Tag Archives: Terrorism

Anatomy of a (sub)standard Intelligence Product

Last time I wrote about how we still don’t do a good job of classifying terrorist actions.  As an example of that I used this alleged intelligence product and what I’d like to do today is run through why I think it’s not up to snuff.

First things first. What’s with that color? I am all about encouraging analysts to experiment with their products to make them more relevant and make sure they ‘stick’ with their audience more but I’m not sure about this color choice.  It’s very non-traditional. (Update:  I’ve just looked at a downloaded copy and it’s a much cleaner and more traditional light blue. I would just delete this but here’s a good example of one of the pitfalls of critiquing something on the web…nertz to me!)

So non-traditional in fact that it reminded me of a scene in Yes, Prime Minister.  You can see the whole episode at the end of this post but here’s the money quote:

All I can say is, if that’s what you’re going to say, I suggest a very modern suit, hi-tech furniture, high-energy yellow wallpaper, abstract paintings. In fact, everything to disguise the absence of anything new in the actual speech.

You can download the presentation here:

Terrorism Powerpoint Presentation

Ok, so this is a joint FBI/Pennsylvania State Police product.  It’s unclear who the audience is but it is worthwhile to note that there are no classification markings on the document. By default that would make this ‘unclassified’ but I find that hard to believe.  This could be another (along with the weird color) be an indicator that this is a fraudulent document.  But, it could also be that this was an internal document or a draft and in those cases we could just be seeing a bit of sloppy work.

We open with a definition of ‘Domestic Terrorism’.  I’d like to see a citation for that but perhaps that’s given in the talk that (I hope) would go along with the slide.  It appears to be from the U.S. criminal code and given the probable audience (law enforcement officials) here let’s not deduct anything.

Then they use a definition of Eco-Terrorism from the Anti-Defamation League.  I’m less enamored with this slide.  Is there no official definition of this term?  If not, why not?  Does this mean that the ADL is official government policy? I’m usually a big proponent of reaching out to outside experts but if you’re going to flip back and forth between official and unofficial terms, definitions, assertions and opinions you should make it clear which is which and I’m not sure a parenthetical note here makes the grade.  Again, this might be something discussed in the talk but I’m going to make a deduction here.  Also, they fact that they changed the font to underscore a point but picked a color that actually makes it blend into the background isn’t particularly good.

I’ll also recommend you note the quote they highlight.  ‘Eco-terrorists’ are defined as the ‘most active’.  What I believe the authors are trying to do with that quote is use ‘most active’ as a synonym for ‘most dangerous’.  That’s not particularly clear, however.  They time frame they use is long (two decades…that’s an entire generation) and it’s not clear when that damage occurred.  What if $99 million dollars of that damage and 90% of all incidents occurred prior to 1996? What if they occurred after 2012?  I suspect you’d get two very different responses to just how threatening and active ‘Eco-Terrorists’ are.

Now…this is interesting.

The title of slides 2-4 go:

  • Domestic terrorism defined
  • Eco-terrorism
  • Environmental Extremists

This is the narrative path they want you to go down. Graphically, it looks something like this:


That is known as the old switcheroo.  What it should look like is this.

slide2To explain that you probably want a slide order of:

  • Environmental Extremists
  • Domestic terrorism defined
  • Eco-terrorism

This may seem like a small thing but it really sets the stage for what may be a whole host of problems down the road.  If one of your foundational propositions is that all extremists are terrorists that’s a problem and will lead you down a road towards illegal and unconstitutional activities.

How do I know this isn’t just sloppy work and they meant slide two and not slide one?  Bullet two:

  • Nonhierarchical and autonomous with lone offenders and small cells posing the greatest threat of criminal activity. Ecoterror cells are extremely difficult to identify and infiltrate;

In the slide about ‘extremists’ they go right to talking about ‘Ecoterror cells’.  No distinction between the two is made.  That’s simply wrong.

It’s also interesting to note that they quote the ELF ‘credo’.  If you’re going to quote stuff to support your case you should also explain the stuff that undermines it.  Most eco-animal rights extremists renounce violence against people.  In fact, it’s usually a central tenet of their belief structure.  To ignore that in favor of cherry picking the stuff that makes them sound more dangerous is disingenuous.

On slide 5, note the criminal activity identified:

  • Criminal activity has ranged from graffiti and trespassing, to vandalism, sabotage and arson;

I won’t belabor this point because it’s settled now but in what bizarro world is graffiti, trespassing and vandalism rise to the level of a terrorism investigation?  Only if those things are combined with the threat of violence should it be.  Otherwise we’re talking about criminal activity that is easily handled by local law enforcement and handled quite well under the criminal justice system.

And on slide 6, in the last bullet we finally get to this:

  • Historically, activities have not intended to harm individuals.

That’s clearly a throwaway line.  After six slides about how dangerous they are and their targeting priorities we get a brief statement about how they did things…historically.  You know…like back in ye olden days.

Slide 8 gets a bit weird.  There’s no reason why this event should be here.  You see a statement that looks like it could have come from any activist organization.  It talks about online activism to achieve legal (and pretty mainstream) ends.

Slide 9…again.  The security camera hunting campaign is interesting.  While Earth First did carry it so did other groups.  It might be worthwhile to see  if there were any reports of security cameras being attacked.  It might be worthwhile to see if other campaigns like this have been announced and how successful they were.  But, if you’re cherry picking your facts you probably don’t want to ask (and definitely don’t want to answer) those questions.

