies to defect. All in all, there has long been a lack of subtlety where the U.S. approach to HUMINT has
been concerned, which has led to poor results overall. These, in turn, have led to a much greater emphasis on ELINT.
Technology cures all! Except that it doesn’t! But gathering HUMINT is a hard, frustrating, imprecise, dangerous, treacherous, business—and it is rarely possible to be absolutely certain of the reliability of one’s sources. For instance, even if you trust your source absolutely—for the best of reasons—he or she may be being fed false information..
Almost everybody (the British, French, Israelis, Russians, and Chinese, for example) is better at HUMINT than the U.S. This isn’t to say that America hasn’t enjoyed some major HUMINT successes, but more to say that these have tended to be the exceptions.
There seems to be a cultural problem here. There is a judgmental, self-righteous, authoritarian aspect to the American pattern of behavior towards those it regards with disapproval (and/or as inferior) which is manifest in how the U.S. treats its own U.S. prisoners, let alone how it regards and treats imprisoned terrorists and its prisoners of war generally.
Defectors come into this category since they are perceived as traitors—even if they are motivated by belief. The possibility that a defector is a plant, intended to deceive, also has to be factored in. Nonetheless, it is hard to see how that justifies ill-treatment. A plant, if detected (not an easy task) can be used to send back false information.
Where do the roots of such unfortunate behavior lie? Doubtless, there are historic reasons—and racism may well come into it. Ignorance almost certainly makes a contribution. Either way, it is evident and habitual.
Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Guantanamo, are the two best known examples, but there are numerous others. It is remarkably counter-productive behavior—because turning prisoners into informants is one of the primary techniques used (to great effect) in counter-terrorism. Prisoners are a resource which can be used to good advantage if they are treated well (no matter how one might be tempted to behave otherwise).
In contrast, ELINT appeals to the U.S, technological orientation—and, even more to the point—is expensive so costs a vast amount of money. The MICC cannot resist anything which boosts the money flow.
ELINT covers a wide spectrum of capabilities—and includes everything from monitoring phone conversations to hacking into one’s enemy’s computers. But, personally, I find it helpful to split out surveillance—which tends to be time related.
Intelligence, gained from surveillance, not only delivers information, but shows up patterns, and can lead to actionable intelligence—which means you have sufficiently precise information to seize, kill, or otherwise take action. Actionable intelligence means the killing can commence.
There is something in human nature which compromises on a justification—but rarely insists on a full reason. When push comes to shove, we are a crude species. Crude is not a compliment. It is not even a declaration of ignorance. It is a description of an unpleasant truth.
The U.S. is astonishingly good at ELINT—and is getting better every day.
Nonetheless, even today, where the most sophisticated optics and sensors are available, it can still be fooled (sometimes in simple ways—such as using heaters in some wreck to simulate the thermal image of a tank).
One of the great weaknesses of ELINT is that it rarely gives adequate information about an enemy’s intentions. It is far from hopeless, because a great deal can be deduced from surveillance, and other techniques, but there is—as yet—no real substitute to having an informant inside the enemy’s immediate circle.
Historically, informants have been the critical factor where neutralizing terrorists has been the objective. Apart from the sheer quantity and quality of information, which can be gained from a cooperative human being, the existence of informants breaks down trust and leads to the undermining of a group’s cohesion—and, of course, it also undermines communication. If you cannot trust your fellow terrorists, you will tell them as little as possible—which tends to make accomplishing virtually anything more difficult.
Informants are not just effective in terms of information, but they are demoralizing to the enemy. They are a key element in achieving the kind of psychological dominance you need to achieve a sense of futility in your enemy.
The issue here is not whether all the terrorists, who oppose you, will give up, when they begin to think that what they are doing is futile, but will enough of them want to quit to render the terrorists largely ineffective?
It is almost impossible to completely defeat terrorism, but you can marginalize it to such an extent that it poses no significant threat. What is more, you can persuade the disillusioned moderates—who are opting for a quieter life—to turn on the extremists. Informants are divisive.
It has been put to me—with some vigor—that since the Jihadists’ fanaticism stems from religion that they cannot be turned.
I could reply that a fanatic tends to be a fanatic regardless of the cause—whether it be political or religious, or for some other reason—and that would largely be true—but a more persuasive point is that human nature is universal, and we already know, from very considerable experience, that people’s commitment to a cause, and their willpower, vary, and that all but the most hardened fanatics can be turned given the right environment, the right incentives, and patience.
It is a great mistake to lump an entire social group together—as if they were all identical. When you get right down to it, people’s motives are complex and varying—as are their abilities to resist pressure and the lure of rewards.
The bottom line—unlikely though it may seem at first, Jihadists can be turned. One current example shows up in the steady success that the U.S. is enjoying in relation to targeted killing (whether you happen to think this is an effective tactic or not). Either way, informants are making a significant contribution. ISIS has been penetrated. Given the deliberately secretive and fragmented nature of that organization, that is not enough—but, it is encouraging.
My late FBI friend, Jim Fox, who headed up the bureau in New York, and who was in charge of the first World Trade Center bombing investigation liked to say, “Flipped.” The man knew what he was talking about.
Incidentally, Jim also conducted one of the most successful HUMINT operations against the Soviets since WW II. The man was fiercely intelligent and had empathy (and a delightful sense of humor). We could do with more people like him.
He was a commendable American, and, I am honored to say, my friend. He is sorely missed.