ATbar Tools for Countering Future Terrorism
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Tools for Countering Future Terrorism

15/08/2005 | by Herren, Eric  

What shape do we expect future terrorist activities to take? Most probably it will be a mixture of what we already see around us, enriched with some surprises we are afraid to think about. This might include assassinations and direct action against governments, together with the more usual pressure on public opinion and psychological warfare. We may see suicide attacks combined with weapons of mass destruction, multiple attacks, and cyber terrorism. Terrorist actors may include known and ad hoc terrorist organisations that have yet to be formed. All of this and many possibilities that we have not yet thought of may be part of future terrorism.

Are we ready to confront this threat? I would like to provoke some thinking in the direction of additional tools necessary in the fight against terrorism. It all comes down to the question of the chicken and the egg: What do we do first, kill the crocodiles first or drain the swamp?

The structure of terrorism

Let us take closer look at the ingredients of a terrorist attack. I will concentrate on only few important aspects, taking a "top-down" approach, from the general to the specific. This list can be thought of as a kind of "infrastructure" for a terrorist attack.

Ideological / religious / political movement - Here we find the hotbeds of future terrorist organisations.

Terrorist organisation - Included in the terrorist organization are radical supporters, the leadership, the masterminds, economic support activities-both legal and illegal, and all logistic cover operations and institutions. More and more we see organizations networking with other terrorist organisations espousing the same cause.

Strategic planning - Terrorist organisations invest significant efforts in "meta activities," such as public relations, and often use sophisticated tools to steer internal public opinion. Extensive efforts are also directed toward influencing the world audience through psychological warfare. Strategic planning also includes logistics and basic training. Terrorist organisations need to maintain and continually upgrade their arsenals, and to fill the ranks of fighters. Fundraising is another characteristic operation on this level.

Operational activities - In order to be effective, terrorist organizatons need to have an intelligence-gathering capability. The use of open sources like the internet aide in target selection. Terrorists also seek to get information by simply monitoring the grey area around private security organisations. The increasing tendency to outsource police and law enforcement tasks to the private sector may also allow terrorists to access information on vulnerabilities.

Tactical preparation - This includes recruiting operatives and planning terrorist attacks. A terror attack is a complex operation. The "shahid," or suicide attacker, is surrounded by several circles of activists who select and arm the human bomb, and send him on his mission. A successful attack is based on intelligence and the processing of real time information, knowledge management, and a certain degree of "dumb luck."

Attack - From the standpoint of the terrorist organizations, an attack is successful if it produces a high body count and maximum destruction, followed by extensive media coverage.

The structure of counter terrorism

Here too, I will touch on only a few of the relevant factors in the counter-terrorism "infrastructure," again, going from the general to the specific. Keep in mind that this list is far from complete.

Public opinion - Terrorism is a kind of psychological warfare; it's aim is to undermine the morale of the targeted nation as well as to influence international public opinion. Thus, counter-terrorism must start at the true frontline-the level of the general public

The media - The media is of crucial importance for both terrorist and counter terrorist strategies.

Political leadership - The leadership of the nation forms the policies and guidelines for counter terrorist organisation and operations.

Think tanks - Interdisciplinary think factories can play a role in advising decision-makers and enhancing counter terrorist strategies.

Intelligence - Intelligence is of central importance in the war against terrorism.

Special operations - Special operations are the spearhead of counter terrorist efforts. They include rescue operations as well as law enforcement, security and military operations.

Counter-terrorism tools

I would like to point out that counter-terrorism begins with a strong and determined counter-terrorism community. In order to effectively fight terrorism, it is necessary to build a community of interest that is single-minded and solutions-oriented. This organisation needs an efficient internal communication system; it needs a common language, and a sense of trust and responsibility among members of the community.

Effective counter-terrorism requires the establishment of operational platforms to exchange views, create training scenarios and set up red-teams.

All of the foregoing applies equally to the national and the international levels.

It is also necessary to invest extensive efforts into ensuring that new terrorist organizations don't sprout as quickly as we uproot the ones we now face. In other words, it isn't enough to fight the alligators; we must drain the swamp.

We will now examine the dilemmas and difficulties of each aspect of counter terrorism in relation to the terrorist infrastructure. I will tackle this from the bottom-up, beginning with the more specific and working up to the most general ingredients of counter-terrorism.

Special operations

Special operations are the fundamental activities of counter-terrorism. As an example of the various factors involved, let us take as an example the type of operations that may come into play in the case of a suicide terror attack.

