Essay

A PERMANENT THREAT

A U.S. intelligence expert says we have to get real about terrorism

RALPH PETERS August 12 2002
Essay

A PERMANENT THREAT

A U.S. intelligence expert says we have to get real about terrorism

RALPH PETERS August 12 2002

A PERMANENT THREAT

Essay

A U.S. intelligence expert says we have to get real about terrorism

RALPH PETERS

TERRORISM WILL NOT be eliminated in our lifetime. While the activity has a history so long it predates formal records and appears in our earliest religious texts, it is peculiarly well-suited to express the discontents of the 21st century world. Political factions that prowl beyond the law and the virulent, intolerant faithful of every major religion find terrorism satisfying even when it fails to achieve its goals. Terrorism is the ultimate cry of rage.

The rhetoric since last September—not only from Washington—about “wiping out terrorism” is as vain as claims that we can eliminate crime. Our goal must be to reduce terrorism to the level of strategic background noise—and even that is hard.

Terrorism reflects the fractured world in which we live. While violent Islamic extremism is the challenge of the moment, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have soulmates in those intolerant Christian groups opposed to women’s rights—or in Hindu mobs levelling mosques. There is only a quantitative, not qualitative, difference between a terrorist who flies an aircraft into a skyscraper and a terrorist who guns down a doctor at a family-planning clinic.

The great shift in terrorism over the last generation has been from political goals, such as changing governments or social systems, to apocalyptic terrorism—seeking to impose a “Kingdom of God” on earth. The transition is bad news, indeed. The traditional terrorists often qualified, to someone, somewhere, as freedom fighters. The new holy warriors are, no matter their religion, fighters against freedom. We have gone from a battle over rights to a battle over belief—and you can’t change the mind of a man who believes his god is whispering in his ear.

We cannot completely eliminate faithbased terrorism without surrendering to the enemies of progress and change. Militarily, action has been taken against the most immediate, identifiable sources of

terrorism. In the United States, George W. Bush’s recent request to Congress for the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security is a major step toward pooling resources, streamlining bureaucracy, and focusing American efforts.

But the greatest enemies of such reform attempts are unrealistic expectations. Consider the creation of a Department of Homeland Security: to remove agencies and offices totalling almost 200,000 employees—before new hirings—from their old bureaucratic homes and combine them in a super-agency is easy to announce, but difficult to implement.

Meanwhile, our terrorist enemies won’t hold still. The real tragedy of Sept. 11 wasn’t intelligence failure—I am not convinced the plot could have been detected in time or

in its entirety without incredible luck. Rather, the failure lay in our inability to appreciate our enemy’s resourcefulness in conceiving a brilliant plan and carrying it out using the West’s own assets. The terrorists have paid a terrible price for their attacks—but to underestimate their tenacity would be to repeat our naïveté.

Perhaps the terrorist’s greatest advantage is that terror is his consuming purpose in life: the fanatic’s devotion to a cause makes him a tough match for the bureaucrat who wants to leave work behind at the end of the day. Intelligence work is an especially difficult aspect of the war against terror—and a sphere in which Canada could be of particular assistance. Despite calls for intelligence reform within the United States, improving the performance of America’s intelligence community will take years: it’s an enormous bureaucracy, protected by the classification of everything from products to budgets. Although it does some things very well, it is less than the sum of its expensive parts.

Even before Bush announced his intent to create a Department of Homeland Security, the FBI had announced plans to hire more than 500 additional counterterrorism intelligence analysts. But you can’t simply scan the job-seeker pages of the Sunday newspaper to find intelligence personnel, whether analysts or agents. The skills required to do intelligence work are complex and arcane, requiring long apprenticeship and unusual talents— and if you can recruit someone of promise and turn them into a master analyst in a decade, that amounts to lightning speed. The best analysts speak foreign languages, have long experience abroad in target regions—and possess those qualities hated by bureaucracies everywhere, including intuition, guts and a sense of the wildness of the human heart. The best agents and agent-handlers aren’t necessarily the best dinner dates or Sunday school teachers. Fixing all that needs fixing, especially in the area of expanding effectively the number of intelligence personnel, will be painfully slow, and the inevitable initial wave of mass hirings will produce a great deal of disappointment and frustration.

Canada could provide tremendous help in focusing its resources on the study of the terrorist phenomenon overall, as well as on the specific individuals and networks involved today. Canada’s diversity gives it interests in, and eyes upon, much of the world. In addition to vital practical cooperation with the United States in the field, from border controls to Canada’s contribution to the campaign in Afghanistan, the great value Canada can bring is a willingness to pursue alternative lines of inquiry, avoid the politically partisan nature of Washington, and challenge, between friends, the American tendency to “jump to contusions,” as a comic of yesteryear put it.

Canada has two great hurdles to overcome in the struggle against terror—one is the notion that Canada isn’t a potential target, which is folly, and the other is the tyranny of political correctness, which, though comfortable as a fleece pullover, is

as foolish as the American penchant for self-righteousness. Our greatest shared asset is the openness and integrity of our societies: Canada should be the ally that says,“Yes,but... ”

I have worked intermittently with Canadian intelligence personnel, and they serve Canada well: their quality is high, their experience impressive, and they certainly have the ability to think for themselves. If allowed to think independendy about the phenomenon of terrorism, they could make a great contribution. But they can’t do so if told, “You dare not say that,” or, still worse, “You dare not think that.”

In the end, there is no silver bullet in the form of either intelligence work or precision-guided munitions. Military actions and law enforcement activities address violence of the moment, but not root causes. The force of arms is often indispensable, but the struggle against terrorism involves, in one way or another, virtually every government agency and many non-governmental organizations, from aid

Canada has two hurdles to overcome-one is the notion that it isn’t a. potential target, and the other is the tyranny of political correctness.

suppliers to the unions representing stevedores and truckers. Canadians and Americans are only beginning the reforms that the new century will demand (not only because of terrorism). Laws will change; we will learn what works and what doesn’t; we will, eventually, master the new intelligence skills required and develop equitable ways to balance immigration policies with security requirements. We will, ultimately, figure out ways to provide airport security that don’t involve frisking grandma at gunpoint. We can be confident that the lives of most people will proceed both safely and largely unchanged. But we also will be surprised, now and then, by the ingeniousness of terrorists, despite our best efforts.

Occasional terrorist successes won’t necessarily mean that we have failed. Some terrorists will always get through, whether they attack Tucson or Toronto. Success must be measured in how well, if not perfectly, we protect our free societies. If we stop 99 terrorists out of 100, but one makes it through to detonate a bomb, it does not mean there was no value in stopping all the others. The fundamental requirement on the part of the average citizen, whether in the United States or Canada, is for reasonable expectations. lifl

Retired U.S. Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters is now a novelist, strategic analyst and commentator. His most recent book is Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World.