Tag: fort hood

‘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.

Reactions to al Qaeda Terrorism Have Opened a Flank

Excellent recent posts by my colleague David Rittgers have covered the legal (and practical) issues involved in terrorist detention. Take a look at “The Case against Domestic Military Detention” and his follow-up, “Playing Chicken Again.” He has also lectured on the Hill about terrorism strategy, relating themes I used to open our 2009 and 2010 counterterrorism conferences.

The gist is that terrorism seeks overreaction on the part of the victim state. Lacking power of their own, terrorists try to goad states into overzealous and misdirected responses that serve their aims.

A prominent aim among members of the al-Qaeda franchise is mobilization of others, one of five strategies that U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin lays out in a chapter of the forthcoming Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix it. Writes Cronin:

Mobilization has been al Qaeda’s most effective strategy thus far. A global environment of democratized communications has increased public access to information and has sharply reduced the cost…  If a group is truly successful in mobilizing large numbers, this strategy can prolong the fight and may enable the threat to transition to other forms, including insurgency and conventional war.

Chances are extremely remote that al Qaeda will ever make this transition. But a recent AP story illustrates how groups in the weakened al Qaeda network may be stumbling onto a strategic option that our political leaders opened to them with their reactions to the Fort Hood shooting and the 12/25 bombing attempt:

For the first time, the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and has prided itself on its ideological purism seems to be eyeing a more pragmatic and arguably more dangerous shift in tactics. The emerging message appears to be: Big successes are great, but sometimes simply trying can be just as good.

U.S. officials and counterterrorism experts say the airline attack and last November’s shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, prove that simple, well-played smaller attacks against the United States can be just as devastating to the democratic giant as complex and riskier ones.

In a recent Internet posting, U.S.-born al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn made a public pitch for such smaller, single acts of jihad.

“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,” Gadahn said in a video released and translated by U.S.-based Site Intelligence Group, which monitors Islamic militant message traffic.

Al Qaeda is a franchise—not a single group or even necessarily a cohesive network—so Gadahn almost certainly speaks only for his own outfit.  But the progression of al Qaeda groups from coordinating attacks to encouraging lone wolves shows that their capabilities have been degraded. Lone wolf attacks are comparable to other terrorist threats that are always out there, including white supremacists, black separatists, eco terrorists, tax protesters with planes, random spree shooters, and so on.

But the “al Qaeda” label has a special power. U.S. politicians’ response to Fort Hood and the 12/25 bombing attempt signaled to al Qaeda terrorists that small—even failed—attacks can help them achieve their aims. With rare exceptions, the political class and media have yet to recognize that cool, phlegmatic public reponses to terrorism are an essential part of dismantling the strategy.

Poorly considered reactions to al-Qaeda-branded terror attacks are part and parcel of making those attacks succeed. Our so-called leaders should not give 9/11- or 7/7-style publicity and panic to failed attacks.

How to Prevent a Fort Hood Shooting

I wrote some posts a few months ago (1, 2, 3) about the difficulty of discovering and preventing essentially random events like the Fort Hood shooting. I was pleased by the compliment security guru Bruce Schneier paid them in his recent post, “Small Planes and Lone Terrorist Nutcases.” (Such happy subject matter we get to write about!)

Now comes Radley Balko with a great column illustrating what you get when authorities try to “get ahead” of this problem. “Pre-Crime Policing” tells the story of a gun buyer who had been tagged with the adjective “disgruntled.” A SWAT team appeared on his property, police tricked him into surrendering for a mental evaluation, they illegally entered his home, and they seized his guns.

Says the victim of these invasions, “South Oregon is big gun country. If something like this can happen here, where just about everyone owns a gun, it can happen anywhere.”

Especially if we ask law enforcement to prevent random violence.

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.

Fort Hood: That No Such Attack Ever Occurs Again

Colleagues and correspondents have kindly shared their understandable discomfort with my conclusion in recent posts that the Fort Hood shooting was nearly impossible to discover in advance, and thus prevent.

The one ray of hope I can offer is that the shooting itself makes such things more foreseeable, putting the military community and investigators on notice prospectively that this kind of thing can happen. No formal policy change can do more than the Fort Hood shooting itself to ferret out inchoate incidents like it in the future. Belief that the Fort Hood shooting was easily preventable, though, is 20/20 hindsight.