Rescue operations - Once the human bomb is within his chosen target area, special operations will be limited to reducing the impact of the attack. Professional rescue operations will need to take into account that the attack may be a compound one, with secondary attacks planned to target rescue forces. Medical personnel are an integral part of the security plan and play the greatest role in mitigating the effects of the attack.

Security measures - Increased security measures can lead to the discovery of the attacker before he or she can reach the target zone, thus reducing the damage or preventing the attack altogether. Successful security measures include the designation of different security zones ranging from non-target to pre-target and target zones. Each zone is characterized by different security activities, ranging from electronic surveillance to physical barriers.

Defensive activities - This includes special operations against planning and recruiting efforts by specialised cells within the terrorist organisations. Defensive measures must be continually upgraded by constantly re-examining and testing security arrangements. Nothing is more dangerous in security operations than the establishing of routine procedures which loose their sensitivity.

Offensive strikes - Offensive counter-terror operations are special operations directed against the close circle surrounding the suicide bomber-those who recruit the human bombs, equip them with the explosives, instruct them about favourable targets, harbour them before sending them into action and try to cover their tracks. Many nations that strike back at terrorists base such operations on the right to self-defence. The rationale is that the person who "arms and aims" the human bomb is no less culpable than the bomber, and must be held responsible.

Surgical operations - This aspect of counter-terrorism includes counterintelligence activities, as well as special operations against logistics and training infrastructure. Terrorists often hide their activities within legal business or social-even medical or international-organisations. Bomb factories have been found in the same building as nursery schools and hospitals. By the same token, weapons procurement may take place under the legal auspices of a supporting state and fundraising for terrorist organisations may be covered by legal business activities. This type of interaction between terrorist infrastructure and civilian institutions makes special operations against such activities extremely difficult and risky.

Coordinated strategies - Among the most important special operations are those that seek to stem the flow of sympathy and support to terrorist organizations. These operations attempt to knock the wind out of public outrage and hate, the glorification of suicide bombers, and the misleading of young men and women by religious indoctrination. Counter-terrorism at the highest levels must counter disinformation and psychological warfare. Long-term counter-terrorist strategies must include the winning of hearts and minds to successfully win the war against terrorism.

Preventive actions in the virtual world - Lastly, we come to preventive counter-terrorist "street work," carried out by units specifically trained to deal with the "virtual infrastructure" of terrorism. Here, intelligence is derived from the continual monitoring of Internet forums, website, and other forms of digital communications. The goal is to enter the virtual battlefield to pick out potential future terrorists and attempt to open a window for them to integrate back into our society.

Counter-terrorism tools - Conclusions for Future terrorism

To deal with the threat of future terrorism, we will need to create multinational special operation teams. These teams will include regional intervention units, who will be first on the scene to stabilize the situation and prepare the field for take-over units.

It would be useful to establish an international counter-terrorist unit, which would bring together the best counter-terror solutions from around the world. At the same time, we must establish international and transnational centres of excellence, and create think factories and knowledge-management organisations.


Intelligence is the sense organ of the counter-terrorist organism-the faculty that takes in and processes incoming information. As we did above, we will analyze the components of intelligence using the example of the threat of suicide attacks.

Identification of the threat - Intelligence is the key factor in preventing the attack. Once the potential suicide bomber is identified, security measures can be steered toward a useful end. The time factor here is critical; information processing procedures must work quickly and forward their analysis to the end users at special operations level.

Counterintelligence - Intelligence communities must upgrade their counterintelligence capabilities. Data security is vital to prevent terrorists from gaining access to information that could help in target selection. Intelligence agencies should be able to provide specific recommendations and advise to private institutions at risk of information theft, in order to prevent sensitive information from falling into the hands of terrorists.

Humint / Sigint / Elint - Intelligence gathered from the inner circle of the activists surrounding the "shahid" is based mainly on human sources. The running of such cells is a sensitive and risky business. In many countries, human Intelligence is very much a neglected art form. Too many efforts have been, and are being, invested in other means of intelligence gathering. We must come back to the human sources within our own organisations, including police and customs officers and other government employees. The police officer on his own beat must be successfully integrated into the information-gathering process; he has intimate knowledge of his own area, and will be the first to know of any unusual activity.

Unfortunately the flow of information is often blocked by obstacles within the system. Even as we collect the best resources from our peripheries and bring them together in federal institutions, we may be missing some of the best resources that are already available in our midst.

Psy Ops - Psychological operations involving the intelligence community should be directed not only against the public relation efforts of the terrorist organisation, but should also aim to disrupt the flow of communications within the different levels of the terrorist organizations. This kind of activity can help to keep the terrorist organisations busy preserving their own structures, and may lead to mistakes on their part.

