November 17, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Paris and the Pain of Hindsight

• As with most recent acts of terror, the attacks in Paris were perpetrated by people who were well-known to various national security agencies, yet still able to plot and execute their attacks

• While there have been incredible successes over the last 14 years in disrupting terror plots, much of the work has gone into building a system that is less predictive, and more accurate in hindsight

• International intelligence sharing is limited in its ability to prevent all terror attacks; vague warnings matter less than consistent state and local pressure, as well as human source collection

• The tools of modern counterterrorism are vital, but as the overall threats exceed the ability of agencies to properly assess them, they become less preventive and more investigative, after-the-fact.


With terrorism proliferating across the globe, today's international counterterrorism (CT) systems are under strain as the problem keeps getting worse. The sheer number of extremists willing and capable of murder on a small or large scale has exceeded the ability of many CT agencies to properly detect, monitor, assess, and disrupt. Because social media has no meaningful borders, threats radiate out from conflicts and chaos in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, and become borderless as well.

Recent high-profile attacks in Sinai, Beirut, and Paris, however, are an example of diminishing returns on investments in tactics and tools that are perhaps not as effective as they once were. The reduction of the human element in intelligence—both in terms of human source handling and intelligence assessment—has left many agencies blind to plots that lack the tell-tale electronic footprint that mass surveillance relies upon. Any increase in collection has not been met with an increase in assessment and analysis, leaving the system to function more and more as a hindsight machine. What was designed to be preventative has become more investigative—only after-the-fact.

The increase in close-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring and the sharing of databases has proved to be of immense value to investigators in hindsight. The Paris attackers, most of them well-known to French and Belgian authorities, were not deterred by the presence, or lack thereof, of security cameras or border controls. They were able to plot and equip without detection, even after six of them had traveled to Syria in recent years. The speed with which authorities have produced information about the attackers has led some to claim conspiracy. People are understandably confused as to how, if the authorities had all this information, the attackers still managed to carry out an attack. The answer is that the information was always there, but it existed in isolation of context. Only in hindsight does it seem so obvious.

The age of data analytics and electronic surveillance has only just begun, and it has, according to various authorities, led to the disruption of serious plots in the last two years. Given the virtual avalanche of threats, this is likely true; even more disruptions may remain undisclosed in order to protect sources and means. However, as international terrorism strikes out through local cells, the need for human sources is as vital as ever. Only human sources can assign proper context and priority to targeted extremists. Luckily, these extremists are well-known to their respective state and local police. These 'known wolves' come from known 'hotbeds of terror'; there is nothing surprising about their actions, except for the timing and targets. They operate just under the radar in an environment crowded with multiplying threats, making it easier for them to slip through.

In the reactions to the devastating attack in Paris, security agencies will seek to increase their ranks and their collection capabilities. This is a necessary step, but will be ineffective if not matched with an increase in local authority to lawfully pressure known wolves. If existing laws are preventing effective and properly restrained CT tactics, then it is appropriate for countries to discuss how to balance the situation. There are tremendous issues of civil liberties in play—not just in France, but in all democracies confronting this wave of terror. Increased focus on human sources, proper analysis, and the prioritization of threats will be more effective and less controversial than increasing collection capabilities and reducing individual privacies.


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