Let’s study unsuccessful terrorist plots
Posted Thursday, September 26 2013 at 01:00
Why do terrorist attacks frequently succeed, even though later investigations almost always show that warnings had been made but were either misunderstood or ignored? Those killed in the Westgate mall assault included children and those wounded were from two to 78 years.
More than 1,000 people were evacuated by security forces combing the mall that was littered with shattered glass and pools of blood.
After emerging on Sunday morning from a hiding place under a vehicle in the basement car park, a woman, told Reuters news agency by telephone that she had seen three of the attackers. “They were shooting from the exit ramp, shooting everywhere,” she said. “I saw people being shot all around me, some with blood pouring from bad wounds. I was just praying, ‘God, keep me alive’ and that my day hadn’t come.” Witnesses said the attackers had AK-47 rifles and wore ammunition belts. For hours after the attack, the dead were strewn around tables of unfinished meals. At one burger restaurant, a man and woman lay in a final embrace, until their bodies were removed.
For our intelligence to be more useful in preventing attacks, it must be actionable, combining precise, tactical level warning with decision makers who are receptive to it. The history of unsuccessful terrorist attacks against East Africans, plots that have been foiled—tells us that this sort of actionable intelligence is most likely to come from on-the-ground, local and domestic intelligence gathering.
We cannot know with any certainty how the Kenyan attack could have been prevented. The Kenyan security can only illuminate opportunities that were missed—it cannot tell us whether different actions and decisions would have prevented that attack.
There is one approach, however, that might help us understand how to prevent attacks: studying terrorist plots that have been unsuccessful. But studying cases of failed terrorist attacks is difficult.
Intelligence successes are less publicised than failures, and several of the most widely available public databases of terrorism incidents don’t include foiled attacks. There is good news in that none of the plots that have been disrupted recently represent al-Shabaab’s “first team.”
These terrorists are mostly home-grown, and appear unlikely to have been able to carry out the sort of mass destruction that experts believe al-Shabaab still hopes to inflict upon Kenya. But we should remember that even amateur terrorists can cause great damage and suffering.
The threat of terrorism within the region remains high, and additional terrorist cells and plots are probably active today. East Africans and the world at large should be careful about becoming too complacent, and should be skeptical about the misconception that the key to preventing future attacks is reorganisation and reform of the intelligence and national security organisations.
The history of unsuccessful terrorist attacks suggests that the intelligence needed to prevent the next terrorist attack is not known, waiting to be understood once we join hands together.