This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
As is well known, a Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to destroy a passenger aircraft traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit
on Dec. 25, 2009. Metal detectors cannot pinpoint the chemical in the
device he sought to detonate, PETN. The PETN was strapped to his groin.
Since a detonator could have been detected, the attacker chose — or had
chosen for him — a syringe filled with acid for use as an improvised
alternative means to initiate the detonation. In the event, the device
failed to detonate, but it did cause a fire in a highly sensitive area
of the attacker’s body. An alert passenger put out the fire. The plane
landed safely. It later emerged that the attacker’s father, a prominent
banker in Nigeria, had gone to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to warn
embassy officials of his concerns that his son might be involved with
The incident drove home a number of points. First, while al Qaeda
prime — the organization that had planned and executed 9/11 — might be
in shambles, other groups in other countries using the al Qaeda brand
name and following al Qaeda prime’s ideology remain operational and
capable of mounting attacks. Second, like other recent attacks, this
attack was relatively feeble: It involved a single aircraft, and the
explosive device was not well-conceived. Third, it remained and still
remains possible for a terrorist to bring explosives on board an
aircraft. Fourth, intelligence available in Nigeria, London and
elsewhere had not moved through the system with sufficient speed to
block the terrorist from boarding the flight.
An Enduring Threat
From this three things emerge. First, although the capabilities of
jihadist terrorists have declined, their organizations remain
functional, and there is no guarantee that these organizations won’t
increase in sophistication and effectiveness. Second, the militants
remain focused on the global air transport system. Third, the defensive
mechanisms devised since 2001 remain ineffective to some degree.
The purpose of terrorism
in its purest form is to create a sense of insecurity among a public.
It succeeds when fear moves a system to the point where it can no
longer function. This magnifies the strength of the terrorist by
causing the public to see the failure of the system as the result of
the power of the terrorist. Terror networks are necessarily sparse. The
greater the number of persons involved, the more likely a security
breach becomes. Thus, there are necessarily few people in a terror
network. An ideal terror network is global, able to strike anywhere and
in multiple places at once. The extent of the terror network is
unknown, partly because of its security systems and partly because it
is so sparse that finding a terrorist is like finding a needle in a
haystack. It is the fact that the size and intentions of the terror
network are unknown that generates the sense of terror and empowers the
The global aspect is also important. That attacks can originate in
many places and that attackers can belong to many ethnic groups
increases the desired sense of insecurity. All Muslims are not members
of al Qaeda, but all members of al Qaeda are Muslims, and any Muslim might be a member of al Qaeda.
This logic is beneficial to radical Islamists, who want to increase the
sense of confrontation between Islam and the rest of the world. This
not only increases the sense of insecurity and vulnerability in the
rest of the world, it also increases hostility toward Muslims,
strengthening al Qaeda’s argument to Muslims that they are in an
unavoidable state of war with the rest of the world. Equally important
is the transmission of the idea that if al Qaeda is destroyed in one
place, it will spring up elsewhere.
This terror attack made another point, intended or not. U.S. President Barack Obama recently decided to increase forces in Afghanistan.
A large part of his reasoning was that Afghanistan was the origin of
9/11, and the Taliban hosted al Qaeda. Therefore, he reasoned the
United States should focus its military operations in Afghanistan and
neighboring Pakistan, since that was the origin of al Qaeda. But the
Christmas Day terror attempt originated in Yemen, a place where the
United States has been fighting a covert war with limited military
resources. It therefore raises the question of why Obama is focusing on
Afghanistan when the threat from al Qaeda spinoffs can originate
From the terrorist perspective, the Yemen attack
was a low-cost, low-risk operation. If it succeeded in bringing down a
U.S. airliner over Detroit, the psychological impact would be massive.
If it failed to do so, it would certainly increase a sense of anxiety,
cause the U.S. and other governments to institute new and expensive
security measures, and potentially force the United States into
expensive deployments of forces insufficient to dominate a given
country but sufficient to generate an insurgency. If just some of these
things happened, the attack would have been well worth the effort.
The Strategic Challenge
The West’s problem can be identified this way: There is no strategic solution to low-level terrorism,
i.e., terrorism carried out by a sparse, global network at
unpredictable times and places. Strategy involves identifying and
destroying the center of gravity of an enemy force. By nature, jihadist
terrorism fails to present a single center of gravity, or a strong
point or enabler that if destroyed would destroy the organization.
There is no organization properly understood, and the destruction of
one organization does not preclude the generation of another
There are two possible solutions. The first is to accept that Islamist terrorism cannot be defeated permanently
but can be kept below a certain threshold. As it operates now, it can
inflict occasional painful blows on the United States and other
countries — including Muslim countries — but it cannot threaten the
survival of the nation (though it might force regime change in some
In this strategy, there are two goals. The first is preventing the
creation of a jihadist regime in any part of the Muslim world. As we
saw when the Taliban provided al Qaeda with sanctuary, access to a
state apparatus increases the level of threat to the United States and
other countries; displacing the Taliban government reduced the level of
threat. The second goal is preventing terrorists from accessing weapons
of mass destruction that, while they might not threaten the survival of
a country, would certainly raise the pain level to an unacceptable
point. In other words, the United States and other countries should focus on reducing the level of terrorist capabilities, not on trying to eliminate the terrorist threat as a whole.
