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JFK Plot: The Herculean Approach to Combating Terrorism

We're fighting hard, we need to fight smart

By Michael Tanji | June 8, 2007

The passage of time allows for a more thorough and insightful analysis of related events, but at this stage time is at something of a premium. To that end your author undertakes a more substantial if premature effort to elaborate on earlier points made about the JFK plot. This is no means a comprehensive list of the broader implications of this plot, nor is the analysis exhaustive, it merely serves to reinforce lessons-learned and highlight certain fallacies that impede our ability to effectively face this threat.

The Battleground is Everywhere

It makes for a nice slogan – fighting them “there” so we won’t have to fight them “here” – but that was never a realistic strategy. The 9/11 hijackers were from over-there but they plotted and practiced here. Subsequent plots uncovered since 9/11, not to mention the various dry runs that have occurred, demonstrate that there is no shortage of domestic threats.

And why not? Leveraging would-be Jihadists in the US makes perfect sense if you are hoping to avoid the scrutiny of the US intelligence apparatus. Operating domestically means operating under an entirely different set of rules than your overseas brothers. Domestic surveillance programs are useful for dealing with known quantities, but are useless against “sudden jihad syndrome” or otherwise unaffiliated actors, which leads me to . . .

It’s the Message, Stupid

We can kill with precision and to any scale, but we can’t get out a unified, compelling message to save our lives (literally). Our attempts at public diplomacy are waged by known spin doctors who cavort with collaborators or undermined by diplomats who can’t or won’t get with the program. The enemy’s message, on the other hand, resonates with people globally whether Arab, Filipino or Trinidadian.

Don’t speak Arabic? No problem, we’ve got an American on staff to reach out to the English-speaking world (unlike the US government, AQAM doesn’t have a linguist problem as far as anyone can tell). Get your news and information about the war against the crusaders from the Internet? Got that covered with professional-quality multi-media presentations.

While we waste time and energy worrying about largely theoretical OPSEC concerns and shut down some of the most insightful and compelling communiqués about the fight against radical Islam, the enemy is honing his message and finding new ways to let it permeate into impressionable minds worldwide.

Our Enemies are all Friends

When it comes to fighting “The Great Satan,” there is no sectarian divide, at least not on a practical level. The proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” originated in the Middle East after all. The body of evidence that refutes the conventional wisdom in this area threatens to drown those who still cling to the fiction.

When you are using a different scale for measuring progress – a thousand years for revenge – there is time enough to settle theological differences once the perceived existential threat of Crusade is dealt with. It is not paranoia when everyone is in actuality out to get you, and with new Sunni-Shi’a and Jihadist-secularist cooperation being uncovered all the time, there is good reason to be looking over our shoulders.

Don’t Get Bitten by Bytes

The Internet is full of useful tools that are benign in and of themselves but when used by people with ill-intent could facilitate acts of evil. That the alleged JFK plotters used Google Earth to help them plan their attacks does not make Google Earth a threat any more than the fact that terrorists use web-based email accounts makes Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo! a threat.

As much of a juggernaut as the war on terror seems to be, it is not powerful enough to stop technology’s march forward. Anyone who argues that we should be stifling technical advances for the sake of security is displaying an amazing ignorance of both fields. The lesson to take away from the JFK plot is that (at least in some cases) we are not using technology as effectively as possible. You defeat a network with a network, not an org chart. Operate as nimbly and effectively as a Jihadi and you’ve got a chance to beat him; fight by committee, panel and board and you’re asking to be beaten.

Terrorism is not for Amateurs

Preparing for and executing serious terrorist attacks – ones that result in serious damage to property or loss of life – is hard. True, “sudden jihad syndrome” could result in injury or death, but at the risk of casting offense, such endeavors are nickel-and-dime affairs. Ad hoc domestic terror cells are not harmless, but if those convicted of, or under indictment for, domestic terror plots are any indication of the state-of-the-art, they are not professional grade.

Large scale, sophisticated plots take time, cost money, and are best carried out by well-indoctrinated true believers. They also take brains. If your idea is to repeat the Murrah Federal Building bombing, and a new group member just happens to know a guy who can get his hands on a large amount of fertilizer, is that fortuitous or is the guy an informant? Lucky for us domestic cell “masterminds” have opted for the former deduction.

The problem of course is that as time passes the domestic base of true believers grows, the skills acquired by these individuals grows, and with time the opportunities to root out spies also grows. Remember the trend is towards super-empowered individuals, not large armies.

Defeating terrorism is going to require the application of policy and methodology that addresses these and other factors holistically and at once. Like the Hydra of mythology, shooting a terrorist today merely grows more terrorists; when we strike a blow against terror we need to cauterize the wound it to prevent further growth or every subsequent battle will be haunted by the specter of déjà vu.


You are so right that we have been lucky to have been dealing with amateurs on the domestic front. The JFK plotters, for example, had an almost comic disconnect between what they wanted to accomplish, and what they could really have made happen. But not really funny, because with some outside help and investment they could have put something together that would be really horrific.

Too many of us still believe that if we make nice to the islamic fundamentalists who oppose us, we can then live together in peace and harmony. They simply do not undstand what the jihadis mean by long-term-commitment to their cause of world domination.

