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Intelligence and its failures in preventing and combating terrorism – Dr. Anneli Botha

June 20, 2017


Intelligence and its failures in preventing and combating terrorism

By Anneli Botha

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 13(June 2017)

In the aftermath of every terrorist attack, from 9/11 to the recent attack targeting Muslims after leaving the Finsbury Park mosque after prayers to the recent attack in Mali, the public and policy makers demand explanations from the intelligence communities as to why these attacks were not prevented. Although every intelligence officer and larger agency is driven to prevent each and every attack, these agencies need to be correct every time. The unfortunate reality however is that the enemy (terrorists) need to be right only once in achieving their objectives. Since the public is not prevue to hear or even learn more of potential or foiled attacks – for a multitude of reasons – the impression is that these agencies failed to protect the public. Although I will later briefly discuss the reasons for intelligence failure, I’m starting addressing the impression that the majority of the public have no idea what needs to go into every operation to prevent an attack.

To start of this discussion intelligence comes in many forms, most notably: Imagery intelligence that refers to the study and analysis of photos, videos and satellite images; Signals intelligence that refers to the study and analysis of signal communications, particularly radios, phone intercepts; Measurement and signature intelligence that includes the study and analysis of unique signatures produced by objects on the ground (obtained through aerial reconnaissance); Human intelligence – possibly the most important source of information – that refers to the collection and analysis of information gathered by human sources, such as informants and agents; and Open-source intelligence that refers to the study and analysis of information available in literature, the press, or the Internet, etc. Each of these have a unique role and will be applied depending on the specific needs in forming a ‘picture’.

Although human intelligence is the most valuable, it is also the most difficult to attain, as a person already in the organization or cell needs to be recruited (turning against the rest of the cell or organization) or security agents need to infiltrate the cell or broader organization. To be even able to recruit or infiltrate a small decentralized cell consisting of family members or close friends (the preferred structure used to execute recent attacks) is an obvious challenge in itself. Leading to an associated obstacle, even if the particular person raised concern to decide when to arrest a suspect is not as straight forward as what is expected for the following reasons: Arresting a suspect without evidence or arresting a suspect too soon without identifying all actors involved in the plot will not count as a victory for the following two primary reasons: For investigators to show their hand too soon, the suspect will be able to determine what authorities know while being released. Secondly, those part of the plot who were not already identified will disappear (going underground) allowing them to either continue with the existing plot or plan another. Another challenge the public is seldom aware of is that gathering information and turning it into intelligence (through the intelligence cycle that includes analysis) is extremely expensive and time consuming. Although a person in a cell can be approached and ‘turned’ for many incentives with money as the most popular, building a relationship of trust between the handler and source or an agent infiltrating a cell or organization to be trusted and included in discussions takes time. It is also for this reason that intelligence operations cannot be turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ when needed.

To know where to look agencies conduct regular risk, vulnerability and threat assessments. This requires a positive relationship with the public, but also for the security agencies not to fall out of touch with realities on the ground. It is especially for this reason that security agencies (including intelligence agencies) need to be representative of the community, to enable it to understand its sub-culture, values and conduct. At the same time, it is critical that the right officer is recruited with objectivity being paramount.

Understanding why intelligence failures will always be a reality, despite everything done to prevent it, one needs to briefly stand still with the process information is transferred into intelligence. From planning, collection, processing, analysis and dissemination, intelligence failure can occur at each of these steps. While not being able to address every potential risk of failure, the following will only present the most prominent:

One of the reasons is a result of ignorance, or underestimating a potential threat which can also be described as the perception that ‘it will never happen to us’. This also occurs when intelligence personnel, despite being warned, disregard information that points to a threat. It also happens when intelligence agencies inform the political leadership of a state of a potential threat, and the latter refuse to act on this information. The second reason for intelligence failures is overconfidence as a result of above, but when intelligence personnel are convinced that they have sufficient information on a particular threat – and the resources to properly process this information are not being utilized. This also manifests in an attitude on behalf of intelligence officers that they know ‘everything’ and nobody can make them any wiser. It is therefore vital that intelligence agencies develop and encourage an institutional culture that always strives to know and learn more from all available sources. Manifested in the 9/11 report, the third reason for failure is as a result of a lack of communication within and between agencies. Rooted in the institution due to a lack of clear lines of reporting and sharing of information, the biggest reason is as a result of human nature in not trusting or ‘liking’ his or her counterpart, inter-personal resulting in inter-agency competition for better resources etc. Restrictions on the circulation of sensitive information can often result in information becoming entirely unavailable as a result of over classifying.

Furthermore, when a threat is underestimated it invariably leads to insufficient resources being made available to enable the gathering of information. It might also lead to analysts not concentrating on a particular threat on a full-time basis. For example, as a result of being overstretched by the threat presented by Islamist extremists and returning foreign fighters, British intelligence agencies did not focus on a home-grown right wing reactionary threat. As mentioned earlier, intelligence gathering and analysis cannot be done for limited periods. Policy makers are often the most responsible for this failure due to not making sufficient resources available or influencing intelligence agencies to rather concentrate on areas ‘they’ identified as a threat to their regime security. Consequently, intelligence agencies no longer serve the interests of the public, but rather the interests of a political party against legitimate political opposition parties. Recent developments in Crime Intelligence in South Africa points to this concern.

The last reason to be referred to deals with a failure ‘to connect the dots’, particularly as a result of the situation described in the preceding point, occurs when those responsible for transforming information into intelligence do not have the ability, training or experience to do so. To put this differently, information comes from different sources and in bits and pieces over a period of time. Although computer software exists to assist analysts, this function cannot rely on a computer program.

To conclude, the saying ‘information is power’ is true, but then this valuable resource need to be utilized to identify those presenting a threat to the safety and stability of a country, but also beyond a country’s borders, track down suspects, and their operational and logistical networks, warn against potential acts of terrorism, without creating panic, manage an actual or potential crisis by providing information in time to decision makers, provide tactical information essential to carry out counter-terrorism operations and lastly to disrupt the operations of terrorists, including command and control, recruitment, etc.

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