The information from START is good….but it doesn’t really say what the author(s) want it to say.  Here’s the paper that they quoted.  This slide is designed to say “Danger! Danger!” But let’s look at what the data shows…

  • 239 attacks from 1995-2010 (15 years or roughly 16 attacks per year worldwide)
  • 66% occurred in the West (roughly 11 per year)
  • 42% of those attacks that took place in the West “resulted in substantial or very substantial property damage and
    financial losses” (that’s a total of 66 attacks or 4 attacks per year in all Western nations)

I find I can’t really say much more about this because the slide does such a poor job of mangling the original research that we just need to bury this and move on.

(Protip:  If you’re going to quote someone else’s work it’s a good idea to quote it correctly and understand it.  Just sayin’)

Then we get a number of slides about civil disobedience actions.  Without the discussion notes we can only speculate about how these were described which I won’t do here.  At no point, however, is it made clear why this is anything more than a local law enforcement issue.  Ok, a bunch of people are protesting and trespassing.  Get the paddy wagon, boys, and lock ‘em up or move them along.

Slides 16-22 finally give us something of a threat.  Various incendiary and explosive devices along with a report of a shooting.  It is important to note that the presentation doesn’t link any one of these events to environmental extremists.  There are a whole lot of reasons why people might do these things without being affiliated with the environmental movement.  Disgruntled workers come to mind.  The way this information is presented, however, you are practically forced to come to the conclusion that the crazy environmental types are behind these.  They may but that’s not clear from the information provided.

It’s frustrating that I probably just spent more time reviewing this product that the author(s) spent constructing it but there you go.  Don’t let this happen to you.

Watch Yes Prime Minister 1.2 -The Ministerial Broadcast in Comedy | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

What counts as ‘terrorism’?

Assessing terrorism is a bit more difficult than it might first appear to be.  At first glance it looks like it should be pretty easy.  When someone detonates an explosive, fires and gun or flies an airplane into a building along with some sort of ideological statement it’s terrorism.  Everyone likes to talk about we haven’t been able to settle on a universal definition (even within the U.S. Government) but I bet more people would say that they could identify it if they saw it.

Yet, that’s not really true and in the case of domestic terrorism. The problem, I suspect, is pretty serious for several reasons. Allow me to demonstrate a couple…

First, please consider this:

The Fort Stewart soldier accused of organizing an anti-government militia and orchestrating plots to takeover the Coastal Georgia Army post, bomb the Forsyth Park Fountain and poison Washington state’s apple crop appeared at the Long County Courthouse Friday to plead guilty in his civilian court case.

And this from an assessment of a group I will discuss later:

  • Criminal activity has ranged from graffiti and trespassing, to vandalism, sabotage and arson;
  • Desired result is to inflict significant economic loss;
  • Historically, activities have not intended to harm individuals

Now, which (if either or both) do you think should be considered a terrorist case?

Both certainly could based on the information provided.  The first is pretty clear cut.  The perpetrators had an ideological agenda, planned to conduct violent activity against a government or population in furtherance of that ideology.  In fact, they were implicated in several homicides and hoarded weapons so they get bonus points for actually taking steps to carry out their plans.  If you review many of the criminal complaints against terrorism suspects you’ll note that most of these knuckleheads have to have the FBI hold their hands through the planning and operational stages of a terrorist attack.  In fact, they’ve been accused of being a bit to enthusiastic in their encouragement of getting people to pick up the black banner of al-Qaeda.

The second group is ‘environmental extremists’ and from an alleged leaked joint presentation from the FBI and Pennsylvania State Police. 1

I’m not going to rehash my issues with the way the law enforcement/homeland security community deals with animal/environmental extremism here (perhaps in another post).  I see I’ve been writing about it for more than 8 years (!) now and see very little progress in the area.  Read that post from 2006 and then look at the leaked document…You’ll see the same sins over and over (and over) again.  2

These two events are significant in terms of what they tell us about federal priorities.  The first case (you know, the one where mass murder was planned) was NOT addressed federally.  It was prosecuted at the county level.  That’s pretty odd given that usually everyone wants credit for busting up a terrorism ring.

And here’s the thing…most assessments of terrorist activity (particularly in the United States) rely on federal government prosecutions or indictments that allege terrorist activity.  So, no indictment…no terrorism.  This essentially makes terrorism analysis a function of prosecutorial decision.  While there may be a lot of overlap, those two things are most definitely not identical.

So, we have a situation where things like the Global Terrorism Database (the ‘go to’ terrorism database and which I endorse) does not include things like F.E.A.R.  So, they don’t get federal attention, don’t get picked up be researchers and they drop out of sight like a bad Reddit thread 3

Start asking questions and watch how quick everyone does their best Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation…

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These are not the terrorists you’re looking for….

If you’re intellectually sloppy this can lead to all sorts of distortions about the current state of terrorism, how it may be trending and open you up for all sorts of strategic surprise.

Key point:  Understand what your data does and does not capture and what you can (and shouldn’t) use it for.

Internationally, there is another concern.  Peruse through most terrorism assessments and you’ll see the unspoken assumption that terrorism events can be lumped together in order to determine trends.  In some cases, that may be warranted.  In terms of tactics, for example (hijacking in the 1960s and suicide bombings in the 2000s) tactics which are effective spread not just geographically but also across ideological boundaries.

But that isn’t a universal rule.  An increase in terrorism in one place or against one target type does NOT necessarily mean it’ll occur elsewhere.  It would be interesting to see if it does (and my impression is that it does not) but we  shouldn’t act like it’s established fact.