I first read How We Know What Just Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life to get a handle on how it became so plausible after the September 11, 2001 attacks that terrorists might next use chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Recall that their weapons of choice for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were box cutters. How did we proceed to the assumption that nuclear terrorism was next?

One explanation is the “representativeness heuristic,” a mental shortcut people use to organize the world around them. “According to this overarching belief, effects should resemble their causes, instances should resemble the categories of which they are members, and, more generally, like belongs with like.” (page 133)

Big causes have big effects, so big effects come from big causes. … Right?

The 9/11 terrorists knocked down the World Trade Center and killed 3,000 people. Driven to match the huge effects of the those attacks to a sufficient cause, our common sense imported skills, knowledge, weapons, and organizational capability that terrorists do not in fact have. (Ongoing pressure worldwide will ensure that remains true.)

As to the 9/11 attacks, the representativeness heuristic lead us astray. I believe a similar mental error is at play in many people’s interpretation of the Fort Hood incident.

Though it’s not true, many maternity room nurses believe that more babies are born during a full moon than at other times. This is because of confirmation bias: They notice babies born during full moons and accumulate proof of the full-moon theory—but they fail to notice babies born at other times.

How We Know What Just Isn’t So has a chapter called “Too Much from Too Little: The Misrepresentation of Incomplete and Unrepresentative Data” that discusses not only the excessive impact of confirmatory information, but also the problem of hidden or absent data. We make many judgments in life without considering all the relevant data.

An extreme instance of this is Fort Hood, about which political leaders and millions of Americans are taking a few data points—one or two things occurring—and concluding from them that all instances of these things result in a shooting or other violence like we saw at Fort Hood. But, as I said with regard to Nidal Hasan’s contacts with a jihadi in Yemen, the relevant data includes thousands of times when such things happen. Because they were offshore communications with a jihadi, investigators appropriately examined the messages and found them lacking signs of intended violence.

The other major indictment is that Hasan’s Islamist rantings should have been a dead giveaway of violence to come. Political correctness drove colleagues to turn a blind eye to Hasan, ”permitting” the Fort Hood shooting to happen, this argument maintains.

There probably was some “political correctness” involved. I can think of no community more likely to withhold judgment of others than psychologists and psychiatrists, who are privy to the strange and dangerous thoughts of their patients day after day after day.

Note again the full range of relevant evidence, though: Thousands of times daily across the country, mental health professionals and social workers hear people’s violent thoughts—not just political rantings—which only rarely materialize into violence. In the military, it’s harder to guess at a number, but certainly thousands of times per year, service members discuss violence against other service members and political opinions that are odd or controversial, including Islamist political views. Very rarely—tragically when it does—this results in actual harm to men and women in uniform.

Nidal Hasan may have been fit for expulsion from the military. He may have been kept in by some form of political correctness or opportunistic bureaucratic burden-shifting once it was clear he was leaving Walter Reed for Fort Hood.

But only operation of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy allows the conclusion that his expulsion from the military would have averted the tragedy. Because it followed in time, the shooting appears to be a result of his continued military service or his looming deployment to Afghanistan. But it is not so obvious that his discharge from the service would have caused him to go limp, take a job at a convenience store, and live a happy life.

Had he been pushed out of the military, it’s quite plausible that his resentments would have grown, his contacts with jihadis would have increased, his planning would have been more strategic, and so on. It is simple assumption that expelling Hasan from the military would have averted so many deaths and collective national pain, just like it is simple assumption that it wouldn’t have.

As I discussed in a recent podcast, information always points to what happened next when you look at it after the fact. Data does not point so clearly to any conclusion when you observe it in real time along with all the other then-relevant data.

The Fort Hood shooting was a tragic and regrettable incident, but correctable security failure is not easily shown. The idea that the shooting was predictable is fueled by a small array of common perception problems and errors in logic. These errors have now inspired a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee later this week. The committee will try to find security lapses and seek after conditions in which ”no such attack ever occurs again.”