Multinational intelligence community - Intelligence aimed at terrorist organisations and their strategic efforts includes humint, sigint, and elint. The most important factor in this kind of activity is international cooperation. Often this part of the game is played on the international stage far from the "hot spots" and well protected from unwanted attention. Examples are operations to prevent terrorist fundraising and weapons procurement.

Thermostat - Intelligence agencies need to establish sensors within ideological, religious, and political movements in order to gauge the "temperature" of the more radical elements and take preventive measures where necessary. Difficulties in the struggle against terrorist organisations often include the lack of cooperation between all the agencies involved. While healthy competition is part of the game on the national, as well as the international level, it is clear that success in the war against terrorism is only reached through partnership and trust. Intelligence agencies are notorious for spreading their efforts far and wide. In order to avoid this, the intelligence community should be gathered under a common umbrella, coordinated, and guided by political decisions.

Needless to say, intelligence is crucial to the success of special operations of all kinds. But more than this, it is the job of intelligence to create a round table for the exchange of views. Intelligence agencies should strive as far as possible to achieve an interdisciplinary approach.

I would like to highlight an issue common within intelligence communities: the need to determine the end-user for the agency's products. All too often, intelligence is collected merely to support old institutions and infrastructures within the intelligence agency. It is vitally important that intelligence reach political decision-makers so that it can become part of their consultancy tools.

There is also the issue of how to deal with the media. In many countries, the relation between intelligence and media are like cat-and-mouse, with the "right to know" and censorship producing a good deal of friction. Public opinion and intelligence are sometimes strange bedfellows; in times of threat, the public calls for visible results from the agencies. Here the dilemma is to explain what is being done without jeopardizing the success of intelligence operations.

Intelligence - Conclusions for Future terrorism

The threat of future terrorism will force the intelligence community to establish multinational intelligence databases, with reasonable access for partner states. This will naturally lead to the dilemma of protecting the sources of the intelligence and establishing who gets access, and how much access. One simple rule could be: the more a state gives, the greater its access.

It will also be necessary to upgrade our ability to successfully process information under time pressure. It makes no sense to become a vacuum cleaner, sucking in all kinds of information, if the means of analyzing and interpreting this information are lacking. Analyzed information must be able to flow back to the end users and other elements of the counter terrorist community:

Here we will need to learn about and integrate better knowledge management processes. Do we fully recognize the power of open sources? We will need specialists to analyze open sources in all languages and in every open forum.

Human intelligence will be the main resource for effective intelligence gathering. The human factor must become our main concern. Intelligence officers will need purposeful career planning and feedback for successful activities. To be proud of his or her job is one of the main sources of motivation in a career that has little open reward or glory.

Think tanks

One of the most neglected of counter-terrorist tools is the think tank. Academic "think factories" are helpful in providing a broader view of the phenomena of terrorism. They are removed from the actual stage of combat and are able to focus on the problem from all possible angles and positions.

Think tanks should deal with the actual threats, in addition to learning from the overall history of terrorism. Their task should include attempting to foresee the future and "think the unthinkable."

Members of think tanks should include former and present members of the counter-terrorism community, as well as those who can contribute to the vision. Think tanks should become consultants and critical observers supplying feedback to the counter-terrorism community, and providing forecasts and partnership in solution-oriented task forces. We will also have to learn to accept them as teachers and instructors.

Think tanks - Conclusions for Future terrorism

What is needed is a successful networking of think tanks. These organizations are probably the only ones that can keep up with the pace of terrorist networking. Official governmental operations and coordinated strategies are often held back by office procedures, unnecessary bureaucracy, and political interests.

Think tanks create the possibility of online brainstorming forums, bringing together huge resources of intellectual potential-a kind of creative solution-seeking that can be extremely helpful.

We will need interdisciplinary institutions whose activities are devoted to finding global strategies and are willing be part of a whole. We need international centers of competence, which will concentrate on specialized tasks as an interdisciplinary contribution to the fight against terror. An example is the recently established Center for the Study of Militant Islam.

Regarding future terrorist threats-it is likely enough that science fiction will become a relevant part of mental preparedness for future terrorism.


Politics and counter-terrorism are at the head of virtually every national agenda today. Let me just point out several key issues with regard to successful measures against terrorism.

Political will - Political commitment to combat terrorism is the fundamental motivator behind all counter-terrorist activities. The will to fight terrorism-and especially to deal with the grey zones where terrorism and organized crime meet-are crucial for political decision-makers. But let us not be dreamers; today in many countries the grey zones are an integral part of the economic infrastructure of the nation. It will be hard to get countries to cut off funding to terrorists when this funding is seen as a legitimate part of the national economy.