The people at START do a good job of making this distinction in products like this.

Although terrorism touched 85 countries in 2012, just three – Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan – suffered more than half of 2012’s attacks (54%) and fatalities (58%)…

“While terrorist attacks have in large part moved away from Western Europe and North America to Asia, the Middle East and Africa, worldwide terrorism is reaching new levels of destructiveness,”

If looking for terrorism trends that might effect…Boise, Idaho (for example) perhaps including incidents from a dataset that includes these three countries isn’t a good idea.  Many places (particularly those in non-academic settings) not only don’t make those distinctions.  Often they don’t even understand them.

It seems weird to say this but 13 years after 9/11 and we really haven’t done much work in thinking about how we should think about terrorism.  You’d think we’d have terms of reference down pat but we don’t.  We continue to cobble things together and that’s not good.


  1. I can’t verify the authenticity or integrity of the product so evaluate the source as such.  The content does seem consistent with similar products that have been leaked int eh past and public statements from officials on the subject. The one red flag that is raised is the bizarre color scheme used in the presentation.  I can say that I’ve never seen hot pink used in an official presentation.
  2. The question, to me, is if these are sins of intention or incompetence.  Do they know they’re playing with the facts or do they not see the cognitive biases and flaws in logic in what they do?  I have no idea.
  3. Nice attempt to appear culturally relevant but you aren’t fooling anyone. eds.

How to think about al-Qaeda

Two articles about al-Qaeda that are really worth your time but for different reasons.  Both agree on a couple of key points.  Ayman al-Zawahiri is in a bad way and needs to both reassert his own personal authority as well as the position of al-Qaeda Central as the preeminent terrorist organization.

First is this piece from Matthew Levitt at Foreign Affairs titled Zawahiri Aims at Israel.  He argues that the way for Zawahiri to win back the initiative in the War on Terror and the respect of his peers is by focusing on attacking Israel.  As evidence for that theory, he sites a recently disrupted plot that was ordered by Zawahiri (it’s a long quote but please indulge me):

Abu-Sara reportedly volunteered to carry out a “sacrifice attack” on an Israeli bus traveling between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. The plan was for gunmen to shoot out the bus’ wheels and overturn it. After that, they would they would gun down the passengers at close range. Finally, they assumed, they would die in a firefight with police and first responders. Sham and Abu-Sara also sketched out simultaneous suicide bombings at a Jerusalem convention center, where a second suicide bomber would target emergency responders, and at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, which would be carried out by five unnamed foreign terrorists who would travel to Israel as tourists with fake Russian passports. In preparation, Sham sent Abu-Sara computer files for a virtual bomb-making training course. Abu-Sara was to prepare the suicide vests and truck bombs, and to travel to Syria for training in combat and bomb-making. He had already purchased a ticket on a flight to Turkey by the time he was arrested.

Sham’s other two recruits — Rubin Abu-Nagma and Ala Ghanam — were working with him on carrying out attacks on Israel as well. Abu-Nagma reportedly planned to kidnap an Israeli soldier from Jerusalem’s central bus station and bomb a residential building in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. He, too, learned to manufacture explosives online. Ghanam, who lived in a village near Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, was tasked with establishing a Salafi jihadi cell in the West Bank that would carry out future attacks.

That’s quite an ambitious plan given these guys were recruited and trained on the internet.  Now, I’m not a special operations type of guy but it seems to me that you’ve really got to have your act together to make something like this work.  I don’t want to dissect the whole thing here but can you even flip a bus over just by shooting out its wheels?  Cripes, and that’s just step 1!

The first time I read that plan I imagined Zawahiri’s mission briefing to look something like this

jihad-gnomes-phase-3 copyThere are many things you can say about that plan.  Well thought out and likely to succeed probably are NOT two of them.  If we assume that it is true that Zawahiri ordered this there’s one piece missing from Levitt’s article that might undermine his case.  It is possible that Zawahiri saw this as a low cost/low risk/(potentially) high payoff operation.  So, he may have been thinking that the plan was just crazy enough that it might work and if it didn’t…so what? It doesn’t sound like he spent much in the way of resources on it.

In other words, what did Zawahiri have to lose by backing this plot?

That is very different, however, from the idea that Zawahiri is refocusing his attention towards attacks on Israel.  I’m not saying the central premise might not be correct but rather that Levitt didn’t do much to prove it in the article.

But it’s the final paragraph of Levitt’s article that I have a real bone to pick over.

Zawahiri’s plotting against Israel may well have resulted from a need to reassert his position among other jihadist groups, especially in Syria, but that doesn’t mean that the threat of terrorism is less real. However one defines al Qaeda today — as a singular group with a few close franchises, or as the sum of all franchises and decentralized parts — it is clear from plots like this one that the West, including Israel, need beware.

This is typical calorie free nonsense.  Nobody is asserting that terrorism isn’t a threat.  Is it less significant (at least to the U.S. and much of the West) than it was 10 or 15 years ago? Yeah, most definitely.  And it’s plots like these that we need to be wary of?  They set the bar so high for themselves that not only did they make it very likely that they’d get caught before their attack started but even if they evaded detection they likely would have flubbed it.  Too many points of failure.

But think about it.  You could replace the terrorism related words with just about anything and get the same sentiment.  Bad drinking water, meteors, Halloween candy stuffed with razor blades.  There are risks and threats everywhere but in order to live we need to be able to put them into perspective and judge their probability.

