by Dr Magnus Norell, Infosphere AB
Ever since the failed suicide-bombing in the sky over Detroit on December 25, a debate has raged in the US over what went wrong and why. With hindsight, it seems pretty clear that there were several indications (indications that were already in the system; a system developed to nip incidents like these in the bud) that should have triggered a response, barring Mr. Abdul-Mutallab even getting on the flight from Amsterdam; these includes his name on a list with suspects, warnings from his father in Nigeria, and indications from the UK that Mr. Abdul-Mutallab was dangerous.
But apart from the fact that Mr. Abdul-Mutallab was let on-board without going through a proper screening, it is easy to forget that all these ‘signals’ that were received (but not acted upon) before the event, taken individually, could have been interpreted differently. As pointed out in these pages before today’s highly dispersed, non-state actors like the international Jihadist’s produce an enormous amount of what the Intelligence-world calls ‘noise’. I.e. there is a lot of information out there that, taken together, can make for a very ambiguous picture. All talk of ‘al qaeda’ as if it were a hierarchical organization, don’t help either. The kind of ‘loner’ that Mr. Abdul-Mutallab represents is difficult to detect in the best of cases. This is not to underestimate the mistakes that were made, but is should work as a reminder that not even the best and most sophisticated system is a ‘catch-all’.
The fact that one immediate effect of the incident is that it will be more difficult and cumbersome for people to fly, without really hurting the bad guys, should be food for thought. Apart from being better at putting evident information together (a lesson that should have been learnt long ago), a much more focused and sophisticated approach to detecting terrorists should be the goal. Making travel more difficult in general doesn’t necessarily make it more difficult for potential terrorists to strike.
However, the incident might actually be a blessing-in-disguise for our ability to stop potentially very ugly and atrociously terror-attacks to occur. It serves as a reminder of the difficulties in sorting through all the ‘noise’ (and that ‘noise’ will only rise since new countries are put on the red list) in trying to pinpoint the real threats. But it also points to another danger we face in trying to beat the terrorists; the fact that intelligence analysts often times tend to put data in familiar patterns, thus missing the ‘unexpected’ attack. If we miss the expected attack (and attacks at air-travel are fairly familiar by now), how big might the danger be that we miss signals about the un-expected? Or, put another way in the words of intelligence expert Edwards Epstein: The problem with describing something as an intelligence failure is that it assumes intelligence works, if properly implemented, against a nonhierarchical entity for detecting a one-time event. It doesn’t.
The many ways and means we have developed to make air-travel a real hazzle hasn’t stopped would-be-terrorists from trying. And at the same time, the focus on air-travel may deflect our attention towards other potential targets such as trains, subways or – as actually has been shown – theaters. All places were many non-combatants gather.