Success or Failure?
© 2008 FrontLine Security (Vol 3, No 3)

The intelligence needed to support our national security interests, is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire. Today, national security ­intelligence has to be developed in a complex and uncertain world where the rate of change in the external ­environ­ment makes past experience of increasingly questionable value.

Ironically, as more international knowledge is required for national security intelligence, the sources of intelligence will be closer to the front lines of the struggle.

Previously, national security concerns were related to sovereignty, border security and internal security matters. Now, the intelligence role is being forced to expand rapidly. Additional national security areas of interest may now include transnational organized crime, transnational terrorism, supply chain security, pandemics, ­natural disasters, economic challenges and threats, man-made ­disasters and the politics of identity.

Currently, most national security threats are asymmetric in nature. In general, it can be stated that an asymmetric threat is one that avoids attacking the strongest points of their adversaries while seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in the weakest points. An implicit premise exists therein whereby there is an element of surprise not just in the timing of the attack, but also in its method, means and goals. The instigators of an asymmetric threat also expect that many attacks and incursions will be required over a long period of time to break down the will of the stronger power they are attacking. Victory, for the attacker, comes not from battlefield success, but from this gradual wearing down of will.

Knowledge is the most effective weapon when confronting asymmetric threats. Power, of itself, is not only insufficient, it can prove both ineffective and counterproductive. Likewise, technology alone is not the answer. Western society’s inter-dependence on technology often leaves us more vulnerable, rather than better protected.

The knowledge needed to prevail in the face of asymmetric threats must come from a variety of sources. Key among them are frontline sources such as local police, customs and border personnel, as well as our own citizens. In the past, most success in counter terrorism, for instance, has come from the front line. The best-known case is probably that of Ahmed Ressam, stopped at the American border on his way to attack the Los Angeles Airport. Other lesser-known cases were the disruption of the attempted Jamaat al Fuqra 1991 attack on Toronto and the interception of would-be 9/11 hijacker Mohamed al-Qahtani in August 2001.

With specific reference to terrorism, it is clear that the nature of intelligence gathering and processing has changed. In the past, many terrorist groups were developed with clear structures and organizations that could be clearly identified and then tracked. These groups also had clear political agendas. Designing an intelligence collection program against them, though challenging, was conceptually straight forward. Due to the success of the attacks against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and investigations in other countries, Al Qaeda and its inspired followers have since mutated their structures and organizations. These non-state limited terrorists no longer have a clearly definable structure and organization, nor do they have a clear political agenda – other than some vague ideas about restoring a caliphate. Recent attacks such as those in London, Madrid, and Mumbai have been planned, financed and executed by locally formed groups acting without central direction. These groups lack the structure and organization that was typical of earlier ­terrorist groups.

The newer groups leave a smaller “intelligence” footprint and tend to radicalize quicker. The time period from initial planning to attack is growing shorter. As such, collecting intelligence against such groups requires a different approach. Since contemporary terrorists groups do not have the formal structures of previous groups, intelligence collection efforts have to be recast in order to mirror more closely the groups they are working against.

Given the disparate nature of such groups, the raw “fine grains” of intelligence must be collected as close to the front lines as possible. This raw intelligence must be integrated across the artificial boundaries of the various agencies as quickly as possible. Without this integration at the front lines, the value of this raw intelligence will likely be lost, as will the clarity of the picture it produces. Attempts to centralize the process of intelligence analysis and control it from one office are oxymoronic.

It is important to bear in mind that all knowledge is contextual. Without a close understanding of the local issues, sensitivities and cultural norms, the value of intelligence can be lost. In order to get the best value from collected information, the individual doing the analysis must have a thorough and deep understanding of local matters and an understanding of the issues at stake.

Another key issue to getting better value from intelligence is diversity in personnel. The intelligence community should have different groups or individuals working on the incoming data to produce a diversity of views on the future threats that may be faced. If all the analysts have a similar background, they will likely all produce the same results. A diversity of minds will have a better chance of detecting upcoming threats and problems than a homogenous group of individuals. Diversity in analysis should not be seen as a human rights issue or hiring balance issue; it should be seen as an issue of operational effectiveness. In short, hire more brown guys!

The ultimate frontline intelligence challenge will be to develop effective sources and agents in Canada’s diverse communities. This implies the need for a sustained program of effective and genuine community engagement. Police and intelligence services must have extensive consultation and involvement with the public they are intended to be serving. Without a sustained program of engagement, no linkages of trust or understanding will be built. Most critically, the community engagement effort must be genuine. If the effort is neither genuine nor sustained, the community will sense this and the gap will grow rather than decrease. Intelligence and police services must occupy the moral high ground in order to attract and sustain the confidence of all communities.

The future is at the front lines. It seems counterintuitive at first glance, but the fact is that the greater the level of globalization, the greater the need for police and intelligence officials to know their local neighbourhoods.

From a policy point of view, it is clear that the funding, training and personnel allocation issues need to have a greater focus on the front lines – where success or failure will occur. It is in our own com­munities that peace, order and good government begins and where intelligence to sustain it is best gathered. It is also from a home-grown threat that we may suffer the most.

Thomas Quiggin is a regular contributor to FrontLine Security, a court expert on jihadist terrorism and Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratman School of International Studies, NTU Singapore.
© FrontLine Security 2008