J.M. Berger, on the other hand, writes this article which I thought I wouldn’t like (entirely because of it’s subtitle ‘We’re fighting al Qaeda like a terrorist group. They’re fighting us as an army.’) but which is a really strong overview of a complicated issue.

You really should read the whole article but his central thesis is that which al-Qaeda central and its affiliates are still interested in terrorism it is no longer their primary focus.  Instead, these groups are interested primarily in securing and holding territory (a more traditional military objective).  If you agree with those assumptions then it is no longer clear that our current orientation to a ‘War on Terror’ (with al-Qaeda as the lead protagonist) is a sound one.  Currently, we still suffer from a knee jerk reaction to the phrase ‘al Qaeda’ treating everyone who throws around the term as being co-conspirators with 9/11.

We know, however, that a lot of al Qaeda affiliates put attacking the United States pretty low on their priority list.  Many will take a shot at American interests overseas but few appear to spend their resources and personnel on conducting attacks on U.S. territory.  If that’s the case, might we be better served by taking, as Berger calls it, a more ‘agile’ approach?  Some groups may deserve the full court press of military, diplomatic and law enforcement responses while others something less and maybe even some should receive nothing more than malicious neglect.

The state of terrorism reporting

Will Potter from Green is the New Red writes a post about a leaked FBI Intelligence Report from early 2012.  I like Potter’s work but he’s an advocate for a particular cause and so we don’t always come from the same place.  I think his attempts at equivalency (‘This is the state of the government’s “terrorism priorities.” Favorable media coverage exposing animal cruelty–at a lab that was fined for abuses–is on par with weapons of mass destruction.’) are wrong and that his arguments miss the important pathologies these products demonstrate.

The report in question can be found here.  The first thing I’d like to recommend is look at the titles of each of the subjects (emphasis added):

  • AR Extremists May Increase Criminal Activity after News Program Featuring Animal Research Airs
  • Anti-Abortion Extremist Activity May Increase after Graphic Advertisement
  • Planned “International Judge Muhammad Day” Could Increase Threats to Homeland or Escalate Anti-Islamic Sentiments
  • LCN Arrests May Attract Media Attention
  • Pimps Likely Transport Children across State Lines for Prostitution at Major Public Events

In five of the six headlines the FBI has inserted ‘weaselly’ words.  Sure terrorist might to this or might do that or…they may just buy a cute cat.

This cat MAY be a T-9000 terminator sent back in time to kill you.

This cat MAY be a T-9000 terminator sent back in time to kill you.

Let me be clear that I have NO insight into how the FBI produces (or produced…they may no longer make these things) these products but this looks like an instance where institutional demands trumped any sort of intelligence value.  There’s nothing theoretically wrong with intelligence products that come out of a regular basis like this one (weekly).  Problems arise, however, when expectations of what those products should look like outstrip reality.

I suspect various functionaries have decided that it would not be acceptable for the F.B.I. to put out something called a ‘Weekly Intelligence Report’ and not have something to say.  I’d be willing to put money down that conversations similar to this actually take place:

-Mid-Level flunky:  Hey!  The Weekly Intelligence Report is almost due. What do we have to put in it?

-Bottom feeder analyst:  Things are actually pretty quiet.  We’re not seeing any new threats this week.

-Mid-Level flunky: Not acceptable! How about we just put in something about that TV show coming up and say it might encourage terrorists to attack

-Bottom feeder analyst:  Uh…but there’s no evidence of that.

-Mid-Level flunky:  Yeah, but terrorists COULD be motivated to attack. Put it in there!

The other tell in situations like this is phrases peppered in the product like the following:

Though the FBI has no reporting indicating specific threats related to the broadcast, extremists could use information from the program to target researchers or facilities.

If you ever see wording like that you should mentally insert the following:  ‘We’re just making this shit up.’

An exception to the above rule would be if the authors actually laid out a line of reasoning why this really might happen.  Maybe similar events instigated attacks, maybe there’s something new in the subjects capabilities or intent that makes action in this case more likely.

They attempted to do that in another entry but look what they do…

While the announcement has given rise to no specific reported threats, the earlier event inspired backlash
overseas, including by terrorist groups and extremists. The proposed event could lead to similar
reactions and could give rise to threats in the Homeland or escalate anti-Islamic sentiments, potentially resulting in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

So, they link this upcoming event to the overseas backlash and that’s good.  Cause – Effect.

But then they make a leap to say that could translate to attacks here in the states 1 and we’re right back to square one with that wishy-washy ‘could’ crap.  Would it have killed them to take the extra step and spell out who has and/or who is likely to be motivated to carry out such attacks?

‘So what?’ I can hear you say.  Let them publish their bulletin and just ignore it if it doesn’t have value, right?  The problem there is this isn’t just one weekly bulletin.  This goes on all the time by hundred of agencies all around the country.  Each creating their own calorie free product loaded with speculation because they refuse to say ‘We’ve got nothing.  We’ll let you know once there’s something relevant to share.’  As a result everyone get bombarded with products like these making it difficult (if not impossible) to read and evaluate all the information that comes pouring in.

And in that vein…I’ll leave you with this.

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  1. And we’ve got to get rid of that fascist ‘homeland’ crap

Can you crowdsourse the collation function?

The collation part of the intelligence cycle (if, indeed, it is a cycle) is the least appreciated and ‘sexy’ part of the whole thing.

