Tag Archives: Counter-terrorism

A few thoughts in the wake of Boston…

I’m writing this just a few hours after the news about the bombing in Boston.  You won’t see any speculation here about who’s responsible, thoughts on the immediate response or similar things.  Rather, I want to talk a bit about what the larger implications might mean in terms of threat and what how an intelligence shop might best respond in a situation like this.

Ok…first things first.  A couple of rules to keep things in perspective.

  1. We should now know that with events like this, information that comes our way in the first hours is going to be confused, full of inaccuracies and speculation.  Anyone who speaks with authority in the first few hours is likely to be a liar.
  2. The 24 news channels are terrible at covering events like this.  Since there is so little information to report they have to fill their air time with anything they can.  This means your signal to noise ratio will be off the charts.  Once you get the broad outlines of the event and (possibly) see any footage of the event your best bet is to switch off the TV.

Since we’ve not got a few decades of data about terrorism from all around the world, there are some findings that might help us think about what might (might) come next.

First, a good place to look is the fine folks at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).  I’d recommend reading this piece about the (un)predictability of terrorism and its ‘burstiness’.  I’d particularly like to mention this latter point.

As the people at START put it:

But in addition, terrorism has a bursty quality. When it is effective in a particular time and place, we get a lot of it rapidly.

Now, I think the key word here is the word ‘effective’.  While, on some level, attacks like Oklahoma City, Mardrid, and 9/11 were successful but I’m not sure they would be considered ‘effective’.  After all, in all of those cases the terrorist group (or individual) was captured or killed during or very shortly after the attack.   There was, in short, no one left to follow up on the success and so no follow up occurred.

But, take something like London or (I’m sure) the terrorist activity we see in much of the Middle East and you’ll see a different definition of ‘effective’.  Since a ‘successful’ attack isn’t a requirement for a terrorist to be successful (because, remember, the point of terrorism is to elicit a particular response…not generally to do direct damage) you can ‘fail’ but still be effective.  I’d suggest that much of the Palestinian terrorism over the past few decades falls into this category.

So…if we don’t neutralize (in some way) the perpetrators in some reasonable amount of time, we might reasonably expect additional attacks by the same group or individual.

Conversely, this also means that if we might not need to be too worried about ‘copy cats’ or others being inspired to action.  After all, al-Qaida has been trying to inspire people to take up the cause for years with little success.  White supremacists have been trying for decades with little to show for it.

It also means that the data suggests that the threat is going to be localized in time and space.  Might the perpetrators jet off to Idaho and launch attacks in Boise?  Sure, I guess, but I’m not sure I’d consider it particularly likely.

Also from START is this piece which states that we might see an increase in hate crimes over the coming weeks as a result of this attack.  Based on their data, the people at START have concluded that:

…in the weeks following a terrorist attack, the number of anti-minority hate crimes increased if the attacks were made against symbols of core American values (such as the Pentagon) or perpetrated by groups with a religious motivation.

Does the Boston marathon qualify?  I’d guess definitely in the immediate area.  I’m not sure how much resonance the event has on people further afield.  But, depending on who is identified as suspects, this could be an issue.

Readers of this blog know I often talk about small intelligence shops.  Events like the attack in Boston, because they are so rare, are going to attract the attention of just about every intelligence unit in the country.  Almost every one of them will be expected to publish some sort of ‘product’ about the event.  So, what should a small shop (I’m not talking the big three letter agencies of the federal government but rather the numerous state, local and joint agencies and centers around the country) do in situations like this?

Everything I’m going to write here is for those shops that don’t ‘own’ the territory where the attack took place.  If this attack took place in your area of operations than that’s another story for another time.

First…take a breath.  Look at observation #1 at the top of this post.  You’re highly unlikely to get much of value during the first 24 hours after an event so don’t expect to do more than summarize basic facts.

BUT…everyone is going to want to be seen to be doing something.  This is, after all, the big show.  So, even if there’s nothing to say, there will be incredible pressure to say something anyway.  In some cases this is from a very real desire to ‘help’.  In other cases this is a very real desire to justify ones existence.  It reminds me of a quote from Sir Humphrey:

“Politicians must be allowed to panic. They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement.”

