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Staff Statement No. 11 identifies critical path identification failure


My ears were ringing as Philip Zelikov read the summary of Staff Statement No. 11, "The Performance of the Intelligence Community."  It was the lead paragraph of the section, Warning and the Case of Aircraft as Weapons:

"Since the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, the Intelligence Community has devoted generations of effort to understanding the problem of warning against surprise attack. Rigorous analytic methods were developed, focused in particular on the Soviet Union. Several leading practitioners within the Intelligence Community discussed them with us. They have been articulated in many ways, but almost all seem to have at least four elements in common: (1) think about how surprise attacks might be launched; (2) identify telltale indicators connected to the most dangerous possibilities; (3) where feasible, collect intelligence against these indicators; and (4) adopt defenses to deflect the most dangerous possibilities or at least get more warning. Concern about warning issues arising after the end of the Gulf War led to a major study"

The staff report noted that "laboriously developed" methods to detect [Soviet] surprise attack had languished, save for interest in al Qaeda's NBCR (nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological) weapons.

Report 11 then enumerated a large numbers of attempted uses of aircraft as weapons, but noted:

"These past episodes suggest possibilities. Alone, they are not warnings. But, returning to the four elements mentioned above [the] CTC did not analyze how a hijacked aircraft or other explosives-laden aircraft might be used as a weapon. If it had done so, it could have identified that a critical obstacle would be to find a suicide terrorist able to fly large jet aircraft. This had never happened before 9/11."

What was not explicitly stated is that these episodes happened over some years in diverse regions on the watch of many analysts under different reporting structures.  There was no unifying trigger theme.  This is the failure to understand a critical path of the terrorist's supply chain that we have pressed upon in our private distributions: terrorist access to, and control of, the flight deck. Our analysis showed that from Mohammed Atta's arrival into the US, the goal was access and control of a flight deck, first with light twin-engine aircraft converted to 'crop dusters,' and only when that approached failed, did Atta and the group shift to commandeering flight decks of commercial aircraft. We have seen that argument extended to freight and cargo aircraft and we have since made the argument that flight deck control can be remote as in UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) here and here.

Richard Clarke told the committee that he "attributed his awareness to novels more than any warnings from the Intelligence Community." Airliner-as-weapon was not the only failed analysis:

"There was, for example, no evident Intelligence Community analysis of the danger of boat bombs before the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000, although expertise about such means of attack existed within the Community, especially at the Office of Naval Intelligence."

In hindsight, it is effortless to connect the lack of visualization of a hijacked aircraft-as-weapon (or inflatable boat as weapon) to absence of identified telltale indicators, to no collection requirements against those telltales, to no effective means of deflection.  That will not protect us from all future threats.  Far from it.

Yes, al Qaeda has pursued certain themes, but it can craft new ones without warning, so to dwell solely on existing themes is to fight yesterday's war. What we must constantly do is look at where are weak, where we allow the perp to penetrate our perimeter or allow him or her to get "close enough," where there are exploitable lapses in our command, control and communication. Only then can we try to think asymmetrically as al Qaeda does so well.

Gordon Housworth

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