How worrisome is FBI warning of terror everywhere?

How worrisome is FBI warning of terror everywhere?
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On the anniversary of 9/11, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted that, 17 years after that terrible day, the threat of terrorism is “everywhere.” In case he wasn’t clear enough, he offered geography and compass points: it’s “coast to coast, north, south, east, west.”

Sobering stuff and difficult for Americans to hear. Terrorism is one of those threats that we tend to personalize; that’s why it’s called terror. It’s random, seemingly indefensible, targeted at normally safe environments, and jarringly violent. For some reason, while we don’t usually picture ourselves as potential victims of traffic death or everyday violent crimes — statistically, much higher probability threats — the fear of being a victim of terror grips us. Losing 3,000 countrymen on one day has had its effects.

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Like most things in life, there are things that work in our favor in the fight against terrorists and things that work against us. Understanding some of these variables can lend perspective to an otherwise dispiriting assessment that terrorists are “everywhere.”

In our favor: Terrorists are more inept than we think. We imagine them with capabilities they simply don’t have. Ridiculous Hollywood portrayals don’t help. Of course, even the inept can be dangerous — but far more aspiring terrorists have been, and will be, arrested or killed than the few who actually do something.

They are inept because terrorists share a common psychological profile broadly referred to as “inadequate personality,” a nice way of saying “perpetual screw-up.” Their childhoods were not pleasant, typically with a missing or abusive father. They are badly formed individuals.

I remember receiving a psychological assessment of a major al Qaeda terrorist in Iraq, shortly after our military killed him. I didn’t make it past the first page before spotting the all-too-familiar commonality: He had several siblings but his father singled him out for regular beatings.

Inadequate personalities feel poorly about themselves and are highly susceptible to seductive messages of promised power and self-importance. Throw into the mix a charismatic sociopath leader, viewed as a father figure, and they are easily manipulated, even into killing themselves. Note that there are no middle-aged suicide bombers.

Here’s the important point: This dismal profile is consistent no matter what team the terrorist plays on; no matter the ideology, religion, race, nationality, or politics. These guys are all pretty much the same. Understanding the actors, undistracted by the ostensible cause, is key for counterterrorism professionals.

The organizing principle of a group of terrorists is informative but not determinative to a true strategy of prevention. Want to dismantle a terror organization? Show these weak members that theirs is a lost cause, easily defeated, ineffective and ultimately weak itself. Rob them of the source of their perceived self-importance. That’s their true motivator, not the stupid political cause.

The other advantage of dealing with inadequate personalities is that they are often fairly easily turned into informants. Remember, they crave self-importance. The FBI has exploited this reality well, and when Director Wray speaks of the hundreds of terror plots interrupted in this country, it is largely because FBI agents and their JTTF partners have cultivated eyes and ears where they need to be in order to sound the alarm when the bad guys start to go operational.

Not in our favor: There remains a very large supply of malformed young males who are proving susceptible to seductive messages of self-importance now delivered, as Director Wray pointed out, “at the speed of social media.” In other words, it’s hard to keep up.

The wannabes may not be the most impressive members of the gene pool, but there are a lot of them and the number is growing. This is reflected in the sheer number and disparate locations of cases the director refers to when he says the threat is everywhere. Not all of these young men will activate, but all will require determined effort to assess and counter.

That keeps our law enforcement and intelligence communities busy. In 1950, the FBI had 6,000 agents working mostly bank robberies, stolen-car cases, check-kiting cases and occasional kidnappings and extortions. Today, the U.S. population has more than tripled and the FBI has had counterintelligence, organized crime, sophisticated financial crimes, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and cyber crimes heaped onto its plate. Yet, the number of agents has barely doubled. It’s absurd on its face.

We’ve been kept relatively safe since 9/11, thanks to the long hours and mission dedication of stretched-thin JTTFs and improved cooperation within the larger intelligence community. But attention to other serious crime problems has suffered as resources were redirected to ensuring vigilance against terrorists.

In some ways, though, the whole apparatus of our multi-agency operating model doesn’t work in our favor. We’ve made a decision as free people not to concentrate too much authority in a single law enforcement or intelligence agency. There are really good reasons we do this.  

The challenge to overcome is that this approach fosters a focus on jurisdictions, rather than outcomes, and this makes mounting a prevention strategy doubly difficult. Agencies tend to view the terrorism problem through their own prism: “We’ve got domestic intelligence.” “We’ve got foreign intelligence.” “We’ve got electronic surveillance overseas.” “We’ve got electronic surveillance in-country.” “We’ve got infrastructure protection.” And so on.

The focus instead should be on outcomes, worst-case scenarios, things we can’t possibly allow to happen. If the president brought together the heads of each intelligence community agency and asked them what the plan is to ensure that a specific catastrophic terror attack never occurs — such as a decapitating improvised nuke in D.C., a chem/bio attack in a crowded arena, or a cyber attack that cripples the electric grid — he’d likely get answers reflecting each agency’s piece of that problem but no articulated cohesive plan to make sure it can’t happen.

Not every terror attack can be prevented, but there are some scenarios that we simply cannot allow to happen. Unfortunately, we’re not organized to prevent defined outcomes; we’re organized around process. Process is not optimal for prevention.

Terrorists, given their nature, are a defeatable enemy; they should not be endowed with a fearsomeness out of balance with reality. But their vanquishing will take determined effort that should be properly resourced and better focused.

The threat, sadly, is still “everywhere,” but the advantage is clearly ours. The wretchedness is clearly theirs. This is a threat that can be eliminated.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.