ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

JFK Plot: The Herculean Approach to Combating Terrorism

We're fighting hard, we need to fight smart

By Michael Tanji

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.