Understanding terrorist capabilities
This morning, you woke up with an idea for a campaign-winning widget, and you cannot wait to present the idea to your team. Your new device is going to put a lot of insurgents behind bars, and you are certain the Government procurement staff will soon be stood at the end of your conveyor belt, pocketing them as they fall off the end. The beauty of your device is its simplicity. It will be easy to produce, and your company will be able to start churning them out within weeks of getting the green light from Government. Unfortunately though, even if such a desirable product were so simple, life is not – as those who work in the new-capability arena will testify.
To introduce a new capability effectively, there is far more to think about than merely producing equipment. In fact, equipment is just one of the considerations. What about user training? What about needing more personnel to deploy it? What about new infrastructure to house it? Do you need a new organisation to manage it? Can you integrate its use into current doctrine, or pass its data around and keep that information safe? What about logistics support, for example spares or batteries? How do you ensure its interoperability with existing systems and those of allies?
Lines of defence
For the military these considerations are known as the Defence Lines of Development (or DLoDs), and they all must be addressed before your device can start putting those insurgents behind bars. With so many stakeholders (e.g. trainers, communications specialists, logisticians, doctrine staff) now involved with introducing your new capability, the challenge to get that green light from Government now seems a thousand meetings away. But, in my view, this is not bureaucratic red tape. It is a set of necessary hoops to jump through.
Generally speaking, terrorists don’t follow the DLoD model, and, as a result, the array of technical weapons they can deploy against us is relatively small and piecemeal. When describing the terrorists’ capability, we must be careful not to credit them with possessing a capability just because we’ve seen them deploy it a few times in isolated pockets. That’s not a capability. Often, that’s just the work of a lone cell or a sharp individual, and, given these individuals’ low survivability and inability to promulgate their skills effectively pan organisation, such ‘capabilities’ often fade quickly or are beaten to the punch (from a holistic perspective).
For example, when an insurgent group learned to overcome our electronic counter measures by initiating its remote-controlled improvised explosive devices with radio-controlled garage‑door key fobs, they scored a few hits. However, in relatively short order, their innovative attack method was shut down forever soon after the DLoD stakeholders had been aligned to develop a pan-organisation defensive, enduring capability.
Cat and mouse
Our ability to snuff out the terrorists’ technological innovations within months of their first use has kept the terrorists flitting from one innovation to the next, and, as a result, terrorists have had limited success in deploying a new technology across their organisation before it was countered. Had they succeeded in developing an organisational ‘capability’ (as a professional fighting force understands that term), the result could have been widespread devastation.
As this ‘cat and mouse’ game has matured, it seems the terrorists have steadily been squeezed out of all technical areas, and their return to Kenya Mall and Mumbai style attacks using conventional firearms suggests they are running out of ideas to deliver their technologically innovative ‘wasp stings’. In short, the technology war is being won.
This could be cause for celebration but, unfortunately, those close-quarter, conventional-arms attacks as seen in Africa and India are deadly, and, worse still, they look exceptionally difficult to counter. The question now facing the intelligence community is: “How do you stop a terrorist shooting a casual bystander in a public area?”
When the terrorists were trying to compete in the technological field, life was relatively easy because weapons based on modern technology tend to come with some kind of detectable signature or they present defenders with some kind of ‘in’ to defuse them. But, what is the signature to detect or the ‘in’ to prevent a coup de grace by pistol against anyone, anywhere in the world? In the intelligence field, there are well-established intelligence-management processes, and I am confident these processes hold the key to ‘hearing’ whatever signatures a close-quarter assassin gives off and to interdicting the attack.
I’ve just dreamed up the idea that the time to spot someone who is so radicalised that he would commit a face-to-face murder is likely to be years before he reaches that stage. So, if that’s true, what collection assets exist to spot the radicalisation process?
Experience tells us that a formally organised, focused brainstorming session has a good chance of identifying some meaningful indicators and warnings for anything, including a coup de grace. And, thereafter, it’s a matter of routine: create a collection plan and ask the right questions of the right collectors. Who are the right collectors and what are the right questions? To paraphrase Voltaire, no problem can withstand the assault of focused thinking, and it’s our well-established processes that will provide that focus.
As an intelligence analysis instructor, I have presented countless students with seemingly impossible tasks, but, armed with the right techniques to generate ideas and the processes with which to apply them, the students routinely create intelligence‑management products which would snatch the advantage from seemingly impregnable foes.
So, did all our students leave the classroom to create war-winning capabilities after our training? I certainly hope so, but I suspect those who did still had to manage the inputs of dozens of busy cats. But, that staff process is what makes a capability enduring and all-encompassing. And, that is what makes a ‘capability’ a real capability.