Two items have generated attention in the public domain that I find concerning in that they seem to revolve around stoking up unsubstantiated fears among both the public and policy makers. Before I go into them I guess I should say up front that I don’t think there’s any secret agenda behind this. No Big Brother enacting a secret plan to keep the proles in line and docile. Rather, (and perhaps more sinister in its own way) it’s just in everyone’s best interest to have it be this way. Any alternative would raise too many questions, upset too many boats, make too many people uncomfortable. So, here we are.
First, is the reaction to the shooting in France. Things are still early and as time goes by we’ll (hopefully) learn more about the shooters motivations, connections and background. But from the open source reporting I’ve seen here’s how I saw (and see) what happened. The shooter was a textbook ‘lone wolf’. Regardless of whether he spent time in Afghanistan or Pakistan his agenda was a variation of an ideology viewed through his own perspective mixed with bits and bobs of personal animosities. His target, therefore, was local and familiar. This is why you have lone offenders rail against things like one world government or global Zionism and then shoot up the village council meeting where they live.
In other words, nothing really to see here. The killings were certainly tragic and to be mourned but from a terrorism perspective I honestly can’t (from what we’ve heard thus far) see any reason why this attack would merit much attention. There’s nothing new here…move along.
And yet, that hasn’t been the reaction. CNN (and others) have implied this attack may ‘represent the next stage of terrorism in Europe…This has sent out the message that followers of al Qaeda can carry out successful attacks, can participate terror, on their own.’
Really? This attack did that? No one else has acted independently over the past ten years in Europe? Violent Jihadists couldn’t figure out that the Norway attack might be a model for them? They needed a Muslim dude to do it?
Worse, if you look at the reaction in the US, you’ll see some reasons to be concerned about counter terrorism policy. While the DHS and police departments in New York, Washington DC and San Francisco all report no evidence of a threat to their Jewish communities, they have allocated additional patrols and resources to areas ‘where Jews congregate’. Likewise, Jews in some communities are being warned against gathering outside synagogues or Jewish schools.
I don’t like this for a lot of reasons.
- This reaction smacks more of political motivation than anything else. If there is no evidence of a threat, what’s with the dedication of resources? I have no evidence aliens are going to attack so does that mean we should activate MiB?
- There are times, however, where you want to dedicate some resources just to give people a sense of security. Sometimes people are scared and it feels good to know there’s a police presence around. I dig. If that’s the case here, I don’t think that message is being delivered well at all. Part of this is because of the way the homeland security community is structured. Any one community can be serviced by a myriad of agencies with a homeland security mission (local, state, federal, law enforcement, homeland security, community, government, etc). ALL of those agencies are very concerned about their funding and visibility. They ALL want to be considered the ‘go to’ people on issues like this. That means they ALL have to comment on events like this. And they ALL need to do so in a format that will get their agency’s name/logo in front of the customer. That, in turn, means that in situations like this you can expect to see multiple alerts, all of which say exactly the same thing, being sent out. So, let’s say you’re a Jewish community organization in a mythical town. You might get alerts about the French shooting from your town, the state, the Feds (DHS…maybe FBI…maybe others is you’re on the right mailing lists), maybe your county, various NGOs, etc., etc., etc.
Now, even if all those say ‘We have no evidence of a credible threat…’ what do you think the cumulative effect will be on people who aren’t used to hearing about terrorism issues? If your credit card company called you ten times in a day and said “Look, we just want you to know there’s NO EVIDENCE there’s anything wrong with your credit card. Still, we’re going to have a bunch of people watch it. You know…just in case.” And then your local police department called you and said the same thing. And the IRS called an said the same thing. Wouldn’t you get a little hinky about using your credit card? After all, if there’s no problem with it, why are you bombarding me with ‘Don’t panic! Dear god, DON’T PANIC!’ messages?
And while I find the ‘that damned media’ meme tiresome, allow me to beat up on them. Certainly, they need to attract viewers and you don’t do that by saying there’s no particular story but over the past week I’ve been disappointed at how often stories seem to confuse the words ‘could’ with ‘will’. Over and over I’ve heard ‘Al-Qaida could coordinate attacks across the country’, ‘this could spark off copy cat attacks anywhere’, ‘there could be sleeper cells hiding across the country’, blah, blah, blah. Those stories are presented (at least to me) in ways that minimize the ‘could’ and are done in a way to imply the ‘will’. After all, if I could quit my job and spend my days trying to raise unicorns…but the likelihood of that is pretty small.
The question that comes to mind as I think about this is what (if any) role is intelligence playing in these decisions? Is there any discussion about the distinctions between what’s going on in France and the U.S. in terms of the extremist environment?
I think this is a pet peeve of mine since I can remember seeing (and still see) people advising caution or predicting domestic terrorist trends based on completely unrelated events half a world away. A dramatic attack happens in Iraq, Afghanistan or Dagistan and some agents, analysts and/or agencies (often quite a few of them) will want to hit the panic button using the ‘If it happens somewhere then it must happen here.’
Ever since 2005 people have been telling me that a wave of suicide bombings will strike the U.S. within six months…or a year a most. As those years tick by the excuses get lamer and lamer but still don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they were wrong. Better to just let this memory fade without comment and latch onto the next doomsday scenario.
And all of that leads me to the second issue. Over the weekend I heard te headline that Hezbollah might (ahem) have hundreds…maybe THOUSANDS!…of operatives in the U.S. ready to spring into attack mode in the event of an attack on Iran. That line is courtesy of Peter King who has demonstrated a stupendous lack up understanding on subjects surrounding terrorism.
Now, I have absolutely NO doubt that Hezbollah has people actively working for it in the U.S. Fundraising? Yep. Information gathering? I’m sure. To argue, however, that “t really is the ‘A’ team of international terrorism — far more sophisticated than Al Qaeda,” and imply that these people are a highly trained and coordinated killing machine is a bit of a stretch. And in this regard, it sounds like a force very much like the IRA was during its heyday.
But let’s consider the fact that Hezbollah, even if they had the capabilities and intent to launch attacks in the U.S. to retaliate for some military strike would very likely be slitting their own throats in the process. That funding and sympathizer base would quickly dry up under pressure. And where would that leave the organization? Probably not where it wants to be.
And if Hezbollah is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran? A tool which the mullahs have no compunction about using? Well, if any military strike against Iran was limited in scope (to stop the development of nuclear weapons, for example) before any such Hezbollah retaliation campaign it certainly wouldn’t be afterwards. And does Hezbollah want to risk their position in Lebanon by poking America with a stick?
Check out this article in VICE where a couple of guys (including Abu Muqawama) play some Hezbollah guys in paintball. One quote that’s relevant here:
As we continue our tour of the border, he tells me how to properly execute an ambush (stay hidden and let five chances to attack pass before you take action) and about Hezbollah’s first rule for its fighters: “We’re taught not to get killed,” he says. “They teach us our lives and training are too valuable to waste.”
If that’s the attitude of Hezbollah to their soldiers in Lebanon, how much more likely is that going to be for their information and financial network in the US. I’m just not sure they’re going to piss that away.
A few months ago I remarked at how we seemed to be in a relatively ‘slow’ period when it comes to terrorism. I’m just not sure the homeland security community has figured out how to handle that yet. You’ve got all these agencies…all these people…all that money devoted to stopping terrorists. What happens when there just aren’t that many terrorists around? Or they aren’t interested in you?
I don’t know but maybe you start spending all your time talking about what could happen rather than what’s likely to happen and hope no one notices the difference…