lose yourself: finding nemo and other big fish

Look/If you had one shot, or one opportunity/To seize everything you ever wanted/One moment/Would you capture it or just let it slip?

It might have been a pizza order – was it four cheeses or chorizo – or the fingerprint, or a phonecall that led to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, time will tell. In the aftermath of the capture of this reported key member of the November 2015 bombings in Brussels, four months after the attacks, in his neighbourhood of origin and residence, questions are being asked about how he was able to stay undetected in Belgium throughout this period, and why the police and security services were unable to find him earlier.

The post 9/11 era is rich in accounts of manhunts, ranging from the account of KSM’s capture, the tracking of the Madrid attack cell with members dispersing some into Iraq and another to Serbia where he was was arrested, to the killing of Zarqawi and, of course, ‘the raid’ that ended Bin Laden’s life.

Prior to all of these there is the account of Escobar’s eventual demise, a manhunt in another time and context but which shares similarities with those above in terms of methods, failures, and eventual success.

What these accounts suggest is that finding a target who does not want to be found is a difficult task requiring meticulous and painstaking attention to detail, near misses, poor judgment calls, lucky breaks, inter-agency bickering, stupidity on the part of the target, and, most often, the target finally being located and killed or captured. A recent example is the walk-in that provided information related to Abaaoud, which appears to have contributed to localizing him in Paris; a lucky break if ever there was one given the alleged intention to continue the killing spree.

Manhunts are about collecting information against an adversary that would prefer you have none. The KSM, Zarqawi, and Bin Laden manhunts pitted a technically well-resourced state with the will and means against individuals involved with clandestine terrorist organisations but most importantly a desire to not get caught. The breaks in these cases came with information that allowed the targeting teams to identify access points in the social network of the adversary and from here work their way into the network to locate and capture or kill the target. This is no easy thing when the social networks are often small, hostile to intrusion and key members have stopped using phones, planes, trains, and other daily acts that leave traces and potential access points to the location.

The question as to why it took so long to find Abdeslam, is simple, in the absence of information, investigators are unable to act. The process of acquiring and analyzing information in a bureaucracy – police agencies are part of these institutions – is complicated, and often, anything but agile. For example, The comparison of fingerprint data takes time, the collection and exploitation of telephone billings, even with specialized software requires patience, especially when telephone companies provide months of billings in paper format that then have to be re-entered into electronic systems, sometimes manually or sometimes with OCR. Time is lost and what should be straightforward tasks are complicated. Interception of phones require warrants, house raids, permissions, and the list goes on.

McChrystal attributes, in part, the success of the Zarqawi operation to breaking down, at least temporarily, some of these barriers and increasing both the speed of acquisition, analysis and exploitation, to a point where the enemy had little to no time to counter and organise its defense. Urban makes a similar point while Scahill provides a critical account of the development of the special forces manhunt model.

In a “judicial manhunt” in contrast to McChrystal’s military one, the resources and permissions are different – no helicopters dropping special forces teams’ multiple times a night, nor an ‘unblinking eye’. Judicial manhunts operate within a different set of constraints, and when they involve more than one country, the complications are multiplied. In part, the Belgian and French sought to overcome some of these through the use of a Joint Investigation Team, but from press accounts, it seems the number of French officers in Belgium is small.

In the case of Abdeslam, it appears that the investigators managed to work their way into the social network and began to systematically examine places and people who could be supporting him. They benefitted from some luck, a disparity between the number of people living in a house and the number of pizzas being ordered, a walk-in who provided a telephone number and finally combined with the months of previous work, the pressure on the wider social network of Abdeslam meant he reached the point where he literally ran out of people to help him and places to hide.

Despite the inevitable critics, the reality is that many, many people, have spent countless days and hours contributing to the arrest. In the aftermath of attacks and in the manhunts that follow, these people put aside the other parts of their lives to concentrate on the task at hand, until it is done.