Better Intelligence Needed to Fight Terror Attacks

Mathieu Deflem
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Op-ed published in The State newspaper, July 13, 2005, p. A10.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2005. “Better Intelligence Needed to Fight Terror Attacks". Op-ed. The State, Columbia, SC, July 13, 2005, p. A11.

The terrorist attacks on London have forced us to relive the tragic events of 9/11. The loss of human life and the senseless destruction recall the grief and powerlessness we experienced nearly four years ago. The London attacks also ought to remind us of the reasons why such a horrible disaster was not prevented: the lack of adequate human intelligence in counterterrorism.

Human intelligence primarily means infiltrating those communities in which terrorist groups such as al Qaeda recruit new members. Intelligence also means crossing cultural boundaries to learn the specific viewpoints of the terrorists in their own language and in the context of the cultural traditions they belong to.

Since 9/11, our nation has done much to brace itself for the possibility of another attack. Of course, the Bush administration responded forcefully to dismantle the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, and our security and law enforcement agencies have strengthened their activities against international terrorism at home and abroad. Citizens also have responded by cooperating with local and federal authorities in securing our homeland, whether it be by reporting suspicious activities or by showing patience at airport security checks.

While necessary, however, our security efforts deal mostly with the dangers posed from radical organizations that can foster plans and coordinate terrorist activities. Rather than wait until such a group reaches our airports or train stations, would it not be better to prevent them from being able to recruit and plan in the first place?

It is perhaps in the nature of our nation’s history, but American security measures rely too much on a philosophy of the fast draw, hoping we will shoot more quickly than our opponents. We spend much less time on finding out who our opponents are, what their motives and aims are and, more importantly, how they came to be our opponents. We should, and can, do more to gather and act on that information.

An emphasis on such human intelligence does not imply less concern for security measures in counterterrorism, but a more diversified and well-coordinated counter-terrorist strategy where, alongside security efforts and selected military interventions, human intelligence is relied upon to prevent the spread of terrorism.

Since 9/11, our law-enforcement and intelligence communities have prevented a terrorist incident in America, but they also need our support to do their jobs effectively. Such a commitment primarily relies on political decisions, of course, but it also needs the willingness of our citizens to support all necessary efforts to make our homeland safe and secure.

Citizen support includes a thoughtful participation in the electoral process, so that our national policies are more likely to reflect the will of the people. Additionally, keeping a critical eye on our government’s activities is needed to foster awareness about the challenges and accomplishments facing counterterrorism. Let us see to it also that our tax money is spent to sustain the infrastructure that is necessary for our own protection.

Using more human intelligence in counterterrorism will help to break up terrorist cells and prevent potentially dangerous groups from recruiting followers. Then, there will be much less need for us to look for suspicious suitcases in subway stations or arm ourselves with an emergency supply kit.

What better security of our freedoms and liberties can we have than preventing terrorist organizations from being formed and even thinking about planning any attacks? In view of our desire to simultaneously foster order and secure liberty, human intelligence is indeed the intelligent way to counter terrorism.

See other writings on (counter-)terrorism.