Tag: interrogation

‘The Dumbest Terrorist In the World’?

Businessweek has a story quoting a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Michael Wildes, speculating that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, made so many mistakes (leaving his house keys in the car, not knowing about the vehicle identification number, making calls from his cellphone, getting filmed, buying the car himself) that he may be the “dumbest terrorist in the world.” But Wildes can’t accept the idea that an al Qaeda type terrorist would be so incompetent and suggests that Shahzad was “purposefully hapless” to generate intelligence about the police reaction for the edification of his buddies back in Pakistan.

Give me a break. This incompetence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago Bruce Schneier wrote an article titled “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” describing the incompetence of several would-be al Qaeda plots in the United States and castigating commentators for clinging to image of these guys as Bond-style villains that rarely err.  It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent – no one would call Mohammed Atta that – or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason.  They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

The guys in Waziristan who trained Shahzad are probably embarrassed to have failed in the eyes of the world and would be relieved if we concluded that they did so intentionally. Likewise, it must have heartened the al Qaeda group in Yemen when the failed underwear bomber that they sent west set off the frenzied reaction that he did.  Remember that in March, al Qaeda’s American-born spokesperson/groupie Adam Gadahn said this:

Even apparently unsuccessful attacks on Western mass transportation systems can bring major cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his corporations into bankruptcy.

As our enemies realize, the bulk of harm from terrorism comes from our reaction to it.  Whatever role its remnants or fellow-travelers had in this attempt, al Qaeda (or whatever we want to call the loosely affiliated movement of internationally-oriented jihadists) is failing. They have a shrinking foothold in western Pakistan, maybe one in Yemen, and little more. Elsewhere they are hidden and hunted. Their popularity is waning worldwide. Their capability is limited. The predictions made after September 11 of waves of similar or worse attacks were wrong. This threat is persistent but not existential.

This attempt should also remind us of another old point: our best counterterrorism tools are not air strikes or army brigades but intelligence agents, FBI agents, and big city police.  It’s true that because nothing but bomber error stopped this attack, we cannot draw strong conclusions from it about what preventive measures work best. But the aftermath suggests that what is most likely to prevent the next attack is a criminal investigation conducted under normal laws and the intelligence leads it generates. Domestic counterterrorism is largely coincident with ordinary policing. The most important step in catching the would-be bomber here appears to have been getting the vehicle identification number off the engine and rapidly interviewing the person who sold it. Now we are seemingly gathering significant intelligence about bad actors in Pakistan under standard interrogation practices.

These are among the points explored in the volume Chris Preble, Jim Harper and I edited: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It – now hot off the presses. Contributors include Audrey Kurth Cronin, Paul Pillar, John Mueller, Mia Bloom, and a bunch of other smart people.

We’re discussing the book and counterterrorism policy at Cato on May 24th,  at 4 PM. Register to attend or watch online here.

Strategic Terrorist Interrogation

The cover story of this month’s National Interest focuses on different approaches to terrorist interrogation. Matthew Alexander, former senior military interrogator and author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq, profiles Colonel Tito Karnavian, the chief of intelligence for Detachment 88, Indonesia’s premier counterterrorist force. Karnavian’s approach to interrogation is strategic, as opposed to the tactical scenarios that dominate the debate in America.

The goal of the interrogators is not intelligence information that can prevent future terrorist attacks, but the conversion of the extremists into advocates against violent jihad. Interrogators have, de facto, become the primary facilitators of rehabilitation. In this manner, Karnavian has turned a tactical weapon into strategic leverage, and the results speak for themselves.

Following the implementation of Karnavian’s interrogation strategy, Indonesia did not have a terrorist bombing for almost the entire three years between 2006 and 2009, no doubt chalked up to the cooperation of numerous imprisoned extremists. Two former senior JI members captured by Detachment 88 have since written books admitting their erroneous violent beliefs. One book was a national best seller in Indonesia. In comparison, U.S. interrogation strategy, although improved since the revelations of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2005, is in the Stone Age.

Read the whole thing.

Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers

I’ve been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy’s post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects.  I share Gene’s bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush’s longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House.  But I also think it’s worth stressing that the arguments being offered – both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally – aren’t very persuasive even if we suppose that they’re not politically motivated.

