Obviously, whatever process generated the DHS funding-allocation formula was flawed, since the allocations put way too much of the money where the threat isn’t. But there’s a deeper problem with allocating money by adding up targets: it suggests that counter-terror strategy is, and ought to be, fundamentally defensive. That might be true, but it’s not obvious. And much of the current discussion of the issue more or less assumes that the fundamental defensive anti-terror strategy is identifying and hardening attractive targets. That’s almost certainly false.
The problem is that a society such as ours presents what war planners call a “target-rich environment,” and terrorists get to choose their targets. So if there are ten highly attractive targets for some group and we harden nine of them in observable ways, the bad guys can just attack the tenth. Rather than trying to create a country full of targets hardened to terrorist attack, we might be better advised to concentrate on making a society in which terrorists find it difficult to operate.
That means both creating operational barriers to successful terrorist attacks (not just by hardening targets) and increasing our capacity to identify and incapacitate groups planning terrorist attacks. Call these the “defensive” and “offensive” approaches to controlling terrorism. It seems likely that our current homeland security effort is far too focused on defensive options.
Step back for a moment and think about what it takes to mount a terror attack. It requires (1) decision-making; (2) communications; (3) recruiting; (4) training (5) maintenance of people; (6) mobility of people; (7) fund-raising; (8) money moving and disbursement; (9) materiel acquisition; (10) materiel storage; (11) materiel mobility; (12) execution.
Each of these operational elements has two faces: as a problem to be solved by the bad guys, and as a potentially observable event that might allow the good guys to identify the bad guys and put them out of action.
Defensive anti-terror operations involve making one or more of these elements more difficult to carry out. Offensive anti-terror operations involve using one or more of these elements as means of penetrating terrorist organizations. Offensive operations have defensive benefits, and vice versa: making an operation more difficult also makes it more vulnerable, by requiring more, and thus more observable, effort, while making an operation more vulnerable also makes it more difficult, by requiring more elaborate camouflage.
Take, for example, the problem of terrorist mobility, discussed in this Migration Policy Institute paper by Susan Ginsburg. The defensive way to think about border controls is that we want to make it harder for terrorists to enter the U.S.; if we turn them away at the border, they can’t carry out missions inside the border.
The offensive way to think about border controls is that every time a terrorist crosses a border, we have some chance of identifying him as a terrorist — for example, by noticing that his travel documents are phony in ways typical of terrorists generically or of a particular terrorist group in particular — and then allowing that person to cross the border, and keeping him under surveillance in the hope that he will allow us to penetrate the organization of which he is a part.
Alternatively, again on the offensive side, having identified a terrorist as he crosses the border we could hope to “turn” him with some combination of threats and bribes and make him an informant.
If some border-crossings are used offensively, that has a big defensive benefit: by forcing the terrorist organization to plan its border-crossings more carefully, it makes every operation requiring a border crossing that much more difficult, dangerous, and expensive to carry out.
So too with every other operational element: we can try to make terrorist money harder to move, or we can try to follow the money until it leads us to the operational cell. And the harder it is to move money, the greater the chance that in doing so the terrorists will in fact lead us to their agents.
Some of these operational elements involve the cooperation of people who are not themselves terrorists, but who are instead merely providers of goods and services: sellers of weapons, vehicles, and explosives, providers of false identification documents, alien smugglers, international remittance operators.
Again, counter-terror strategy can (defensively) try to put the fear of God into such people to discourage them from serving terrorists, and it can (offensively) enlist their help in identifying terrorists.
A more extreme version of attempts to “turn” terrorists or providers of terrorist goods and services into counter-terrorist informants or agents is the creation of imitation terrorists or service providers for the purpose of inducing true terrorists to reveal themselves — the tactic familiar in drug enforcement as “undercover” or “sting” operations.
If terrorists create phony charities through which to raise money, why not create phony phony charities to identify contributors to terrorism?
If they must purchase fake identification, why not create imitation providers of fake identification who will issue fake documents we know about?
If terrorists must recruit, why not create phony recruiters?
Each of these offensive steps, in addition to identifying some terrorists, will compound the difficulty of running terrorist organizations by creating distrust.
On the other hand, anyone familiar with drug law enforcement or the history of counter-terror operations in, for example, Tsarist Russia, will know how difficult it is to manage undercover agents and informants, and how difficult it is to know which side they’re actually working for.
So I don’t have any idea what the right mix of offensive and defensive operations might be, but I’d be very much surprised if a purely defensive strategy turned out to be optimal.
Footnote Ginsburg proposes a three-way rather than a two-way division of terror-control efforts: her categories are “offensive,” and “defensive,” and “deterrent.” Or you could just say that both offensive and defensive actions have deterrent benefits in addition to their direct benefits.