Leadership - National and international leadership in the war against terrorism is necessary in order to concentrate the efforts of all relevant sources.

Definitions - An international definition of terrorism if crucial and fundamental. Such a definition will serve as a basis for counter-terrorist activities, and an operational tool to expand our ability to combat terrorism on the international level. Too many groups that employ terrorism still hide behind the faחade of "freedom fighters" and "insurgents."

Laws - Based on the political will of the leaders, and supported by international definitions, nations must create and change their laws to be better prepared to meet the emerging threat of terrorism and organized crime.

Clear political decisions - We must demand that political leaders make difficult decisions; in the absence of political guidance, counter-terrorism organizations all too often become institutions for managing problems rather than solving them. Politics is an important partner in counter-terrorism, and is responsible for controlling and supporting counter-terrorism tools.

Politicians must impress not only public opinion by their determination to fight terrorism, but also must send clear signals to extremist groups. We further expect from politics a professional handling of the media.

Politics - Conclusions for Future terrorism

The fight against future terrorism will demand political courage, as well as perseverance, in order to mitigate the impact of future attacks. Future terrorism will also entail great political flexibility and the need to adapt. We will need political vision. Most of all, our leaders will need the ability to absorb and integrate reality into their decision-making process.


Most of the public's knowledge of terrorism comes from the media. Many international news outlets concentrate only on the most obvious stage of terrorist activities-the attack itself. In fact, the media is often the first responder to a terrorist attack.

Using the example of a suicide attack, the media will home in on the scene of the attack, broadcasting images of the death and destruction. These pictures are the strongest weapon in the hands of terrorist organizations; they show results to the targeted population and play to an international audience. These images also prove the success of the operation to the terrorists' constituency, while at the same time satisfying their sick motivation to kill innocents.

But where is the media's interest in backstage terrorist activities? Such activity is the real "bread and butter" of terrorism, and deserves at least as much coverage as do terror attacks. However, this kind of coverage requires intensive investment, professionalism and journalistic expertise, and the success of such TV documentaries is not guaranteed.

Many media agencies use the term of "Info-tainment" to describe their broadcasts. The average audience wants to know who is the bad guy and who is the good guy without investing too much thought. Information must be cut into small, bit-sized pieces that can easily be swallowed with no stomach-ache.

Modern terrorists try to influence decision-makers through public opinion. This kind of psychological warfare is often supported by the media by the lack of professionalism of on-scene journalists, who themselves become part of the action and loose their sense of objectivity. The terrorists' message is transmitted through the good offices of the international media. The effects of this reportage could be mitigated by paying the same attention to backstage terrorist activities.

Media - Conclusions for Future terrorism

It is in our interests to educate the media to their responsibilities as a first responder to terrorist attacks. Media can be used and/or misused as part of psychological operations. The media can become a partner in counter-terrorism if we cooperate and if we strictly draw the borders between responsible journalism and playing into the hands of terrorists.

Future terrorism may well include "media terrorism"-information channels could be hijacked and panic spread by pre-prepared images, and fake political statements. This too, is something for which we need to be prepared.

Public opinion

Terrorist attacks target public opinion in several ways. First: a successful attack aims to lower the morale and weaken the resistance of the targeted population. The terrorists' goal is to create a feeling of general vulnerability among the citizens. This psychological warfare results in enormous pressure on the government to take action (or over-reaction), which results in international condemnation of the targeted nation.

Secondly, the attack is also used by terrorist organizations to spread their message to the whole world. Unlike the old forms of terrorism, which sometimes had very clear political messages, today's terrorist strategy is twofold: it sends shockwaves through the civilized world; and it uses its "successes" to call for sympathizers to join the jihad. Each successful attack is another page written in the terrorist handbook used to teach the next generation of extremists.

Public Education - A successful counter-terrorist strategy must include a powerful effort to educate and teach citizens about the dangers of terrorist manipulation and the impact of psychological warfare.

Security measures - Increased security measures can only be implemented if public opinion supports these actions. It is the general population that suffers from security checks and the loss of privacy. Therefore, much more attention should be directed to this most vital part of counter-terrorist strategy-with an emphasis on education. Terrorism attacks the public morale and the emotional balance of each individual. We must do all we can to strengthen this most important partner in counter-terrorism.

Public opinion - Conclusions for Future terrorism

Public support is critical for any long-term counter-terrorist strategy. To paraphrase Dr. Ganor: "Counter-terrorist forces can win the battle but loose the war, if citizens are afraid to use public transportation or to go to crowded places."