crash and burn: counterterrorist intelligence failures and ‘inherent enemies’

Will you come back If I turn and run/Will you come find me If I crash & burn?

Richard K. Betts in “Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security” reviews two of the United States more recent ‘intelligence failures.’ He argues that there are no easy fixes and that reform comes with consequences that may not align with the desired outcome. Importantly, he draws attention to what he terms the three enemies:

  1. Outside enemies – states, terrorist groups, hostile entities, ‘the nation’s main foreign adversaries, actual and potential.’
  2. Inside enemies, are those that ‘threaten intelligence unintentionally’. He writes that ‘Among them are individual intelligence professionals alleged to have fallen down on the job…myopic and turf-conscious leadership of intelligence organizations who allow inefficient procedures…and the politicians and lawyers who deliberately try to constrain intelligence operations that conflict with other values…none of these is an enemy in the normal sense…do not wilfully damage American interests.’
  3. Inherent enemies are described by Betts as ‘ these enemies are a collection of mental limitations, dilemmas, contradictory imperatives, paradoxical interactions, and trade-offs amongst objectives in the intelligence process that often block proper assessment and judgment and make it difficult to fix one source of failure without creating another.”

When thinking about terrorist attacks in France in the recent past, it is tempting to treat them as ‘intelligence failures’, that is, the services charged with mitigating the terrorist threat to France failed to detect and deter the attackers prior to their attack. This line of logic would suggest that the French services failed in one or more of four different areas; identification, collection, assessment and mitigation.

  1. Identification: the identification of an entity as posing a potential threat. In the case of Merah, the Kouachi’s and Coulibaly, they had all been identified at one point or another as individuals of interest.
  2. Collection: the collection of information from a variety of sources using diverse methods. Information on all of them was collected by the various French services on the individuals but the collection did not lead to them being stopped. However, intelligence collection is not enough, in and of itself, to lead to the neutralisation of a potential attacker.
  3. Assessment: the analysis of the collected information to better determine the intentions and capability of the identified threat as well as other not previously identified entities associated with the threat actor as well as the recommendation of methods to mitigate the threat. In the case of Merah, the assessment process was unable to come to the conclusion that Merah was a threat or that he was engaged in activities allowing for the opening of a criminal investigation. In the case of the Kouachi’s and Coulibaly; the assessment of the information collected by the DGSI determined that there was not an imminent threat and nor was there enough behaviour of concern to be able to prolong administrative interceptions of their communications.
  4. Mitigation: the implementation of strategy and associated tactics to stop the threat from occurring or in the event it does occur to limit the damage the threat actor is able to inflict. The information collected and assessed in both cases was used to make a determination that there was not enough information or the right kind of information needed to open judicial investigations and to proceed to neutralise their activities through arrest.

The argument that the French failed to adequately monitor, terminated monitoring too early, or had not properly assessed the intentions and capacities of the adversary and thus there was an ‘intelligence failure,’ is difficult to sustain although there is perhaps a case of misjudgement with Merah in the assessment phase particularly related to the transmission of the information about his arrest in Afghanistan and the analysis of his interview in Toulouse following his return from overseas.

However, it is possible using Bett’s line of reasoning to analyse the failure as not just one of collection or mitigation but one that occurred due to ‘inherent enemies’ in the intelligence system. The effective functioning of the French intelligence system and associated entities involved in countering terrorism – the police and judiciary – cannot be assumed to free of ‘inherent enemies.’ Three examples, might include;

‘Mental limitations’: the intelligence process is subject to human limitations in thought and guile, and the counter-terrorist campaign against the jihadist community has become something of a Darwinian competition, as one set of mitigating measures are applied, other gaps are found, it is often not an evolution towards the more sophisticated or complicated, that finds a breach but resorting to the simple and straightforward – trading down from car-bombs to guns and knives. The French were able to stop a Rany Arnaud because he wanted to build a car-bomb and blow-up the intelligence headquarters. Arnaud had previously associated with individuals known to the French and maintained a physical as well as virtual presence able to be monitored. He was perhaps, not concerned with operational security, as much as doing something, leaving him vulnerable to being detected. His choice of a car-bomb and the need to acquire precursor chemicals also left him open to detection. The case of Merah, with the move from bombs to guns may have taken the French services by surprise. Indicators established for assessment may not have been adjusted due to ‘mental limitations’, i.e. reliance on past experience and expertise. Arguably, the French would have been aware of the use of guns due to the Mumbai attacks, and the Younes al-Mauritani planning, they may not have expected a lone attacker, being more prepared for a group of attackers.

‘Contradictory imperatives’: the French counter-terrorist architecture as a number of actors with differing imperatives – intelligence versus police versus judiciary, all want to deal with terrorism but have roles that are at times difficult to deconflict. The intelligence services do not have the sole mandate for counter-terrorism and must interact with other entities. The role of each of them varies and they have ‘contradictory imperatives’, the intelligence service wants to infiltrate and monitor, the police to arrest, the judiciary to hold fair and open trials. At times the priorities of one entity will conflict with those of another, often resolution of the contradictions is messy.

‘Trade-offs among objectives’: The French were dealing with a large an on-going operation in the Sahel, operations in the Central African Republic and a focus on the situation in Syria and Iraq. Necessarily, priorities are determined and resources are allocated, in hindsight it is facile to point to what should or should not have been a priority but in moment they are being set, it is not so easy.

When looked at in this light the failure to detect and disrupt Merah or the Kouachi’s and Coulibaly is not so much about the acquisition of intelligence or the skill of the enemy, as much as it is about the enemies inherent to the intelligence process and the government entities that use and interact with it.

The conclusion that the fault lies with ‘inherent enemies’ as opposed to a clear failure of intelligence, is both difficult for politicians accept, in that they and their sense of what the public wants is identifiable culprits and clear solutions. These are difficult to remedy with laws or organizational changes. English has suggested that there are 6 key elements to successfully responding to terrorism and to eventually bringing a terrorist campaign to an end. The first of which is understanding that terrorism can never be eradicated. This, is of course, politically difficult to admit, particularly in the French ‘state’ which may unconsciously perceive itself as sufficiently powerful and able to effect change in the manner it so wishes.