Only politicians aren’t the only ones susceptible to this.  If you don’t have a plan in place you’ll get sucked into the thankless (and useless) task of feeding regurgitated news to various overlords like a mother bird does with her chicks.

Instead of trying to compete with CNN, the New York Times or news agencies (which you’ll never succeed at doing) take advantage of this time to figure out what you need to know for your area of operations.  So, let’s say I was in charge of a shop in…North Carolina (or Montana…whatever) when this attack happened.  What’s going to be important to me initially?  Probably:

  1. Who committed the attack
    1. The specific individual(s)
    2. Any affiliated group
    3. Any linkage to my area of operations
  2. Why did they commit the attack
    1. What was their motivation
    2. Why did they pick that specific target(s)
  3. How did they commit the attack
    1. How did they acquire the explosive device
    2. How did they carry out the attack (emplacement, detonation, escape)

Now, as those questions get answered you’ll have follow ups and more specific ones but even a list like that disseminated to your staff will help them separate the wheat from the chaff during the early hours and days of the story.  Yes, eyewitness accounts may be compelling but if they don’t address those questions your people are really just wasting their time.

Second, if you do not have a compelling reason to call the agency(ies) responsible for handling the emergency do NOT do so before their first press conference at the earliest.  Look, they’ve got a lot on their hands and the last thing they need to do is answer a bunch of questions from a yahoo like you because the leader of your agency 900 miles away wants the latest poop.  Remember, there are now literally hundreds of intelligence shops in the U.S. now…many of them are going to be calling the scene in order to be the first on their block to put out a product with an exclusive tidbit 1 to show how ‘high speed’ they are.  The last thing you would need in that situation is an extra few dozen calls from people essentially saying ‘So…what’s up?’  Let them do their job and you’ll get your information when you need it.

Third, remember that one incident is NOT a trend.  Don’t start reorganizing your whole shop based on one event.  If you’re assessments of the threat were on solid ground before an attack like this, they should remain so.  One event should not nullify your analysis.  BUT…this is a good time (well, earlier was a better time but you slacked off, didn’t you? So we need to do this now) to identify the triggers that would cause you to reevaluate your analysis.

For example…I’ve been saying that al-Qaida is a has-been organization for some time now.  Assuming they were behind this attack (for a moment) would not change my opinion.  But I should be able to explain at what point I would say my analysis was crap.  That’ll keep me straight both when my ego is on the line as well as when tensions are riding high and people start making claims that this or that event ‘changes everything!’

Forth…If you have nothing to say about an event…say nothing.  The intelligence community is suffocating on a philosophy of ‘Send it to everyone…just in case they need it.’  This means it’s not uncommon to receive the same message three, four, five times or more.  It’s not uncommon to receive products that have no relevance to your area of interest.  Adding to the noise does nothing but guarantee that when you really do have something to say, it’ll be ignored.

 

  1. That’ll probably be released to the press before the product is even disseminated making the whole thing moot.

If you aren’t reading Paul Pillar…

…you should be.

With far more clarity and deftness than I can muster up, he manages to discuss and raise a number of worthwhile questions about our (American) assassination program, entrenchment of institutional interests and inertia, and the (perhaps unintentional) use of language to convey subtle messages.  On that last point, allow my to butcher a passage of his (please read it in full) about the naming of the counter-terrorism manual a ‘playbook’.

In football, a playbook is a very tactical manual that organizes the quick thinking that coaches and players have to do on each play….But the playbook doesn’t provide any help in bigger decisions with larger and longer term consequences, such as whether to leave your injured star quarterback in the game…By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will give less consideration than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual.

This sort of analysis can go too far at times.  As the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes words reflect poor word choice, limited vocabulary, or some other factor.  But, at times, it can provide some extra insight.

 

 

 

 

Fusion Centers – The Triumph of Mediocrity

The Homeland Security Policy Institute just released their findings of a survey they conducted earlier in the year of fusion centers to determine the capabilities and priorities of fusion centers.