Defined, collation (sometimes also called ‘processing’ or considered a subset of that word) is:

Once the collection plan is executed and information arrives, it is processed for exploitation. This involves the translation of raw intelligence materials from a foreign language, evaluation of relevance and reliability, and collation of the raw intelligence in preparation for exploitation. 1

In short, its converting the varied inputs of intelligence (interviews, bank records, photographs, etc.) into forms of data that allow the information to be analyzed.  Generally, it sucks.  Converting or coding one set of data, for example, into spreadsheets, databases, etc. It’s also very time consuming and can be fraught with errors.

It may interest you to know that in the law enforcement and homeland security fields there is a real dearth of standardized datasets from which to draw to assist with analysis.  Want to know if the use of explosive devices by extremists is on the increase or decline?  Well, it depends on whose data you use and none of it is great or universally accepted.

With regards to terrorism studies, START‘s Global Terrorism Database is among the best but it has problems associated with it as well.  These aren’t really defects in the START folks (they’re very nice and extremely helpful) but rather because, in part, of problems with collations.  A few examples…

Let’s say you want to capture terrorist plots and attacks in the United States.  What would you count?  When does a plot go from some knucklehead blowing off steam and talking nonsense to a real threat?  Should we even make that distinction? Is it enough to say ‘I want to attack the United States’ or would the individual need to identify a target?

Many researchers try to sidestep this issue by trying to use the criminal justice system to do their work for them.  It’s easy to count people who have been charged under terrorism statutes or convicted of terrorist crimes.

That system leaves a lot to be desires.  What happens is charges are dropped or over turned?  Many times, a terrorism arrest is announced to much fanfare only to have most of the substantive charges dropped for one reason or another. Then you over count the plots and attacks.  What if, for tactical prosecutorial reasons, the suspect is charged with something other than terrorism offenses?  Then you risk under counting plots and attacks.

This is a real issue and I’d point you to this group that was arrested in Fort Stewart, Georgia a couple of years ago as evidence of that.  A number of current and former soldiers with plans to attack an Army base, assassinate the President and with two (and possibly more) homicides and other crimes under their belt.  Never heard of this terrorist threat? I’m not surprised as they weren’t charged under a terrorist statute.  So, they fall into the ‘general crime’ category.  Clearly, (assuming the initial reports were correct) these are folks you’d want included in any analysis of the terrorist threat.

Unfortunately, this is too big of a job for state and local agencies to tackle and it’s not clear if a federal agency (the FBI or DHS probably) has the interest or will to do this.  Further, if you want widespread acceptance, such a task is probably undertaken with broad buy-in, transparency and peer review.

These sorts of things have been bumping around in my mind for awhile when I saw this story from Slate.  After the Newtown shooting, they started documenting all the firearms deaths in the United States.  Now, one year in, they’ve got more than 10,000 reports of gun deaths and, in order to analyze them, have to….(wait for it…)….collate all that data.

Rather than trying to do it in-house or hire someone to do it (or foist it off on some poor interns) they decided to try crowd-sourcing it.

Here’s how it works.  They provide you with an article and the name of a victim about a gun death.  You read it and then select if the death fits within one of the following categories:

  • murder
  • suicide
  • accident
  • shot by law enforcement
  • shot by civilian in self defence
  • other
  • link not working

The nice thing about it is, apparently, it focuses on the victim rather than just the article.  So, I suppose an article where two people died (let’s say a murder/suicide) one person may get asked about the suicide and the other the murder.  Also, they don’t just rely on one person’s response 2 but rather on a consensus of some number of respondents.  That’s a nice check on work, but as we all know, the majority isn’t always right.

Now, they did recently identify a significant flaw in their methodology.  While their data collection was exclusively based on open source reporting it quickly became clear that suicide by gun is under-reported.  On those occasions when suicides are reported (not very often) it’s almost unheard of for the report to describe the method of death.  Still, like in most things, admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step in fixing it.

Another example is through the British Library.

In 2008, the British Library, in partnership with Microsoft, embarked on a project to digitize thousands of out-of-copyright books from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Included within those books were maps, diagrams, illustrations, photographs, and more. The Library has uploaded more than a million of them onto Flickr and released them into the public domain. It’s now asking for help.

Next year, it plans to launch a crowdsourced application to fill the gap, to enable humans to describe the images. This information will then be used to train an automated classifier that will be run against the entire corpus.

The library is also soliciting ideas for how to present the collection to aid the tagging and metadata generation, and also make the pictures easier to navigate.

I wonder if such a thing couldn’t be done with terrorism?  Certainly there are dozens (probably hundreds) of agencies with some stake counter terrorism in the United States and there are far fewer terrorism incidents than gun crimes so the task shouldn’t be too onerous and you could mandate participation on a federal level or (perhaps even better) make it a condition to receive federal grants.  You could work out some formula based upon the number of personnel in an agency, the scope of their counter-terrorism mandate and make a determination of how many records they should collate.  Each record would be collated by multiple people and either accepted (in cases of significant consensus) or review by some panel when it’s not clear what the community view is.


  1. Well, close enough for purposes of this discussion
  2. Gotta keep those trolls at bay.

Cultural implications of Western Jihadists

Ok, not sure I can live up to the title of this post but let’s give it a whirl.

The other day I saw these two images on Twitter:

The first:

Batr6mXCMAA39Hf.jpg largeThe Second:

BZSaDL-CUAACTYn.jpg largeI don’t want to read too much into these.  They are, after all, just two pictures and I have no context to go along with them.  How many people have seen them? Who created them? Do they resonate with extremists (real of ‘wannabe’)? Etc., etc., etc.

