Intelligence And Terrorism: The Paris Attacks | THE POLITICUS

Intelligence And Terrorism: The Paris Attacks

Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 US and European governments have used the threat of terrorism to justify a continually expanding intelligence network and security state. Not only have significant financial resources been allocated to the task but the citizens of democratic societies have been told that their rights and expectations of personal privacy must be subordinated to the demands of national security. The revelations of Edward Snowden made it apparent that the activities of the security state are not focused exclusively on combating terrorism. However, it is very clear that the threat of terrorism in various forms is real and present. The efforts initiated after 9/11 haven't made it go away. It seems that the recent terror attacks in France did not come entirely as a surprise to international intelligence officials, yet they happened.

Why Reams of Intelligence Did Not Thwart the Paris Attacks

On its own, the Wednesday morning slaughter that left 12 people dead at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo represented a major breakdown for French security and intelligence forces, especially after the authorities confirmed that the two suspects, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had known links to the militant group Al Qaeda in Yemen.

An American official speaking about the failure to identify the plot said that French intelligence and law enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance on one or both of the Kouachi brothers after Saïd returned from Yemen, but later reduced that monitoring or dropped it altogether to focus on what were believed to be bigger threats.

“These guys were known to be bad, and the French had tabs on them for a while,” said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating a delicate intelligence matter. “At some point, though, they allocated resources differently. They moved on to other targets.”

One reason for the lapses may be that the number of possible jihadists inside France has continued to expand sharply. France has seen 1,000 to 2,000 of its citizens go to fight in Syria or Iraq, with about 200 returning, and the task of surveillance has grown overwhelming.

The questions facing French intelligence services will begin with the attack at Charlie Hebdo.

So there is this vast technologically sophisticated intelligence apparatus that really can find some needles in hay stacks. What are they going to do about the needles that might eventually cause harm to other people. In this case they are human needles that are accorded certain legal protections under existing law. A similar situation occurred with the bombing of the Boston marathon. The FBI had identified and interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev on his return from Russia but let the mater drop.

People who commit acts of terror come in many forms. The focus in on those who are connected to some organized ideological network such as radical Islamist groups. It is easier to track people through their associations with other like minded individuals. However the act of killing 12 people at Charlie Hebdo has some definite similarities to Adam Lanza's attack on Sandy Hook school in which he killed 26 people. He had been identified as a potentially dangerous person in psychiatric evaluations.

So what can be done when people appear likely to do something harmful to other people? In the case of mental health issues, the ability of mental health professionals to accurately predict future behavior is not particularly reliable. Where people are part of an organized network that is actively planning some sort of attack then there is a legal basis for intervening to thwart their plans. The problem comes in being able to stick closely to a significant number of suspicious individuals over an extended period in order to tap into specific plans. The law generally requires evidence of specific intent and conspiracy rather than just general hostile attitudes.

The NSA has claimed that they have been able to thwart terrorist attacks, but when those claims have been tracked down, only a fairly small number turn out to be very plausible. Yet they continue to use the threat of terrorism as justification for their entire operation. Now it is one thing when an attack comes out of the blue with no warning to the people doing surveillance. It is a different matter when the surveillance had identified the attackers as a definite threat and then let it drop.

Obviously when there are organized networks like Al Queda and ISIS they can't just be ignored. But the people who claim to be doing things to prevent their attacks do have some questions to answer about just what they are actually accomplishing.        

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