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The Find Every Terrorist at Any Cost Industry

As a thought experiment, replace the word “terrorist” in this paragraph with “soldier” or “military.”

All terrorists fundamentally see themselves as altruists: incontestably believing that they are serving a “good” cause designed to achieve a greater good for a wider constituency—whether real or imagined—which the terrorist and his organization or cell purport to represent. Indeed, it is precisely this sense of self-righteous commitment and self-sacrifice that that draws people into terrorist groups. It all helps them justify the violence they commit. It gives them collective meaning. It gives them cumulative power. The terrorist virtually always sees himself as a reluctant warrior: cast perpetually on the defensive and forced to take up arms to protect himself and his community. They see themselves as driven by desperation——and lacking any viable alternative—to violence against a repressive state, a predatory rival ethnic or nationalist group, or an unresponsive international order.

The paragraph comes from Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown Professor/ThinkTanker whose studies of terrorism predate 9/11 by decades. It forms part of his explanation, post Boston, for why people become terrorists: because they, like our own country increasingly, see violence as a solution to their grievance.

That’s not all of Hoffman’s description of what makes people terrorists, mind you. He goes onto discuss religion and the human relations that might convince someone to engage in violence. But the paragraph has haunted me since I read it over a week ago for how clearly it should suggest that one of the few things that separates terrorism from our country’s own organized violence is official sanction (and at least lip service about who makes an appropriate and legal target).

Which is one reason why Jack Levin, in a piece debunking four myths about terrorism, offers this as one solution.

Somehow, we must reinstate the credibility of our public officials — our president, our Congress, and our Supreme Court Justices — so that alienated Americans do not feel they must go outside of the mainstream and radicalize in order to satisfy their goals.

Blaming terrorism on our dysfunctional political system feels far too easy, but it’s worth remembering that in Afghanistan, Somalia, and parts of Yemen, Al Qaeda has at times won support from locals because it offered “justice” where the official government did not or could not.

In any case, the common sense descriptions Hoffman and Levin offer haven’t prevented a slew of people responding to Boston — some experts, some not — from demanding that we redouble our efforts to defeat any possible hint of Islamic terrorism, no matter the cost.

Batshit crazy Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert claims the Boston attack is all Spencer’s fault: because FBI purged some its training materials of some of the inaccurate slurs about Muslims (but did not even correct the training of Agents who had been taught that claptrap in the first place), it can no longer speak a language appropriate to pursuing terrorists. “They can’t talk about the enemy. They can’t talk about jihad. They can’t talk about Muslim. They can’t talk about Islam.” Which elicited the equally batshit crazy response from Glenn Kessler of taking Gohmert’s premise as a valid one that should be disproven by weighing how much offensive language remains in FBI materials, rather than debunking the very premise that only people who engage in cultural slurs would be able to identify terrorists. I award Kessler four wooden heads.

Somewhat more interesting is this piece from Amy Zegart, another Professor/ThinkTanker. She admits we may not know whether Boston involved some kind of intelligence failure for some time.

Finding out what happened will be trickier than it sounds. Crowdsourcing with iPhones, Twitter, and Lord & Taylor surveillance video worked wonders to nail the two suspects with lightning speed. But assessing whether the bombing constituted an intelligence failure will require more time, patience, and something most people don’t think about much: understanding U.S. counter-terrorism organizations and their incentives and cultures, which lead officials to prioritize some things and forget, or neglect, others.

But that doesn’t stop her from insisting FBI’s culture remains inappropriate to hunting terrorists “pre-boom.”

But it is high time we asked some hard, public questions about whether the new FBI is really new enough. Transformation — moving the bureau from a crime-fighting organization to a domestic intelligence agency — has been the FBI’s watchword since 9/11. Read more

The Saudi Intelligence without a Name

I had been wondering why John Kerry closed his meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, followed by Chuck Hagel’s unscheduled meetings in Saudi Arabia later that week.

The Daily Mail claims this is why:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sent a written warning about accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2012, long before pressure-cooker blasts killed three and injured hundreds, according to a senior Saudi government official with direct knowledge of the document.
[snip]

Citing security concerns, the Saudi government also denied an entry visa to the elder Tsarnaev brother in December 2011, when he hoped to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the source said. Tsarnaev’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia have not been previously disclosed.