However, I was struck by a couple of things.

First, this strikes me as a particularly Western thing to do.  Not necessarily done by Westerners (although I’ll get to why I think that might be the case later) but someone heavily influenced by Western culture.  Could anyone imagine a non-Western ‘true believer’ co-opting Western, commercial brands in this way?

Hey Bin Laden, you just attacked New York! What will you do next?

I’m going to Disney!

(Imagine what that would have done to the travel and tourism industry in 2001/2002)

No, these pictures are done by someone who places value on material goods and has bought into the idea of value belonging to corporate branding.

The second thing that came to mind was just how similar this was to what I’ve seen street gangs do back in the day.  You can see some examples here.  When you’ve got a bunch of men aged 16-24 who are itching for action with your group (whether the rough and tumble of gang life or jihad) yet you spend vast amounts of time just cooling your heels (which I suspect is true as much for Jihadis as it is for gang members) you’ve got to occupy your time.  One way you do that is through stuff like this.

This sort of thing isn’t dangerous in itself (it occurs all over in militaries, fans of particular music groups, etc.) but it is an attempt at building group consciousness and cohesion.  Undoubtedly, for every one successful work like this that resonates across the broader community there are hundreds of attempts littering the digital and physical landscape.

This appears to me to be something designed specifically to appeal to those who are steeped in Western commercial culture and that got me thinking about what actually happens when you get people who value that sort of thing mixed in with people who don’t.  I haven’t heard too much about a culture clash between Western jihadists and one from other parts of the world (apart from snippets from Omar Hammami before he got whacked by his al-Shabaab compatriots) and maybe we won’t while they’re struggling for survival.  I suspect we’d see divisions along these lines really appear in areas where they feel a bit safer and can take a break to notice how those guys don’t see to be getting with the program as much as us guysMadcap hilarity usually ensues in such circumstances.

What might this mean in the future?  Well, it really does depend on how the jihadi brand is perceived.  Criminal organizations are known for adopting specific cultural trappings to enhance their status.  In the 1990s, drug and street gangs went to comical lengths to adopt mafia titles and symbols to their organizations. One wonders if we might see the cultural transfer go the other way?

Or, this could just be some bored kid playing with photoshop….

Can horror teach us anything about the future of terrorism?

Recently, I wrote about what I see as the futility of trying to predict and prevent the last attack.  I’d like to riff off of a portion of that where I discussed an assumption about terrorist priorities.  I wrote:

In the wake of the Boston bombing there was an assumption 1, that terrorists would seek out events where media was present so that the attack could be broadcast live.

It’s not entirely clear to me that having wall to wall coverage is the best way to accomplish what terrorists have in mind:  Notably…to spread terror. The footage of the Boston bombing was horrific but in terms of spreading terror, I think a case could be made that terror is more effectively spread when you don’t have complete coverage of the event.  Think about the discussions about what went on in the Westgate mall in Kenya.  Video of the terrorists going around asking people to recite passages of the Koran and shooting those who couldn’t might make the rounds of the seedier side of the internet but the stories can travel even faster.

And, as the writers and producers of horror can tell you, the greatest horror is that which occurs in the imagination of the listener/viewer.  The tale can take a life of its own, with each retelling, getting more horrific every time, allowing each listener to fill in the blanks of the recounting with their own worst fears.  So, if you’re a terrorist, wall to wall media coverage might be fine but so might a less conventional broadcasting of your attack.  One that promises to take on a life of its own.

And in a post 9/11 world where we’ve seen airplanes fly into buildings, maybe there’s not too much more to be wrung out of straight TV reporting.  Perhaps the next level of terrorism (at least for those who don’t have the ability to conduct similarly spectacular attacks) is to not have perfect reporting on an attack.  To leave enough gaps in the ‘story’ to allow terror to spread through misinformation and exaggeration.

Terrorists 2 won’t want less coverage of an attack but, I think they very much would like fewer documented (i.e. visual) details and a whole lot more speculation.

Out notion, therefore, of what a ‘spectacular attack’ is may have to change in the future.

  1. to be fair, this was an assumption that was much older than Boston but that attack was seen as confirming evidence
  2. And here I’m talking terrorists who have the sort of apocalyptic viewpoint like we’ve seen by al-Qaida and its affiliates.  It may go broader than that but I haven’t thought that through

Post attack reporting

One of my pet peeves is post-attack reporting.  Regardless of whether we’re talking about a terrorist attack in Kenya or a shooting in Washington D.C. initial news reporting has been horrible.  The first few hours, or even few days depending on the specifics, after an attack are fraught with incomplete information, rumor, speculation, and a great deal of confusion. The breadth and depth of incorrect information has been shocking as everyone scrambles for that one piece of data that will enable them to ‘scoop’ their competition by 60 seconds.

I really wish I could say this was confined to the media but I can’t.  Intelligence shops and law enforcement are equally at fault for chasing the rabbit in the wake of dramatic events. Even if less publicly visible, the desire to beat others in dissemination remains.  Where things differ from the media is the compulsion of some organizations to publish something even if they have nothing to say.  Those two impulses combined, the desire to get something out quickly and the desire to get it out, even where there’s nothing to say, can create serious problems.

There are now, literally, hundreds of intelligence shops around this country.  Law enforcement departments, Homeland security agencies, fusion centers, FBI field offices and, of course, agencies in Washington D.C.  All those competing agencies are in various stages of competition for, ultimately, dollars.  Therefore, no one likes ‘sit out’ during a potentially important event.