The short version of their report*: After more than a decade, fusion centers remain a confused, unfocused mess that have little practical relevance and impact on the mission they were created to do.

Now, the longer discussion.

First, I could go on at length about their methodology but I won’t** other than to say I’m not exactly thrilled with it. Their survey involved questioning one person from each of the nation’s 77 fusion centers***. The survey designers weren’t too concerned with that since many fusion centers are very small (less than 10 people****) and so they were confident that the survey responses accurately reflected the ‘prevailing wisdom’ across the fusion center community. I’m not so sure about that and would read the results more as a bit of rose-colored view of them, based on how the survey respondents were contacted (via an interest group – The National Fusion Center Association) and the belief that any organization asked to take part in a self-evaluation survey is going to assign that survey to someone who shares (at least) a general outlook of what constitutes success.*****

But…let’s put that aside for now and delve into the findings and analysis.

I think a good way to look at this survey is to divide the questions into how respondents said they perceived the threat and their mission and then look at how they responded to questions about how their centers actually operated and were structured. The survey began by asking respondents questions about the nature of the threat. The questions were a bit clunky but there is some interesting stuff here, nonetheless.

Respondents were asked to rate the threat of terrorism to their ‘region’ on a 1-10 scale (one being no threat and ten being ‘Holy crap, they’re breaking down the door as I fill this survey out.’ Almost three-quarters rated the threat as a ‘five’ or higher***** and almost half rated the threat at ‘six’ or higher.

The next question asked who posed the greatest threat to their region. Respondents were given a choice of criminal and terrorist choices. Overwhelmingly, terrorists of various types were picked (the biggest majority were homegrown jihadists). Criminal threats were only cited 5% of the time as the ‘greatest threat’.

When asked who should have primary responsibility for counterterrorism (on a 1-10 sliding scale, 1 being local authorities and 10 being federal), more than a third gave a ‘5’ answer (sign) indicating a 50-50 split between the two in terms of primary responsibility.

Respondents were then asked to rate the importance of analysis to their operations. Half said it was either the most or second most (out of six) important priorities. (Don’t get too excited about this answer…Question 3 will reveal this to be pretty bogus).

So, most respondents indicated there was a moderate to high threat in their regions. The greatest threat came from terrorism and analysis was seen as very important to their operations.

Take a moment and do a bit of a thought experiment. If you had built a new agency from scratch (from 5 to 10 years ago, let’s say) in the sort of environment described above what would your expectations be in terms of answers about your agency to these questions:

  1. How often does your center conduct regional threat assessments?
  2. What are your most important sources of counterterrorism intelligence?
  3. Rate the importance of the following tasks from 1 (most important) to 6 (least important): Analysis, Dissemination, Gather/Receive information, Production of product
  4. Rate your center’s capabilities regarding the tasks above from 1 (most capable) to 6 (least capable)
  5. Which catagory best describes your (assume the survey is being answered by someone in a position of authority at the center) professional background (law enforcement, intelligence analysis, intelligence collection, policy management)?
  6. Provide the rank order of the following activities for your center from 1 (most important) to 5 (least important): Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, Prive sector and cyber security, Public safety/emergency response

So think about what you would expect (or want) those answers to be after a few years of operation.

Question 1: How often does your center conduct regional threat assessments? Let’s leave aside the fact that ‘regional threat assessments’ isn’t defined in any way so you could really fit a wide range of garbage into that term. Despite that, just about half of all respondents said they never conduct regional threat assessments.

What the fuck? How can you assess your threat if you never assess it? Is that the sort of response you would expect from people who say local agencies (which include fusion centers) should share primary responsibility for counterterrorism? Or that analysis is their number 1 priority? And remember, one of the fundamental tasks of fusion centers is identifying trends and understanding the threat. This is what is referred to today as an ‘epic fail’ and should be a big warning flag that what passes for ‘analysis’ in these centers is little more than regurgitation from what was heard around the watercooler or on CNN that morning.

