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Change the Rulebook for Counterterrorism

Author: James J. Shinn
June 25, 2002
Seattle Post-Intelligencer


As Congress' who-knew-what-when hearings continue, let's remember that Sept. 11 was a private act of terror. The FBI knows how to bust domestic criminal Mafiosi, while the CIA knows how to knife-fight with foreign terrorist states.

But Osama bin Laden's gang is a new hybrid. It's a foreign terrorist crime family, with motives radically different from the Gambinos', yet without the umbrella of an official state. To cope with privatized terror, the United States should take a cue from al-Qaida itself and use private counterterror to strike back.

No sovereign state would have dared the World Trade Center attack. In contrast, private terrorists are harder to deter, ruthless and well funded. Recall that before their downfall, the Medellin Cartel's Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar had a net worth of $5 billion, more than enough to fund the terror campaign that brought the Colombian government to its knees.

Compared with the narco-trafficantes, bin Laden's estimated $30 million inheritance was chump change. Nor did he spend much of it bringing down the Twin Towers, less than $500,000 in total, including the $238,000 in money transfers from the United Arab Emirates to the Sept. 11 hijackers traced by the Treasury Department. People in Bel Aire spend more than that on their swimming pools.

In response, Americans everywhere spent a lot of money on their own private counterterror after Sept. 11. Air Charter Guide's survey showed a 30 percent increase in private flights beginning in October 2001. Personal prescriptions for the anthrax antibiotic Cipro have been flying off pharmacy shelves. Bankers are investing millions on software that sifts through funds transfers for suspect transactions. Airlines and biological supply firms are profiling their customers with extra care, not wanting to find themselves unwitting accessories to mass murder or on the wrong side of a killer germ.

In fact, the private sector has been tracking bad characters for years. Retailers built networked systems that track consumer behavior across a variety of "touchpoints," from on-line shopping to in-store visits, using data-mining engines to integrate these touchpoints into a behavioral profile. Credit-card clearinghouses refined similar methods to screen for fraud.

The al-Qaida terrorists must enter this sea of civilian transactions in order to plan the next attack on the United States. Based on this critical assumption, the Council on Foreign Relations convened a team of technology and security experts to study how these civilian techniques might be harnessed to the war against terror. The team came up with a system architecture that combines watch lists from the CIA and FBI, with transactions from agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and customs bureau, private sector databases from firms in transportation, finance and telecommunications, in a format that can be swept by a data-mining algorithms. The system alerts law enforcement officers when a suspicious pattern of behavior is detected.

For a long list of depressing reasons, the federal government does not have this sort of systems capability. Washington's computer systems are "stove-piped" and largely incapable of sharing data with one another, much less draw on information from the outside civilian world.

It will take the federal government five to 10 years to re-engineer their computer systems to provide an anti-terror tracking capability. But history shows that al-Qaida strikes at intervals of 12 to 18 months.

So the council team also proposed a way to use civilian high-tech design methods to put in a protective counterterror capability quickly. Using fast-turn programming techniques, an initial counterterror system could be up in months, not years, and cost no more than a few million dollars.

There are many successful engineers and entrepreneurs in high-tech communities around the country who would volunteer for such a crash program, with their firms donating hardware and off-the-shelf software.

They are attracted by the technical challenge, the chance to serve their country and enlightened self-interest: You may avoid a hijacking in your Learjet, but your office building can still get blown up. Even the mail in Aspen or Maui can arrive dusted with lethal spores.

The Bush administration and the Office of Homeland Security are highly motivated and staffed with competent people. But they are buffeted by the crisis du jour, drained by endless congressional hearings on intelligence oversight and straitjacketed by ponderous procurement and hiring procedures.

In the meantime, a new sort of public-private partnership in the war against terror can help plug the data gap until the FBI, the CIA and the rest of America's intelligence community get their act together.

Al-Qaida's privatized terror changed the rules of national security. It's time for Washington to change the rulebook for counterterror as well.

James Shinn is lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Princeton University and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. For the full text of the Council report, visit cfr.org

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