The result is a flood of usually quite useless products every time there’s a terrorist attack or shooting or criminal event that gets picked up by the 24 hour news machine.

The best course of action?  Regardless of if your a concerned citizen or the head of your own intel shop the best thing to do if the event is not in your ‘area of operations’ 1 is to sit tight and occasionally watch for updates.  My rule of thumb is once an hour I’ll listen for a couple of minutes for factual updates and then turn off the media.

The attacks at the Westgate Mall in Kenya are a great example of why this is so.  For days after the attack there was a steady stream of information about how highly skilled the attackers were, how coordinated this large team of terrorists were and how they held out for days against the Kenyan security forces.

Well, only now, weeks later does that whole narrative appear to be…eh….not so much.  Yet, I can say with some certainty that misinformation about the attack and ‘lessons learned’ based on initial (and erroneous) information will be passed around for years.

Commentary by semi-informed pundits or rushing to react to every piece of data during a highly fluid situation rarely proves insightful and rumors from confused sources rarely turn out to be confirmed.  Time is better spent elsewhere.

  1. your jurisdiction, your neighborhood, anywhere you or your people are likely to be

Do good accountants make bad terrorists?

A little while ago I saw Jacob Shapiro give a talk about his book ‘The Terrorist’s Dilemma‘.  The central thesis of his work (if I may summarize it into a couple of sentences) is that there is a tension in terrorist groups around the idea of organizational control.  The more organizational control a terrorist group has the more it can keep its members ‘on target’, implement change, and minimize the risk of internal strife.  That control comes at a cost, however.  Organizational control requires hierarchy, standardization, regular communication, and other things that make the group vulnerable to exploitation from external forces.

For the most part, nation states (at least in the West) did so well at destroying organized terrorist forces in the 1980s and 1990s that the idea of a organized group transformed to ‘leaderless resistance’.  The idea behind it was that there would be no network for security forces to uncover and defeat.  Everyone would work independently, doing what they thought was appropriate and all contributing to a synergy which would accomplish the political goals of these terrorists.

While this raised some concerns about vast hidden enemies, it became apparent that this idea had limited value.  In many cases people wanted for the other guy to get the ball rolling (probably under the reasonable belief that the first person to pop their head up would receive the full attention of security forces) and in those cases where people did try to ‘light the spark’ of revolution it was never really enough to motivate others to action.

Our history of the past few decades is littered with such individuals:  Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph, Timothy McVeigh and Robert Jay Matthews are just some examples.

So, there’s always that tension between the appropriate amount of control that’s ‘optimal’ for the efficiency for a terrorist organization in terms of internal cohesion and external security.

All of this came to mind when I saw this recent article:

In more than 100 receipts left in a building occupied by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu earlier this year, the militants assiduously tracked their cash flow, recording purchases as small as a single light bulb. The often tiny amounts are carefully written out in pencil and colored pen on scraps of paper and Post-it notes: The equivalent of $1.80 for a bar of soap; $8 for a packet of macaroni; $14 for a tube of super glue.

Now, two things should spring to mind:

  1. that’s either a HUGE packet of macaroni or some sort of organic, artisan crafted pasta
  2. the only reason someone tracks expenses like this is because they HAVE to

Think about this in your daily life.  When you have to account for your time or supplies at work, it’s usually a common refrain to gripe about the ‘bean counters’ who don’t do ‘real work’ and are just looking for ways to get in the way or get you in trouble, right?  Who cares if I fill this out in blue pen or black pen? I know it says this has to be submitted 10 days in advance but I only found out about it today…what difference does it make?  Familiar?

Now imagine you’re an al-Qaida fighter.  On the front lines of reviving the Caliphate and establishing a homeland for the faithful.  Danger lurks everywhere and you’ve been fighting the French (or Americans, or Russians, etc.) for some time now.  How important is it to you to get that $1.80 receipt for a bar of soap?

Probably not one bit.

So, why not tell the bean counters, sitting in their cushy headquarters, to go stuff it and get on with your very important work?  Probably for the same reason you don’t do it at work:  Because you will soon find yourself no longer getting paid.

The one thing (if nothing else) those bean counters in Quetta (or where ever they might be) can do is cut off your funding.  No more money post it notes and no more money for guns, ammunition and food.

This is one of the few ways the center can keep control of the front line.  You can be sure that no terrorist organization wants an out of control affiliate like al-Qaida saw in al-Zarqawi and like they even know may be seeing in al-Baghdadi and ISIS.

Can we determine anything based on this report?  Probably not but an excessive focus of documenting even tiny purchases like this (Really? There’s no petty cash fund?) may indicate that the leadership is concerned about losing control.  Or, it could mean that they have a leadership that is taking its eye off the prize and focusing on things that don’t reinforce the prime mission of the organization.  Perhaps AQIM has gotten on the ‘metrics bandwagon’ and is trying to measure their way to success.  It’s certainly possible and more than a few businesses and other organizations have thought if they succeed in achieving goals in a few key metrics they’ll accomplish their overall goal.  Think Vietnam with body counts, or a smart phone knockoff with a low, low price.  You could almost picture some guy saying ‘If we can get the cost to attack ratio down to X we can sustain operations indefinitely!’

Whatever the reason, it’s worthwhile to note that somebody cares about keeping track of that level of detail.  Answering the ‘why’ may tell us quite a bit about the organization.

