Sunday, January 3, 2010

The pants bomber backlash and the difference between secrets and mysteries

The political fallout from the failed Christmas Day plane bombing continues to spread as yet more evidence emerges that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was “known to security services” in the US, UK and Nigeria long before his decision to stuff his underpants with explosives and board a flight to Detroit.

The latest revelation, courtesy of the UK’s Sunday Times, is that the 23-year-old Nigerian had “multiple communications” with Islamic extremists while studying for an engineering degree at University College London three years ago.

Taken alongside the facts that Abdulmutallab was on a US terrorist database (the ridiculously named Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment), his father had warned the CIA about his son’s behaviour and that US intelligence knew of a Yemen-based plot for a Nigerian to blow up a plane, it looks as if the failure to stop the attack was an almighty cock-up.

So it is little wonder that Barack Obama and the US security services have come under fire.

Such backlashes are common are after any “surprise” attack, whether it’s 9/11 or Pearl Harbour.

Although Pearl Harbour, 9/11 and the pants bomber all appeared to catch the security establishment off guard at the time, later investigations have revealed in all three cases that there were actually some warning signs.

However, that does not mean that we should necessarily conclude that all three incidents were “intelligence failures”.

As Christopher Andrew, the doyen of intelligence history taught me when I was a student, to make a fair assessment of when such failures occur, you have to understand the difference between secrets and mysteries.

Secrets are facts that, while extremely difficult to uncover, can potentially be revealed by good intelligence work. For example, the fact that the Russians were moving nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 or the fact that Islamist extremists were taking flying lessons before 9/11 without much interest in learning how to take-off or land.

Mysteries, on other hand, are things like individual intentions, which are impossible to discover. So while the US was able to use reconnaissance and human intelligence to confirm that the Russians were placing missiles in Cuba (a secret), they were never able to determine whether or not Krushchev planned to launch a pre-emptive strike against America (a mystery).

By applying this formula to the Abdulmutallab case, it helps to develop a more nuanced understanding of whether there was an intelligence failure or not.

The security services in the US and the UK had uncovered the “secrets” that Abdulmutallab was linked to Islamic extremists, had expressed extreme views himself and that there were plans for a Nigerian based in Yemen to launch an attack on a plane.

Now that we know Abdulmutallab’s intentions, it looks as if the security services were remiss in not tying these threads together. But, we must remember that before Abdulmutallab tried to set off his bomb, his intention to do so would have remained a “mystery”.

While Abdulmutallab’s father apparently warned the CIA about his son’s extremist views, that is very different from warning them that his son was involved in a plot to blow up a plane using explosives secreted in his underpants.

If you broaden this argument out, you start to see just how daunting a task the security services face in combating Islamic terrorism. While good intelligence work can help security services to uncover extremists and those linked to known plotters, it is almost impossible to find out the specific intentions of these individuals, particularly given the increasingly dis-intermediated nature of Al Qaeda-style terrorism.

The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database alone has more than 550,000 names on it. How can even the best security services see inside the heads of half a million people, especially with limited resources?

None of which is to say that the fact that Abdulmutallab was not picked up before his attempted attack was not necessarily an intelligence failure.

Just that we need to have a better understanding of the immense challenge facing the security services before snapping to retrospective judgements about whether they screwed up or not.

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