The strategy of terror and counter-terror

Target-hardening is only one way to fight terror, and not necessarily the most important.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “The strategy of terror and counter-terror”

  1. Mark's aim of "a society in which terrorists find it difficult to operate" is right. But though the crime policy approach is necessary, it is not sufficient. You also need to "drain the swamp", changing the environment in which terror can come to seem a reasonable way to behave. By and large, the USA already offers an environment hostile to terrorism and the swamp lies elsewhere – though there is some of it it Britain. Nothing less than a decent life for billions will do.
    In the days after 9/11, I played a small part in drafting this sane statement by the high-minded but powerless Council of Europe:… . The world would be a better place today if it had been listened to a little more.

  2. Far be it from me to give this habitually lying, incompetent, and authoritarian administration any credit.
    Yes, these guys are hacks. Yes, they're using terrorism as an excuse to extort and degrade our country. Yes, they put "Brownies" in place all over the government. And yes, they're illegally intruding into every nook and cranny they can.
    But nevertheless, what makes you think the steps you outline aren't already being taken? There are still lots of smart and dedicated people in the US intelligence and law enforcement communities. And unlike the NSA wiretapping operations, these are things which really can't be discussed in public except in the most general terms.

  3. Why couldn't they be discussed? Part of Mark's point is that, as the terrorists learn they are vulnerable to such tactics, they have to increase the complexity of their operations and thus become even more vulnerable.

  4. I agree with Susan Abe as against Larry. Of course the details of particular operations have to be kept secret. But the fact that such operations go on ought to be widely publicized, as a deterrent. It would be great if young people hanging around mosques trying to find someone who can connect them with one of the terrorist training camps in Pakistan knew that some of the "recruiters" were in fact working for Uncle Sam. And it would be even better if most of the people offering to buy, and sell, fissile material were actually enforcement personnel, and if that fact were widely known.

  5. Hmm, an immense secret bureaucracy dedicated to entrapment, producing a regular quota of small fish while the sharks and whales are allowed to swim free, in the hopes they will lead us to Mr. Big. What's not to like?
    As Mark notes, we can guess how well this will work from our Drug Wars. Of course, there is another vector of analysis, and that is to ask what all the hubbub is about in the first place.
    What about our terror problem resembles the terror problems of others, and what has resolved, or failed to resolve, those problems others have?
    Of course, the first thing we would learn from that is that we really do not have a terrorist problem- yet. A single swallow does not a summer make, and one or two successful attacks don't really match 400 years of violence in Ireland, or however long the Basque land has been troubled.
    The threat of "Communist subversion" ended with Hoover's FBI furnishing most of the funding for the American Communist Party, and it's hard not to suspect that the WOT will end in much the same way.
    Probably the most effective safeguards would be to strongly enforce workplace and environmental safety rules and financial controls and audits of strategic industries, with all the information gathering and analysis that would imply.

  6. The argument about complexifying activities has some merit. And I'm certainly no expert in undercover work. Still I can think of plenty of arguments on the other side, for example:
    – these operations may be going on in other countries with weak, unstable, or even somewhat ambivalent political leadership (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc.) and they insist on a figleaf of (im)plausible deniability.
    – if they are going on in Western countries they will inevitably have a cost in terms of alienation and a sense of oppression among Muslim citizens/residents — which they already have, but it could be a lot worse.
    – our enemies are plural, heterogeneous, autonomous, hence going up (down?) a set of separate learning curves. Something that will trip up one wouldn't work on another, but why help the groups learn from each other's mistakes instead of just their own?
    Anyway this is not to say that I'm confident what the right thing to do on this score would be — Mark and Susan may well be right — but just to make the point that it's possible — I think likely, but I don't have any evidence of that — that the government is pursuing the kinds of intelligent disruption that Mark advocates.

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