Al-Qaida? I don’t even know who you are anymore…

Right before the New Year, the NYTimes published the findings of their investigative effort into the attacks of Benghazi from 2012.  It created a stir because of this:

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

(By the way, go read the article, it’s very well done)

Now this statement didn’t get attention because of its implications for our policies or the new manifestation of the War on Terror but because of the political implications of that statement.  In the hyper-partisan (even for early 21st century America) environment of a presidential election season, the attack acquired this weird status and attracted all sorts of conspiracy theories.  Most revolved around the perception that the president’s claims that al-Qaida had been decisively beaten was crucial to his reelection and as such essentially allowed an ambassador and three other Americans to die rather than activate prevent or rescue them.  Logically, the whole thing doesn’t make much sense but never let it be said that people can’t get really worked up over nonsense theories.

But the question which got too little attention was what in the world do we mean when we say ‘al-Qaida’ now?  It’s clear the organization which orchestrated the 9/11 attacks is no longer in existence.  A few of the same people may use the same name but it’s pretty clear that in terms of capabilities (both in terms of physical resources and influence) it’s a shadow of its former self.

There are other groups around the world which take the name ‘al-Qaida’, swear allegiance to the remnants of the original group and invoke the same ideological themes but should they be lumped in the same category?  Should they be considered the same thing?

Clint Watts rounds up his thinking on the subject in light of the NY Times story.  I regularly agree with Clint, often to a degree with might be described as ‘creepy’, and I stay true to form here.

As I’ve written before, we need to stop treating al-Qaida like the Romans did, yelling ‘Hannibal ad portas!‘ every time someone detonates a bomb in a semi-functioning state with corrupt or non-existing security forces and loads of internal strife.  It just does no good.  It might be worth considering why we care about al-Qaida in the first place.

We primarily care about them because of their intent (and capability – at least at some point) to attack the United States.  A secondary (but still important) reason is their intent and (generally better) capability to attack U.S. interests overseas.  But let’s be honest…if a group like al-Shabaab, AQIM, etc., renounced its intent (in a way we believed) to carry out operations outside the border of their country and target the West there wouldn’t be anything like the same fixation on them 1.

So, is al-Qaida resurgent as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Ashley Fantz assert?

I just don’t see it.  Yes, in purely geographical terms there are more terrorist and insurgent groups who tip their hat to a variety of al-Qaida principles and some of them actively seek ‘official’ approval.  But, these groups have an overwhelmingly local or regional focus, with limited capability to project power.  There isn’t much evidence of cooperation between these groups and in some cases they’re in open competition with each other or riven with internal dissension.  Their successes, while sometimes impressive, usually don’t end well for the attackers and, upon reflection, wouldn’t do well if attempted in a Western nation.

And what about that?  We haven’t seen a big attack in the West since 2005.

News this weekend highlighted the difficulty the media (and the political classes) have in talking about al-Qaida today.  After years of treating virtually all jihadis as some monolithic whole we just saw two stories about the ISIS that will be difficult to explain in a meaningful way.  2

The ISIS has always had a troubled relationship with the core al-Qaida leadership.  In 2013, however, things got weird.  Early in the year, the group unilaterally declared that it and a group operating in Syria (the al-Nusra Front) were merged.  The implication (at least as I read it) was that the ISIS was the senior partner in this merger.

The only problem was that the al-Nusra Front didn’t agree with that and basically told the ISIS to pound sand.  Bin Laden’s heir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, ruled on the dispute and found in favor of al-Nusra.  Zawahiri said the two groups would remain independent of each other and told the ISIS to pull out of Syria (where they were increasingly active) and confine themselves to Iraq.

That’s the end, right?  I mean when the head of al-Qaida tells you to stay in your lane, you stay in your lane.

Well….not so fast.  The leader of the ISIS, al-Baghdadi, rejected Zawahiri’s ruling and said the merger was still going ahead.  Wow…just, wow.

Cue the inevitable.  A failed power grab leads to trash talking as each group tries to poach recruits from the other.  Then, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to…this.

The powerful al-Qaeda-affiliated group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) came under attack at its headquarters overnight, activists say.

Though they differ on many issues, correspondents say those who make up the alliance appear united in their hatred of ISIS, which includes many foreign jihadists.

Almost simultaneously, the ISIS also generated headlines for capturing two Iraqi cities.  The Iraqi government (and militias) countered and began squeezing the ISIS.

Now, how do you describe this?  Most media reports have named the ISIS an ‘al-Qaida affiliate’ but is that accurate?  They told bin Laden’s heir that they (essentially) don’t recognize his authority and are in open conflict with another al-Qaida affiliate that does seem to have the approval of ‘core’ al-Qaida.  Who, exactly, is likely to come to their aid at this point?  Is this the behavior of an organization that is firing on all cylinders?

American political leaders have never done a particularly good job at explaining foreign and security policies to the American public but we really could use a clear, honest appraisal of what the threat is and who poses it when it comes to terrorism.

I won’t hold my breath though….

  1. although, there is a school of thought that some political elements require an outside enemy and China’s not quite ready, North Korea too puny, and Iran willing to negotiate, ‘terrorists’ can function as an old standby until a suitable foe can step up.
  2. The ISIS is the old al-Qaida in Iraq, made famous by its brutal founder Abu al-Zarqawi.  He was so brutal, in fact, that the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan had to tell him to chill out with all the beheadings and torture lest the local population prefer the rule of various Shia and unbelievers.