Two caveats.  First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won’t always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing.   Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we’ll need to use Abdulmutallab’s statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don’t seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.

Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don’t seem to share this concern that they won’t be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it’s consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to “lawyer up” – as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it – explicitly concluding that “the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent.”

Nor, contra the popular narrative, does it appear to have interfered in the Abdulmutallab case.  Republicans leapt to construe sketchy early reports as implying that the failed bomber had been talking to investigators, then clammed up upon being read his Miranda rights and provided with counsel. But that turns out to have gotten the order of events wrong. In reality, Abdulmutallab was initially talkative – perhaps the shock of having set off an incendiary device in his pants overrode his training – but then ceased cooperating before being Mirandizied. Rather, it was the urging of his family members that appears to have been crucial in securing his full cooperation – family members whose assistance would doubtless have been far more difficult to secure without assurances that he would be treated humanely and fairly within the criminal justice system. It’s possible, one supposes, that the emo terrorist might have broken still more rapidly in military custody, but it seems odd to criticize the judgment of the intelligence professionals directly involved with the case, given that their approach has manifestly worked, on the basis of mere speculation about the superior effectiveness of an alternative approach.

Stepping back from this specific case, there seem to be strong reasons to favor recourse to the criminal systems in the absence of some extraordinarily compelling justification for departing from that rule in particular cases. Perhaps most obviously, few terror suspects are quite so self-evidently guilty as Abdulmutallab, and so framing the question of their treatment as one of the due process rights afforded “terrorists” begs the question. The mantra of those who prefer defaulting to military trial is that “we are at war” – but this is an analytically unhelpful observation.  We’re engaged in a series of loosely connected conflicts, some of which look pretty much like conventional wars, some of which don’t. This blanket observation tells us nothing about which set of tools is likely to be most effective in a particular case or class of cases – any more than it answers the question of which battlefield tactics will best achieve a strategic goal.

For the most part, the insistent invocation of the fact that “we’re at war” seems to be a kind of shibboleth deployed by people who want to signal that they are Very, Very Serious about national security without engaging in serious thought about national security. If it came without costs, I would be loath to begrudge them this little self-esteem boosting ritual. But conflict with terrorists is, by definition, a symbolic conflict, because terrorism is first and foremost a symbolic act. As Fawaz Gerges documents in his important book The Far Enemy, jihadis had traditionally been primarily concerned with the fight to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular.  The controversial – and even among radical Islamists,quite unpopular – decision to strike “the Far Enemy” in the United States was not motivated by some blind bloodlust, or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Rather, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West could revive flagging jihadi movement, galvanize the ummah, and (crucially) enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda, perceived within jihadi circles as a fairly marginal organization.

This has largely backfired. But it’s important to always bear in mind that attacks on the United States, especially by sensational methods like airplane bombings, are for terror groups essentially PR stunts whose value is ultimately instrumental. They don’t do it for the sheer love of blowing up planes; they do it as a means of establishing their own domestic credibility vis a vis more locally-focused Islamist groups (violent and peaceful) with whom they are competing for recruits. While our response to these attempts will often necessarily have some military component, there is no reason to bolster their outreach efforts by making a big public show of treating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as tantamount to a belligerent foreign state.  Better, when it’s compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals, to treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs.

Holder on the Hot Seat

Today Politico Arena asks:

Terror suspects: Eric Holder’s defense (nothing new here)–agree or disagree?

My response:

There’s no question that after the killings in Little Rock and Fort Hood, the decision to try the KSM five in a civilian court in downtown Manhattan, and the Christmas Day bombing attempt (the government’s before and after behavior alike), the Obama-Holder “law-enforcement” approach to terrorism is under serious bipartisan scrutiny.  And Holder’s letter yesterday to his critics on the Hill isn’t likely to assuage them, not least because it essentially ignores issues brought out in the January 20 hearings before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, like the government’s failure to have its promised High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG) in place.
 