Question 2: What are your most important sources of counterterrorism intelligence? I’d prefer if this question asked how often particular sources of information were used but there you go. About three-quarters of respondents answered that either local law enforcement or Joint Terrorism Task Forces were the most important sources of counterterrorism intelligence. That may be true but I have deep suspicions that fusion centers are looking for sources of intelligence beyond those two sources. There’s a huge law enforcement bias within fusion centers and information coming from those without a badge and a gun is usually regarded as second class. What was very interesting is that less than 10% of respondents said that their own centers’ analysts were their most important source on intelligence. That is shocking.

Perhaps I was spoiled from my military experience but in a properly functioning unit the first question the commander should ask when presented with an intelligence question or issue is ‘Where is my S2?’ (that’s the intelligence section). If your overlord is asking everyone but you, that’s a problem. Maybe with her or maybe with you but it’s not a sign of a healthy organization. Another HUGE red flag.

Also interesting to note was that the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center ranked even lower. Even more interesting was that NO ONE said that other fusion centers were the most important source of such information and it’s high point was that 6.5% of respondents ranked it as the third most important source of counterterrorism intelligence. Ladies and gentlemen, if you need an indicator that fusion centers are near worthless when it comes to intelligence, just look at the fact that fusion centers don’t even regard each other as being valuable in that regard.

Question 3: Rate the importance of the following tasks from 1 (most important) to 6 (least important): Analysis, Dissemination, Gather/Receive information, Production of product. This should be a ‘gimme’, right? After all, we already looked at a question like this and half of all respondents said analysis was either their ‘highest’ or ‘second highest’ priority. This is, as the man once said, a slam dunk, right? Well, not so fast.

Analysis was ranked third in terms of ‘most important’ when ranked with other tasks (behind gathering/receiving information and dissemination). So, I think we can safely say that the first question was an example of ‘Everything is my number 1 priority!’ instead of any real thinking about how important analysis is. In other words, disregard that answer. If you want some good news, many people (I’m guessing around 45% – hard to tell based on the graphs in the report) said that analysis was the #2 priority. Of course, all that means that roughly 40% of respondents thought analysis was third, fourth or fifth in terms of importance. Getting those sorts of rankings is how you end up with centers created to ‘fuse’ intelligence not doing basic things like threat assessments.

Question 4: Rate your center’s capabilities regarding the tasks above from 1 (most capable) to 6 (least capable). So, your fusion center is up and running. One of it’s primary functions is analysis. Let’s say it’s evaluation time, too. Hypothetically, if your center’s analytical capabilty was given a rank of ‘4’ on this scale, how happy would you be with the people in charge of your analytical shop? You think they’d be on the top of your list for fast track promotion? Well, the overwhelming majority of respondents ranked their analytical capability at ‘3’ or lower and ‘4’ or lower got the lion’s share of that. It looks like perhaps two or three fusion centers (out of 71) ranked their analytical capability as a ‘1’. Granted, not everyone answered every question but if you didn’t answer questions like these either a) you aren’t familiar with your center’s capabilties so why are you filling it out in the first place? It’s not exactly an indicator that fills me with confidence about the rest of your operation or b) you’re too chickenshit to answer the question.

Question 5: Which catagory best describes your (assume the survey is being answered by someone in a position of authority at the center) professional background (law enforcement, intelligence analysis, intelligence collection, policy management)? No surprise here. Almost 70% of respondents were law enforcement. More interesting would be to see what the breakdown in leadership in fusion centers is. I suspect it’s even more skewed towards law enforcement if you looked at all supervisory/decision making positions within centers. I have to admit, I’ve written about this so much it’s kind of boring me but it is important. From the authors of the report:

The presence of a predominant law enforcement background within the fusion centers leads to an emphasis on the immediate or strictly utilitarian value of information…Case specific tactical experience…must be balanced with contextual strategic understanding…At present, the fusion centers have too much of the law enforcement perspective and not enough of the analyst. This affects both the focus and the operation of the fusion centers. It leads background and bureaucracy to trump perception of threat.

My only quibble with the above is the phrase ‘perception of threat’. Analysis is more than just gut feelings and ‘perception’. Ideally, it’s judgements based upon information and processes that attempt to account for lack of information placed within a contextual framework. I would rewrite that to be: It leads background and bureaucracy to trump threat. That’s accurate.

