Equilibrium Institute- Delivering Core Intelligence

Apathy is not consent, it's the demand for Empowerment  

 By Rob Jackson

     Below are a series of observations on the difficulties to forecast and prevent attacks and some major challenges. Some post 911 reforms addressing intelligence changes are also included.


Dahl (2005) wrote,


…most writers on intelligence failures tend to believe the primary fault most often lies with decision-makers at the policy level. Another relatively small group tends to assign fault to the intelligence community, while a third group believes that surprise is most often the result of deception or other actions taken by the enemy.

…communications problems such as the ratio of signal to noise; cognitive problems such as misperception by analysts or policy-makers; or organizational and bureaucratic difficulties. These two levels of analysis are crosscutting – cognitive factors, for example, can apply no matter who one believes might be primarily responsible for the mistakes – but most intelligence theorists tend to agree that these functional difficulties all play a role in intelligence failure.

Dahl goes on to write (2005)

Handel described intelligence failures, and thus surprise, as inevitable – but he also pointed out that the advantage gained by surprise attack is often limited. The one conducting the attack often loses the war, and in fact Handel found there appears to be no correlation between achieving surprise and achieving victory.


     This view of the relevance or warning and surprise to the total outcomes is an important point. While prevention of any attack is a valid enterprise, an over emphasis on the detection of the surprise attacks versus the readiness for response or the prevention of conflict should not be overlooked. In other words, no matter how many eyes and ears, various policies and methods, mistakes are inevitable and limits to HUMINT exists. Mitigating losses post event and a much stronger prevention effort is where maximum controls can be employed that make a more substantial difference. Since we do know and can observe characteristics of terrorists (McEntire p.69-81) profiling, monitoring, and intervention are key tools to interrupting violence.


     However, a series of attacks could be correlated with overall pressures on the U.S. to adapt policy and lifestyles, impacts on economy and budgets have all been dramatically impacted by strategies to manage terrorism- which on the surface have produced several hundred victories in terms of interrupted plots which likely have saved many lives, although several hundred thousands of human life losses are simultaneously accounted for to date in the war on terror.

     One challenge intelligence analyst face is a key observation “…terrorist attacks are not likely to be preceded by tactical warning Dahl (2005).” Based on the small operations some of the lager level operservations such as the movement of troops can’t be relied upon to provide indicators or warning evidences.   False flags, and deception by the enemy also make human intelligence difficult to rely on to make decisions and detect surprise attacks (Dahl 2005).


     Dahl (2005) observes the 911 commission finding post 911 were not unlike earlier finding regarding problems with HUMINT, but clearly the fusion centers created after 911 showed some attempts to make improvements, albeit late. Following the 1983 attack on marines in Beruit, Dahl notes “the [DOD] Commission recommended that the Secretary of Defense establish an all-source terrorism intelligence fusion center to support military commanders, and that the policy on Humint support be re-examined.”


     Many of the reports indicating HUMINT was non-specific and large amounts threats produced inactionable intelligence and the reports appear to be attempting to place blame and explain what went wrong leading up to terrorist attacks which time after time appear to leave various groups looking completely caught off guard even with many indicators being presented in advance. According to Dahl (2004)The U.S. Marines argued that the intelligence community fed them over 100 warning of a car bomb, but the larger threat involving a truck with many times the explosive power was never shared.


     Dahl( 2005) cites the innovative leaps of the OCT 1983 bombing as groundbreaking. Thus making the attack on U.S. Marines more difficult to predict due to both cognitive problems sharing information collected, produced and distributed by HUMINT and the unanticipated imagination piece compounded with terrorists simple technological innovations. Dahl observed,

“Neil Livingstone described the bombing as an application of imagination to technology, resulting in an innovation: ‘Acetylene enhanced and possessing an explosive force of something between 12,000 and 18,000 pounds of TNT, it was – pound for pound – one of the most powerful conventional bombs ever built, and perhaps the largest terrorist bomb in history.”  


     Interestingly blame usually falls back on the commanders who lost soldiers in battle simply by military tradition, not necessarily of the facts. Rather than just admit the jobs of soldiers are very dangerous and such attacks are anticipated and predictable to some extent, perhaps it makes for a more romantic story to have people stepping up to accept some blame when lives are lost. In contrast, Dahl writes (2005),

“Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor took the position in 1996 of admitting mistakes, when he testified before a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing that looked for lessons in comparing the Beirut experience with the just-occurred Khobar Towers bombing: ‘I have to say to myself, do we never learn? Edward Luttwak has taken a similar approach, arguing that the Beirut disaster revealed deep structural defects in our military institutions.”

     The expectation that institutional memory is somehow better than human memory is a fallacy. However, metadata analysis and the use of technology can help detect changes in terrorists communications such as website flows or information which can be indicators and events such as silence which reportedly often occur just prior to an incident.

     Dahl (2005) asserts that understanding the opponents specific operational and tactical plans and intentions along with capability are equally important. Yet, in anti-terrorism reports over and over the mention of difficulty in penetrating the terrorist cells is cited. This undoubtedly reflects a weakness in the ability of intelligence to recruit adequate assets which can be trained and planted into hostel environments despite an already demonstrated ease persons from all over the world have joined terrorists organizations.  


     Post 911 reforms that potentially improve (or in some cases worsened) forecasting and prevention of terrorist attacks include (DHS, 2009);

Inter-agency cooperation and sharing of intelligence resulting from the Patriate Act and the creation of fusion centers resources.

Processes and procedures related to Patriate Act implementation (such as spying, detention, interrogations).

The intelligence collection, and treatment process changes.

Reforms made in equipment for detection such as radiation detection technology deployed

Increased monitoring

Various programs including national and international collaborations to detect, and address terrorist threats

Thousands of policy reforms related to prevention and response to attacks across State, Federal, and local government, NGO’s non-profits, and private sector.

DHS( 2009) update on implementing 911 Commission recommendations cites progress in many areas including; reporting suspicious activity public program, transportation, aviation, school busses, maritime safety, travelers security, explosives detection, nuclear detection, cargo screening, passenger screening, terrorist financing disruption, border protections, driver’s license processes, ports and vessel biometric credentialing systems, Citizenship and immigration processes, visa screening, international collaborations, incident command center, emergency communications, private sector preparedness, security risk assessments for critical infrastructure, civil liberties, cyber security, fusion centers, first responder best practices sharing, the production of the bottom-up report which serves like a strategic plan and funding request document for policy makers to assess DHS self-reported plans and evaluations.    


     Despite all the resources and attempts, there is little evidence to support the U.S. is any more secure today than it was prior to 911. Conversely, there are some strong arguments and evidence that can show some implemented policies and actions have exacerbated terrorisms growth, reductions in freedoms and liberties in the U.S., greater debt, and the end result of increased violence on both sides of the conflict which shows signs of continued growth.




Dahl, E. J. (2005). Warning of terror: Explaining the failure of intelligence against terrorism. The Journal of Strategic Studies, 28(1), 31-55. Retrieved from the Walden Library databases on Aug. 2, 2015.

Department of Homeland Security. (2009). Homeland security: Progress in implementing 9/11 Commission recommendations. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/9-11-commission-update-report-7-22-10.pdf on Aug. 2, 2015.

McEntire, D. A. (2009). Introduction to homeland security: Understanding terrorism with an emergency management perspective. New York: Wiley.