Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 9 News List

We need 'thinkers' as well as 'doers' to beat the terrorists

Although intelligence analysts sometimes lack imagination to predict what the enemy will do, they are not entirely powerless and they can always rely on snitches

By Crispin Black  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

In his recent evidence to the Sept. 11 Commission, Richard Armitage, US President George Bush's deputy secretary of state, said: "I don't think we had the imagination required to envisage such an attack."

I sympathized, because the same thing had happened to me -- as it has, I suspect, happened to most intelligence analysts at some time or other. My own imagination failed in the run-up to the fall of the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995, when I was the head of the Yugoslav crisis cell in the UK defense intelligence staff. I expected Ratko Mladic, the Serb commander, to shoot any Bosnian Muslim fighters who fell into his hands, but it never occurred to me that he would murder all the men and boys in the city. I never made the same mistake again. In the current war against Islamist terrorists, we must ensure that we are never again taken by surprise as we were on Sept. 11, 2001.

So how are we doing so far? In many ways, the news is good. The raids around London on March 30, and the rumors of the thwarting of a chemical attack on the capital's subway that emerged on Tuesday, suggest that the UK's security services are able to acquire actionable intelligence on which to act. Source information is rightly highly classified, but the March 30 swoops, which netted not only men but bomb-making material, indicate either good signals intelligence (better than the "chatter" we so often hear about), or a very good human source.

To an extent this is hardly surprising. The US and UK, in concert with other English-speaking allies, operate the most powerful interception system on the planet. Codenamed Echelon, this system of listening stations and computers is able to "sniff" millions of messages a day for hints of terrorists communicating with each other.

We should remember that the majority of the UK's Islamic community is just like everyone else -- they condemn terrorism and would alert the authorities to suspicious groups or individuals. And there will always be men prepared to keep their eyes and ears open in return for money or the promise of a helping hand with the immigration or welfare authorities.

Encouragement

So we should be encouraged by our recent successes against terrorists. We can also take some reassurance from a good general counter-terrorism record stretching back nearly 60 years. Most recently, our record against the IRA has been good. After a steep learning curve in the early years, the army and the intelligence services managed to squeeze the IRA, primarily through surveillance.

IRA teams never knew when their operations had been compromised. This kind of life is wearying and diverts the energies of terrorists away from attacks and towards their own security. To some extent this kind of atmosphere can deter even suicide terrorists -- the last thing they want is Parkhurst rather than Paradise.

So how do Islamist terrorists plan and mount their attacks -- and how can intelligence help to thwart them? Although most such groups attempt to maintain a low profile, we already have one inestimable advantage in our battle against them: we know where to look. This kind of terrorism has a kind of epidemiology that tends to lead back to various forms of extremist preaching or mentoring. It is generally practised by young men in their 20s -- the individuals arrested in the UK on March 30 are between 17 and 32.

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