We have yet to admit to ourselves that we are truly engaged in a Global War. Unfortunately, to effectively wage war, you can't just rely on pinpoint strikes against the warriors engaged in direct attacks against us... as long as there is quiet support for those warriors, they will keep coming. Worse, we are unlikely to ever be persuasive on the diplomatic and political fronts in dissuading the quiet supporters of Al Quaida and its sister organizations... as long as it costs them little personally, people are quite happy see folks run off to do battle with a foe they dislike.

And there we get back to your problem of how to cauterize the stump of the severed head of Hydra. I fear that we will eventually be forced to engage in evil to fight evil. The Russians and former Soviet knew this and only had to set a few examples to make their point. Until the terrorists fear retribution beyond their own martyrdom, we are likely to make little real progress in this new War. And I dread the day that we choose to cross that line... because it will probably take a truly horrific event to push us there, and also because of the awful things we will need to do. I pray that when that time comes we can somehow save our own souls from the abyss.

Just my $.02

All that verbosity and the most significant part of your harangue is the last paragraph----on that you should elaborate!

Netting dim-witted would-be Jihadists through overbearing informants of less than sterling character is tantamount to entrapment and is not going to stop real terrorism, but rather serve as an alert to bona-fide terror cells.

All it serves to do is give some government agency a short lived hyped-up publicity opportunity and plays into the hands of those looking for a political angle which is not particularly hard to do these days.

Such ploys serve the public poorly and result in the appearance of political deception.

Best not to tout weak-minded terrorist plans that are virtually daydreams and save the thunder for a real bust!

Hi Blackie:

I read your criticisms and then reread Michael's post, and frankly, I don't see what you're objecting to. Are you criticizing the use of informants? Short of that, I'm missing your point.

Michael seems to be addressing the reality of 4GW and nature of a distributed threat by online Jihadists who understand the power of the Long Tail (even if they don't know what that is). I also addressed this issue at www.intelfusion.net.


You're still thinking in 3rd generation terms about conducting 4th generation warfare. Our going in to destroy a city means nothing because that's our enemy's strategy. They cannot overcome our forces militarily, so they pull the walls of the city that we're both. The greater the level of destruction, the more successful a 4GW opponent is. And that mindset isn't limited to small Jihadist extremist groups. It's exactly what the President of Iran will do if we attack his country. As a "true believer", Ahmadinejad will happily pull the nuclear trigger. Mutual Assured Destruction is a 3GW deterrent, not a 4GW one. The West has yet to wrap it's collective head around the fact that we aren't fighting the same old enemy.

Hiya Jeff...

Nice to see you're alive and kicking. I have no problem with informants----it's probably the only way to counteract terror cells. What I have a problem with is when a government agency hypes a terror bust that had no chance of ever coming off----they just caught a few slow-witted individuals who were probably urged on by the "informant." The FBI can do better!

Thanks for keeping the exchange going guys, small tech problem wrt comments.

I'm afraid I wasn't referring to the old wide-scale 3G warfare approach... actually something far worse. Our CIA might have to become something like the old KGB, and get their hands wet. And like I said, I pray that if we do resort to these tactics, we don't commit our souls to the abyss in the process.

I suppose that some level of 3G response will be involved as well, but you're right in saying that it won't help much in dealing with true believers.



Well let's see----as you stated we can't win wars of attrition and we can't win destructive wars against "true" Jihadists----what to do? We could take a lesson from WW II. The Japanese were fatalists much like modern day Jihadists, but after dropping the two, relatively low yield nukes, Japan was destroyed both in morale and structure. Using a new regime, the Marshall Plan, and some guy named Deming, Japan recovered quite nicely and we're all friends now and no need to mention the war! Perhaps a similar scenario would work in the future when the situation become untenable.

The one obstacle I see is that Japan was a homogeneous country and had no inherent hatred of the west. But in religious wars the "enemy" must be vanquished if you want to achieve a reasonable period of "peace."


No, I didn't mean to say we can't win these wars... but we certainly can't win them if we tie our hands behind our back. Brute force does work, even against ilk such as the jihadis. Unfortunately, to discourage them it has to be both very brutal and very personal.

As it stands not, the jihadis have little to lose but their own martyrdom... which is actually a goal for many of them. We can debate the virtues of tactics, but remember this... the Soviets had very little trouble with extremist kidnappers (unlike the rest of the West in places like Lebanon) after the kidnappers discovered their families and then their colleagues disappearing suddenly, a several months after the kidnapping of an important hostage. Then the kidnappers decided that business was better with the Americans, French, British, Spanish, and Italians.

And I do not advocate our resorting to such brutal tactics. But if we can't find another way, we may be forced to conduct a terrible sort of war.

If we want to avoid becoming as bad as our enemy, we have to become worse than we currently are. There may be battles in which we should accept no quarter. We may need to be brutal in response to some attacks, in spite of certain collateral damage. Sometimes it's better to be feared than respected.

All of this is for better minds than mine to sort out. I just know it's all going to get a lot uglier before anything improves. And anybody who thinks we can just walk away from the problems we helped create in Iraq is just dreaming.

Another $.02

In the reading I did this morning, it seems to me that the "JFK plot" was 99% hype, sensationalism and entrapment.

I direct you to the last section of the post. This is a symptom, not the worst symptom, but a symptom nonetheless of a bigger problem.