Nor are the administration’s repeated efforts to justify itself by saying it’s doing only what the Bush administration did likely to persuade.  In the aftermath of 9/11, and in the teeth of manifold legal challenges, the Bush administration hardly developed a systematic or consistent approach to terrorism.  Much thought has been given to the subject since 9/11, of course, and it’s shown the subject to be anything but simple.  Nevertheless, if anything is clear, it is that if we are in a war on terror (or in a war against Islamic terrorists), as Obama has finally acknowledged, then the main object in that war ought not to be ”to bring terrorists to justice” through after-the-fact prosecutions – the law-enforcement approach – but to prevent terrorist attacks before they happen, which means that intelligence gathering should be the main object of this war.  And that, precisely, is what the obsession with Mirandizing, lawyering up, and prosecuting seems to treat as of secondary importance.  Intelligence is our first line of defense – and should be our first priority.

Manhattan Says No to Terror Trials

Today, Politico Arena asks:

Terror trials: Is it time for the administration to retreat and rethink? Is it generally mishandling the terrorism issue?

My response:

On no issue is President Obama getting acquainted with reality more clearly than terrorism, or so it seems.  He blazed into office, guns holstered, as the anti-Bush, putting Eric Holder’s Justice Department in charge, not of the War on Terror, a phrase he banished from his administration’s lexicon, but of “bringing those who planned and plotted the [9/11] attacks to justice,” as Holder put it in November when he announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others would be given civilian trials in downtown Manhattan.  But as the manifold costs of such a trial became increasingly apparent, and as even New York Democrats have grown increasingly restive, the White House, it seems, has backed down.  We await the line of congressmen saying “Bring the trial to my district.”

How could it be otherwise?  The administration’s law-enforcement approach to terrorism has been unserious and folly from the start.  In an understated yet devastating piece in yesterday’s Washington Post, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden cataloged that folly, nowhere more evident than in the FBI’s handling of the would-be Christmas Day bomber, who was Mirandized and lawyered up long before he could be seriously interrogated by agents with the background to elicit the intelligence we need – not to prosecute terrorists, but to prevent future terrorist attacks.  The most telling revelation in Hayden’s piece came at the end, however.  In August, the government unveiled its High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) designed to interrogate people like the Christmas Day bomber, and it announced also that the FBI would begin questioning CIA officers about alleged abuses in the 2004 inspector general’s report.  Was the HIG called in to interrogate the Christmas Day bomber?  No – it has yet to be formed.  But the interrogations of CIA officers are proceeding apace.  So much for the administration’s priorities.  Is it any wonder that Scott Brown’s pollsters report that terrorism, and the administration’s mishandling of the issue, polled better even than Brown’s opposition to ObamaCare?

State Secrets, State Secrets Are No Fun

Despite Barack Obama’s frequent paeans to the value of transparency during the presidential campaign, his Justice Department has incensed civil liberties advocates by parroting the Bush administration’s broad invocations of the “state secrets privilege” in an effort to torpedo lawsuits challenging controversial interrogation and surveillance policies. Though in many cases the underlying facts have already been widely reported, DOJ lawyers implausibly claimed, not merely that particular classified information should not be aired in open court, but that any discussion of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” of detainees to torture-friendly regimes, or of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, would imperil national security.

That may—emphasis on may—finally begin to change as of October 1st, when new guidelines for the invocation of the privilege issued by Attorney General Eric Holder kick in. Part of the change is procedural: state secrets claims will need to go through a review board and secure the personal approval of the Attorney General. Substantively, the new rules raise the bar for assertions of privilege by requiring attorneys to provide courts with specific evidence showing reason to expect disclosure would result in “significant harm” to national security. Moreover, those assertions would have to be narrowly tailored so as to allow cases to proceed on the basis of as much information as can safely be disclosed.

That’s the theory, at any rate. The ACLU is skeptical, and argues that relying on AG guidelines to curb state secrets overreach is like relying on the fox to guard the hen house. And indeed, hours after the announcement of the new guidelines—admittedly not yet in effect—government attorneys were singing the state secrets song in a continuing effort to get a suit over allegations of illegal wiretapping tossed. The cynical read here is that the new guidelines are meant to mollify legislators contemplating statutory limits on state secrets claims while preserving executive discretion to continue making precisely the same arguments, so long as they add the word “significant” and jump through a few extra hoops. Presumably we’ll start to see how serious they are come October. And as for those proposed statutory limits, if the new administration’s commitment to greater  accountability is genuine, they should now have no objection to formal rules that simply reinforce the procedures and principles they’ve voluntarily embraced.