To a great extent, this is the American strategy. The United States
has created a system for screening airline passengers. No one expects
it to block a serious attempt to commit terrorism on an airliner, nor
does this effort have any effect on other forms of terrorism. Instead,
it is there to reassure the public that something is being done, to
catch some careless attackers and to deter others. But in general, it
is a system whose inconvenience is meant to reassure.
The Challenge of Identifying Potential Terrorists
To the extent to which there is a center of gravity to the problem, it is in identifying potential terrorists. In both the Fort Hood attack
and the Detroit incident, information was in the system that could have
allowed authorities to identify and stop the attackers, but in both
cases, this information didn’t flow to the places where action could
have been taken. There is thus a chasm between the acquisition of
information and the person who has the authority to do something about
it. The system “knew” about both attackers, but systems don’t actually
think or know anything. The person with authority to stop a Nigerian
from boarding the plane or who could relieve the Fort Hood killer from
duty lacked one or more of the following: intelligence, real authority
The information gathered in Nigeria had to be widely distributed to
be useful. It was unknown where Abdulmutallab was going to go or what
he was going to do. The number of people who needed to know about him
was enormous, from British security to Amsterdam ticket agents checking
passports. Without distributing the intelligence widely, it became
useless. A net can’t have holes that are too big, and the failure to
distribute intelligence to all points creates holes.
Of course, the number of pieces of intelligence that come into U.S.
intelligence collection is enormous. How does the person interviewing
the father know whether the father has other reasons to put his son on
a list? Novels have been written about father-son relations. The
collector must decide whether the report is both reliable and
significant, and the vast majority of information coming into the
system is neither. The intelligence community has been searching for a
deus ex machina in the form of computers able not only to distribute
intelligence to the necessary places but also to distinguish reliable
from unreliable, significant from insignificant.
Forgetting the interagency rivalries and the tendency to give
contracts to corporate behemoths with last-generation technology, no
matter how widely and efficiently intelligence is distributed, at each
step in the process someone must be given real authority to make
decisions. When Janet Napolitano or George Tenet say that the system
worked after an incident, they mean not that the outcome was
satisfactory, but that the process operated as the process was intended
to operate. Of course, being faithful to a process is not the same as
being successful, but the U.S. intelligence community’s obsession with
process frequently elevates process above success. Certainly, process
is needed to operate a vast system, but process also is being used to
deny people authority to do what is necessary outside the process, or,
just as bad, it allows people to evade responsibility by adhering to
Not only does the process relieve individuals in the system from
real authority; it also strips them of motivation. In a system driven
by process, the individual motivated to abort the process and improvise
is weeded out early. There is no room for “cowboys,” the intelligence
community term for people who hope to be successful at the mission
rather than faithful to the process. Obviously, we are overstating
matters somewhat, but not by as much as one might think. Within the
U.S. intelligence and security process, one daily sees good people
struggling to do their jobs in the face of processes that can’t
possibly anticipate all circumstances.
The distribution of intelligence to the people who need to see it
is, of course, indispensable, along with whatever other decision
supports can be contrived. But, in the end, unless individuals are
expected and motivated to make good decisions, the process is merely
the preface to failure. No system can operate without process. At the
same time, no process can replace authority, motivation and,
ultimately, common sense.
The fear of violating procedures cripples Western efforts to shut
down low-level terrorism. But the procedures are themselves flawed. A
process that says that in a war against radical Islamists, an elderly
visitor from Iceland is as big of a potential threat as a
twenty-something from Yemen might satisfy some ideological imperative,
but it violates the principle of common sense and blocks the authority
and the motivation to act decisively.
It is significant that this is one of the things the Obama administration has changed in response to the attempted bombing.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced Jan.
4 that anyone traveling from or through nations regarded as state
sponsors of terrorism as well as “other countries of interest” will be
required to go through enhanced screening. The TSA said those
techniques would include full-body pat downs, carry-on luggage
searches, full-body scanning and explosive detection technology. The
U.S. State Department lists Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as state
sponsors of terrorism. The other countries whose passengers will face
enhanced screening include Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya,
Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. A rational system
of profiling thus appears to be developing.
In all likelihood, no system can eliminate events such as what
happened on Christmas, and in all likelihood, the republic would
survive an intermittent pattern of such events — even successful ones.
Focusing on the strategic level makes sense. But given the level of
effort and cost involved in terrorist protection throughout the world,
successful systems for distributing intelligence and helping identify
potentially significant threats are long overdue. The U.S. government
has been tackling this since 2001, and it still isn’t working.
But, in the end, creating a process that precludes initiative by
penalizing those who do not follow procedures under all circumstances
and intimidating those responsible for making quick decisions from
risking a mistake is bound to fail.