Counterterror, Technology, and Reaction

By Bob Raffel
Rather than a robust and immediate response, we should learn to take a deep breath after an incident, step back, and think. President Obama was roundly criticized for taking a few weeks to examine policy options regarding our national strategy towards Afghanistan versus doing something (anything) to address an issue that had been simmering for nearly a decade. He should have been commended.
In the case of the Christmas Day bomber, instead of the knee-jerk reaction to enhance passenger screening, a more creative approach requires going beyond the conventional reaction.  We often miss a critical point when assessing civil aviation attacks: by the time the attack has reached the airport, it’s probably too late to prevent it.
Airports--like subways, train stations and other transportation facilities--are designed to accommodate large numbers of people in very public places. Under these conditions, technology has its limits. A continuing reliance on technology is taking us along paths that lead to dead ends (or drone strikes, however successful). The optimal time and place to interdict terrorist attacks directed against civil aviation is months and miles away from the airport. A more successful counter-strategy involves intelligence. Despite the intelligence communities’ putative improvements post-9-11, the information available to analysts, much of it unclassified, remains ignored or underutilized. The civil aviation infrastructure in the United States still does not possess a successful, robust interagency process for collection, dissemination, or analysis of information relating to threats against the aviation system.
In order to successfully counter these threats we must spend the time and treasure to understand, undermine, and disrupt terrorist groups.  In a recent report dealing with intelligence collection and utilization, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, makes the point that  the U.S. military uses its scarce resources inefficiently to kill individual insurgents and terrorists. Rather, the U.S. military should use its limited resources to improve and build on its understanding of the groups that provide insurgents with the necessary support to continue their fight. If the goal is to destroy the insurgency, this strategy provides the best bang for the United States’ buck. As Gen. David Petraeus, the coauthor of the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, argues: “You’re not going to kill your way out of an insurgency.”
Finally, regardless of how effective these technologies are in countering terrorist attacks, it’s crucial to note that none of these innovations even begin to address the issue of terrorism. Discussing the use of aerial drones and “other collection assets” as techniques to help spot insurgents and interdict bombings, Flynn and his coauthors make the point that “relying on [tools] exclusively baits intelligence shops into reacting to enemy tactics at the expense of finding ways to strike at the very heart of the insurgency.”
In some cases, technology may be the solution to a particular problem. But that reaction only addresses the symptom, not the disease. The precursors – social, environmental, religious, cultural – that combined to cause a shy, reclusive member of an upper-class Muslim family to attempt to kill himself and a planeload of others are complex and deserve more attention than they’re getting. To advance the battle against terrorism, we must begin to address those issues, which reach far beyond the latest whole body imaging device.
In the final analysis, how we as a nation respond to terrorism is at the crux of the issue. “Overreacting to terrorist attacks plays into Al Qaeda’s hands,” CNN and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out recently. “It also provokes responses that are likely to be large scale, expensive, ineffective, and perhaps even counterproductive.” 

Migrating from a largely reactive approach—one that has defined our position now and in the past—to one which presumes a long-term, calculated offense predicated on our national security interests is far more effective than attempting to counter the next terrorist strike. This strategy will leverage the intrinsic capabilities of the intelligence community; develop strengths that will help take the fight to our enemies; and challenge them to keep up with us, not the other way around. 

Robert Raffel is an associate professor of homeland security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

♦ Photo of whole body imager by jurvetson/Flickr

♦ Photo of aerial drone by U.S. Air Force/WikiMediaCommons


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