Politicians can promise the public that every tragedy can be averted, but soldiers know better than most that tragedy and loss do happen. At the memorial service for the Fort Hood victims, Lt. General Cone captured that reality, and the spirit in which we must accept it, saying to victim’s families, ”The Fort Hood community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

Tuesday Links

  • In the past eight months, the unemployment rate has jumped from 7.2 percent to 10.2 percent. Here’s why.
  • Three trillion reasons to hope the Senate is not as fiscally reckless as their counterparts in the House on health care reform.
  • Obama a federalist? Not quite: “Not yet a year into his administration, Obama’s record on 10th Amendment issues is already clear: He’ll let the states have their way when their policies please blue team sensibilities and he’ll call in the feds when they don’t.” More here.
  • It’s time to get immigration reform right: “Republican leaders need to liberate themselves from the Lou Dobbs minority within their own ranks that will oppose any legalization. Democratic leaders need to face down their labor-union constituency that opposes any workable temporary-visa program. Working together, President Obama and a bipartisan majority in Congress can seize the current opportunity to reform the immigration system and finally fix the problem of illegal immigration.”

Fort Hood: Reaction, Response, and Rejoinder

Commentary on the Fort Hood incident can be categorized three ways: reaction, response, and rejoinder (commentary on the commentary).

Reactions generally consist of pundits pouring their preconceptions over what is known of the facts. These are the least worthy of our time, and rejoinders like this one from Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University in the Fort Hood section of The Politico’s Arena blog dispense with them well:

Of course [Fort Hood] is being politicized; there is no issue that is immune to exploitation by politicians and media commentators. The problem is that there are an infinite number of “lessons” one can draw from a tragic event like this — the strain on our troops from a foolish war, the impact of hateful ideas from the fringe of a great religion (and most religions have them), the individual demons that drove one individual to a violent and senseless act, etc., — and so no limits to the ways it can be used by irresponsible politicians (is that redundant?) and pundits.

My favorite response—by “response,” I mean careful, productive analysis—was written last year as a general admonition about events like this (which at least has terrorist connotations):

Above all else is the imperative to think beyond the passions of those who are hurt, frightened or angry. Policymakers who become caught up in the short-term goals and spectacle of terrorist attacks relinquish the broader historical perspective and phlegmatic approach that is crucial to the reassertion of state power. Their goal must be to think strategically and avoid falling into the trap of reacting narrowly and directly to the violent initiatives taken by these groups.

That’s Audrey Kurth Cronin, Professor of Strategy at the U.S. National War College in her monograph, Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating al-Qaeda.

But I want to turn to a critique leveled against my recent post, ”The Search for Answers in Fort Hood,” which discussed how little Fort Hood positions us to prevent similar incidents in the future. (I hope it was response and not reaction, but readers can judge for themselves.)

A thoughtful Cato colleague emailed me suggesting that there may have been enough indication in Nidal Hasan’s behavior—in particular, correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaki—to stop him before his shooting spree.

There may have been. Current reporting has it that his communications with al-Awlaki were picked up and examined, but because they were about a research paper that he was in fact writing, he was deemed not to merit any further investigation.

This can only be called error with the benefit of hindsight. And it tells us nothing about what might prevent a future attack, which was my subject.

If humans were inert objects, investigators could simply tweak the filter that caused this false negative to occur. They could not only investigate the people who contact known terrorists as they did Nidal Hassan, they could know to disregard claimed academic interests. Poof! The next Nidal Hassan would be thwarted at a small cost to actual researchers.

But future attacks are not like past attacks. Tweaking the filter to eliminate this source of false negatives would simply increase false positives without homing in on the next attacker. Terrorists and terrorist wannabes will change their behavior based on known and imagined measures to thwart them. Nobody’s going to be emailing this al-Awlaki guy for a while.

In “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” IBM distinguished engineer Jeff Jonas and I used examples from medicine to illustrate the problem of false positives when searching for terrorism in large data sets, concluding:

The question is not simply one of medical ethics or Fourth Amendment law but one of resources. The expenditure of resources needed to investigate 3,000,000, 15,000,000, or 30,000,000 fellow citizens is not practical from a budgetary point of view, to say nothing of the risk that millions of innocent people would likely be under the microscope of progressively more invasive surveillance as they were added to suspect lists by successive data-mining operations.

The same problems exist here, where tens of thousands of leads may present themselves to investigators each year. They must balance the likelihood of harm coming to U.S. interests against the rights of U.S. citizens and the costs of investigating all these potential suspects.

Armchair terror warriors may criticize these conclusions a variety of ways, believing that post hoc outrage or limitless grants of money and power to government can produce investigative perfection. (n.b. Getting victim states to dissipate their own money and power is how terrorism does its work.) But none can accurately say based on currently available facts that anyone made an error. Much less can anyone say that we know any better how to prevent essentially random violent incidents like this in the future.