It even reports Prince Saud had an unscheduled meeting with President Obama the day after meeting with Kerry.

Now, the article implicates the Saudi Interior Ministry, though perhaps Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef is not the senior Saudi official with direct knowledge of a report handed from the Saudi Interior Ministry to (the article says) top people at the Department of Homeland Security. (Keep in mind that MbN rarely gives or at least gave anything to the US without going through his old buddy John Brennan, though also note the DM included his picture in the article.)

But there are other things about this I find interesting. First, the publication in the DM, which feels more like an info op than a report to, say, the WaPo. Then there’s the DM’s inclusion of people like House Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul in its article (and, apparently, confirmation of a “Homeland Security Official” that the letter exists, which sounds like the same person as the HHSC aide quoted anonymously), heightening the partisan nature of this scoop.

Then there are apparent logical contradictions in the story, such as the detail that the Saudis apparently didn’t share Tamerlan’s name, but nevertheless expected the US to sort through his mail to get bomb components he could have gotten (and appears to have gotten) in a store.

It ‘did name Tamerlan specifically,’ he added. The ‘government-to-government’ letter, which he said was sent to the Department of Homeland Security at the highest level, did not name Boston or suggest a date for his planned attack.

[snip]

The Saudi government, he added, alerted the U.S. in part because it believed American authorities should be inspecting packages that came to Tsarnaev in the mail in order to search for bomb-making components.

There’s the suggestion this intelligence came from Yemen.

He dismissed the idea that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was likely trained by al Qaeda while he was outside the United States last year.

The Saudis’ Yemen-based sources, he explained, said militants referred to Tamerlan dismissively as ‘the volunteer.’

‘He was a gung-ho, self motivated jihadi who wasn’t tasked by a larger group,’ he said.

Then, finally, there’s this: the brag about the four plots the Saudis tipped us off to.

‘This is the fourth time the Saudi Arabian government has given the U.S. specific intel’ about a possible terror plot, the official said, citing prior warnings about Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who repeatedly tried to light a fuse in his shoe to bring down American Airlines flight 63 bound for Miami in December 2001.

He also cited the 300-gram ‘ink-cartridge bombs’ planted on two cargo planes headed for the United States from Yemen in October 2010. Those explosives were intercepted in Dubai, and at an East Midlands airport in Great Britain.

The DM names two plots: Richard Reid and the toner cartridge plot.

It doesn’t name another obvious one of the four: the Saudi double agent UndieBomb plot last year, which appears to have been designed to provide the justification to allow signature strikes in Yemen.

And the fourth?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev Placed in Database Perceived as Weak, Even by DHS

As the blame game starts on the Boston Marathon bombing, someone (maybe a blabby Senator?) made it public that the CIA asked to have Tamerlan Tsarnaev added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database last year.

The CIA asked the main U.S. counterterrorism agency to add the name of one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers to a watch list more than a year before the attack, according to U.S. officials.

The agency took the step after Russian authorities contacted officials there in the fall of 2011 and raised concerns that Tamerlan Tsarnaev — who was killed last week in a confrontation with police — was seen as an increasingly radical Islamist and could be planning to travel overseas. The CIA requested that his name be put on a database maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.

That database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, is a data storehouse that feeds a series of government watch lists, including the FBI’s main Terrorist Screening Database and the Transportation Security Administration’s “no-fly” list.

Officials said Tsarnaev’s name was added to the database but it’s unclear which agency added it.

We got a look at the TIDE database last year when Tom Coburn reviewed whether fusion centers do useful work. Here’s what that report said about TIDE:

While reporting information on an individual who is listed in the TIDE database sounds significant, the Subcommittee found that DHS officials tended to be skeptical about the value of such reporting, because of concerns about the quality of data contained in TIDE.156

156 Although NCTC describes its TIDE database as holding information on the identities of known and suspected terrorists, DHS officials – who interacted with TIDE data on a daily basis, as they reviewed reporting not only from state and local law enforcement encounters but from encounters by DHS components – said they found otherwise. “Not everything in TIDE is KST,” DHS privacy official Ken Hunt told the Subcommittee, using a shorthand term for “known or suspected terrorist.”