Question 6: Provide the rank order of the following activities for your center from 1 (most important) to 5 (least important): Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, Prive sector and cyber security, Public safety/emergency response. Remember way back at the beginning of this post? Respondents said that terrorism was their greatest threat and that was ranked at moderate to high. So…another easy question, right. We, at least, know what #1 is going to be.

Oh! Sorry, you lost again. But you’ll get a version of the home game and a year’s supply of Turtle Wax.

Even though only 5% of respondents said crime was their greatest threat, 63% of fusion centers said ‘law enforcement’ was their ‘most important’ activity. Counterterrorism was regarded as most important by only 27% but that number is kind of bogus since that’s of question respondents not survey respondents. So, yet again there were fusion center representatives that seem to be unable to master the task of ranking items from 1 to 5. My guess is not too many of those would have put counterterrorism in the #1 spot so I think we can confidently say this disparity is even greater than the numbers in the report.

Think about this. Fusion centers see their most important work being something other than their greatest threat. But remember when they said they thought primary responsibility for counterterrorism should be a joint federal/local endevour? Ah, responsibility without accountability. That must be what we’re shooting for here. From the authors:

When asked a follow-on question about what shapes their rank ordering of their center’s most imporatn activities, most stated that such was the product of their center’s institutional pedigree…the key relationships and customer base they serve, the decisions of elected officials or senior decision-makers, [etc., etc.]…Of the thirty individuals who answered this question, none of them referenced the current of expected threat domain. [emphasis added]

So, the next time you hear or read one of these yahoos talk about how their operations are ‘intelligence-led’ don’t believe it. You can’t do intelligence-led anything if centers look like the description of these answers.

And here’s where it all comes together. I do think these answers are representative in demonstrating the almost complete lack of self-awareness among those running fusion centers (individually perhaps but definitely institutionally) which leads to all this internal inconsistencies. Terrorism is our greatest threat but we’re going to prioritize something else. We think analysis is the most important task but we’re going to focus on building capabilities elsewhere. It’s not just that the emperor has no clothes…he’s not even the emperor. He’s just some dude telling you his crown is invisible too.

Look, if we were in year one or two of this grand fusion center experiment this could all be chalked up to growing pains and the working out of various kinks. But we’re entering into decade number two of this scheme now. I think we can safely say we’re coming to the end of the trial period. If they haven’t gotten their act together by now, they ain’t gonna.

But the authors of the report come to a different conclusion. They argue that more resources and effort needs to go into fusion centers. All they need is the appropriate tweeking and we’ll be ship-shape. I disagree and have to ask if that’s all that’s needed, what are they waiting for. The findings of this report aren’t really new or shocking. People have been identifying the same shortfalls at least for the past five years. But, we continue to see new centers opened along the lines of the old, failed ones. Yes, an emphasis on analytical training would be great but if work priorities are angled one way (towards short term crime activity) it doesn’t matter who your analysts are. The rot runs deeper.

I honestly believe we’d be better off to burn these things to the ground (no, that’s not a threat, please don’t put me on that list), disburse the personnel back to their home agencies and distribute the money currently going to fusion centers to those agencies directly. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea but it’s a better one than the status quo.

A good idea would be to take advantage of the current lull in serious terrorist activity and reconfigure these things from the ground up. Take away the intelligence function (which most centers can’t do anyway) from most of these centers and convert them to real time crime centers (able to provide support to anti-crime activities), then concentrate your analytical power into a very few regional centers that have an organic investigative (but not arrest) authority. Then, have them focus exclusively on terrorism (not crime or protesters) and off you go.

There’s other tid-bits in this report that support my position but I fear I’ve already gone on too long.

*You won’t find that in the report itself but I think a not too careful reading between the lines will get you to that conclusion.

**So few people are trying to look at fusion centers in a systematic way that I don’t want to sharpshoot someone for putting forth any good-faith effort in that direction.

***That’s right. We’ve got 77 of those things. Combined with ‘fusion-like’ entities (JTTFs, HIDTAs, etc.) we’re surely at double that. So, just to recap, the solution to problem of information sharing (caused by too many agencies not talking to each other) is to…create hundreds of new agencies that (as we shall see) don’t talk to each other.

****Keep this in mind. Fusion centers are frequently charged with keeping track of criminal and/or terrorist threats in an entire state or large metropolitan area. If you’re trying to do that with less than 10 people (not all of whom are doing intelligence work), good luck.

****It can be a little difficult saying that the organization you’re in is sub-standard if you have (or hope to) achieve some stature within that organization. After all, what would that say about their decision to hire/promote you?

*****On questions similar to this, the number of ‘5’ answers, in the exact middle of the scale, gives me pause. Is this just a bunch of weasle answers or honest opinions based on intelligence? I’m inclined to think the former but that’s just my gut feeling.

COIN, terrorism, fear and bureacracy…

Kings of War has a description of a fiercely fought campaign against cunning and determined insurgents.  The protagonists are the author and his wife on one side and mice on the other.

Remember when the US was collectively shitting its pants over the idea of bringing suspected terrorists to trial?  Not our finest moment as it really (imo) gave people a peek behind all the ‘kick ass’ bluster and demonstrated that we might not be all that committed to those founding principles we always praise when the chips are (kind of) down.

Norway provides a pretty interesting alternative.  There, a guy who killed almost a hundred people in a sophisticated attack and claimed to be a part of a larger secret organization is being brought to trial.  While his guilt may not be presupposed (he admitted to committing the acts) his sanity is and there’s a chance (albeit a small one) that he’ll spend many years in an asylum.  Even if found sane he’s looking at around 20 years in prison which means it’s entirely possible that Anders Breivik may yet again walk the streets of Norway.

Max Fisher from the Atlantic compares the two decisions and finds the US wanting.*

David Betz over at Kings of War is a bit uneasy about how well he thinks Breivik is aligning his strategic narrative with popular opinions and within these times of increased connectivity and opportunities for ‘super-enpowerment’.

…Breivik himself is an extremist…but the essential underpinning of his strategic narrative is not. In the past few years, all the major European leaders have made speeches to the effect that multiculturalism is a failed policy–in Angela Merkel’s estimation, as an example, it had failed ‘utterly‘…In other words, at a rough estimate a good half of Europeans would likely agree with a good half of his rationalisation.

Super-enpowerment?  That’s the ability for one motivated person to conduct an attack like Breivik did.  Or 19 guys to do a 9/11 (admittedly with the support of others).  In any case, the ability to do such things (for good or ill) is still a new phenomenon.  There’s a reason the Roman Empire stood as well as it did, even though, at various times, there were a whole lot of people who wanted to throw off their yoke.  No matter how mad you were at the Romans in 50 C.E., as an individual (or a group smaller than an army) you just weren’t capable of doing that much.

Betz concludes with the following:

The bottom line is that you can expect lots more Breiviks. The techniques are more than adequately demonstrated. The means are readily available if you know where to look. It’s the causes which are more nebulous. ‘Counter Jihad’, in my view, is the most likely to metastasise into something larger and more virulent. But all sorts may give it a try: anti-vivisectionists, radical environmentalists, post-crash anti-capitalists, neo-anarchists…

Although, I don’t think you needed Breivik to make this point.  It’s all around us.  Both in terms of illicit activity (just look at Anonymous) and legal activity.

Ever heard of Frances Grady?  Probably not but Matthew Harwood over at Salon writes about him to demonstrate some of the absurd ways we treat terrorism.  Grady tried to burn down an abortion clinic.  So…a guy who, because of his ideological beliefs, destroys property in an effort to intimidate or coerce a government or segment of the population.  That’s terrorism, right?

Well, yes and no.

Grady was not charged under any terrorism statutes because (according to the prosecutor) he ‘torched an unoccupied room in an empty building.’  The attack took place after business hours.

Oh…so, if you don’t do violence to a person (or in a circumstance where a person could reasonably be expected to be hurt) that’s not terrorism, right?

Well, yes and no.