Would you buy a Ford?” one DHS Senior Reports Officer asked the Subcommittee staff during an interview, when he was asked how serious it was for someone to be a match to a TIDE record. “Ford Motor Company has a TIDE record.”

[snip]

Ole Broughton headed Intelligence Oversight at I&A from September 2007 to January 2012. In an interview with the Subcommittee, Mr. Broughton expressed the concern DHS intelligence officials felt working with TIDE data. In one instance, Mr. Broughton recalled he “saw an individual’s two-year-old son [identified] in an [Homeland Intelligence Report]. He had a TIDE record.” Mr. Broughton believed part of the problem was that intelligence officials had routinely put information on “associates” of known or suspected terrorists into TIDE, without determining that that person would qualify as a known or suspected terrorist. “We had a lot of discussion regarding ‘associates’ in TIDE,” Mr. Broughton said.

[my emphasis]

This is not to say that Tamerlan shouldn’t be in TIDE.

Rather, it says there’s so much other crap in TIDE, that it isn’t perceived as very useful — at least not by the people at DHS the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations interviewed.

This is the problem with overcollection of data: it adds a bunch more hay to the haystack for the time you want to start looking for a needle.

Two Years after Missing Abdulmutallab because of a Spelling Variance, Government Missed Tsarnaev because of a Spelling Variance

On the Sunday shows yesterday, House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers suggested that the government missed Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia in 2012 because he used an alias. This morning, Lindsey Graham explained that the problem was slightly different. Tamerlan’s travel documents misspelled his name.

“He went over to Russia, but apparently, when he got on the Aeroflot plane, they misspelled his name,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican said on Fox television this morning. “So it never went into the system that he actually went to Russia.”

Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in answer to a follow-up question that he did not know whether Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old terrorist suspect who died early Friday following a shootout with law enforcement, had misspelled his name on purpose.

The FBI “said Aeroflot gave us the information” that Tsarnaev had traveled there, Graham said, though he did not specify when that occurred.

Now, Lindsey doesn’t appear to know whether misspelling was the government’s or Aeroflot’s fault or Tamerlan’s deceit. Assuming Lindsey’s right about the larger point, whatever the source, a misspelling suggests a very different issue than an outright alibi (which would raise questions about the documents Tamerlan used, rather than the tracking of those documents).

Update: At the very end of the Senate Judiciary Committee Immigration hearing, Chuck Schumer said the error arose from Aeroflot typing in Tamerlan’s name incorrectly, so it appears it was not an attempt to deceive by Tamerlan.

Two years before Tsarnaev departed for Russia in January 2012, the government spent a good deal of time reviewing what prevented the government from responding to the several warnings about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the UndieBomber, to prevent him from traveling to the country. One of the problems (though by no means the most serious one), was that the cable conveying warnings from Abdulmutallab’s father spelled his name wrong.

As was widely reported within hours of the failed bombing attempt, Abdulmutallab’s father—a former Nigerian government minister and prominent banker—went to the US embassy in Abuja in November to warn that his son was involved with radical Islamists in Yemen and had broken off contact with his family. The family said they had given US officials extensive information about their son in the expectation that they would “find and return him home.”

In his prepared statement to the House Committee on Homeland Security on January 27, State Department Under-Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy said: “In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on the day following his father’s November 19 visit to the Embassy, we sent a cable to the Washington intelligence and law enforcement community through proper channels (the Visas Viper system) that ‘Information at post suggests [Farouk] may be involved in Yemeni-based extremists.’”

Kennedy confirmed that all US intelligence agencies received warnings that Abdulmutallab was training with terrorists in Yemen. He noted that the initial diplomatic cable from Abuja misspelled Abdulmutallab’s name.

As I said, that was not the most important problem leading to missed warnings. But it was one identified in the lessons learned period.

Yet it appears likely that one of the potential (if Tamarlan’s trip ends up showing any contact with extremists, which it hasn’t yet) lessons learned here will be one we purportedly learned 3 years ago: that our software needs to be better at using wildcards to identify close but not exact spellings.

We’re already seeing hints that facial recognition may not have served as the miracle solution it often gets sold as. It now appears we might not even have the databases running our watchlist system working as well as it needs to.

Update: Swapped out the Politico version of this report for the BoGlo one, which was more informative and changed the language to reflect the additional information.