You see, when we talk about right-wing (and/or Christian inspired) terrorism they often mysteriously don’t get charged as terrorism in cases like this.

But, if you’re a radical environmentalist…boom! You’re the most dangerous terrorist threat in the nation.  You see, there are very few instances of environmental or animal extremists (which I’m defining here as those willing to engage in criminal activity beyond ‘traditional’ civil disobedience) actually committing violence in the U.S.  But, they do cause economic damage.  More importantly, they cause (or threaten to cause) economic damage to monied interests that have significant political influence.

That’s why you get a whole host of laws put in place to classify a guy who sends ‘black faxes‘ to a pharmaceutical company in the same group as al-Qaida.

It’s also why we’ve had ten years of wild fanfares every time the FBI could trick some mildly retarded Islamist to talk about an ‘attack’ he was incapable of conducting if not provided the full cooperation of the federal government.

This is counter-terrorism conducted with at least one eye on political pandering and the other on anything other than the ball.

Mike German, a former undercover FBI agent and now senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, notes that there is no way the FBI would use such aggressive tactics to catch antiabortion extremists, even though they present a violent domestic terrorism threat. Usually, tactics such as these are used almost exclusively against Muslim-Americans. “[The ACLU has] evidence that the FBI has sent informants with criminal records into Muslim religious communities, not with a specific focus on particular suspects but rather to spy broadly on the community,”

“Within the last 10 years, the FBI has repeatedly said that the environmental terrorism is the No. 1 domestic threat,” he says.  “If you look at the numbers they count, it excludes similar conduct that wasn’t charged to terrorism on the right-wing side.”

I know I should get it by now and just be a full time cynic but the idealist in me continues to struggle for life so I’m continually shocked by this buffoonery.

*I have to admit, I think my post from late 2010 still holds up pretty well and is much more snarky insightful and entertaining than Fisher.

Problems in extremism

Recently I was at a training event about homegrown violent extremism (HVE) attending primarily by representatives of state and local agencies (with probably a scattering of federal agencies present as well) and there were a couple of interesting points worthy of exploring.

First, the event began with a question.  The attendees were asked what they thought were the biggest extermist threat facing their jurisdictions.  Answers included:

  • al-Qaida (or similarly) inspired HVEs
  • Right wing extremists
  • Eco/animal rights extremists
  • non-ideologically inspired extremists

Much to my surprise very few (like less than a half dozen of the approximately 150 attendees) mentioned al-Qaida.  I had assumed that its name recognition would mean that it would be the ‘go to’ threat but I was wrong (hence the point of this whole paragraph).

The overwhelming response was the final choice: non-ideological inspired extremists.

Now, it’s not clear to me how that catagory is different from nutjobs with a gun (uh, excuse me, ‘emotionally disturbed persons’).  Further, it’s not clear if this catagory should even be considered in the same breath as terrorists.

I can see how one might want to lump them together.  After all, there’s a guy with a gun shooting at innocent people so maybe it doesn’t matter why he’s pulling the trigger.

Only, it does matter why he’s pulling a trigger both ‘left of boom’* (before the incident occurs) and ‘right of boom’ (after the attack begins) in terms of prevention, target selection, method of attack, etc.

So, two questions come to mind as I think about this.  Have we diluted the idea of threat (in terms of talking about ‘homeland security‘ in its strict anti-terrorism way) to the extent that it just doesn’t have much meaning any more?  A victim, perhaps, of the ‘all crimes, all threats, all hazards, all the time’ psychosis?

Secondly, while discussions about the threat of HVEs have increased over the past couple of years, it’s almost always been wrapped in discussions of ideology (and usually there in terms of al-Qaida inspired ideology).  So, assuming this audience was representative, one wonders, what’s going on here.  Is the message from those paragons of informaiton sharing, fusion centers, not doing that great a job of spreading the message? Or is the homeland security community not sending the correct message? Or are they sending the correct, relevant message but doing it so poorly it doesn’t ‘stick’?

*I’ve been dying to use that phrase for years.  Too bad it’s so overused it’s moved into cliche territory.  Still, I shall not be denied!