In a matter of a few days we will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the awful attacks in the United States that saw Al Qaeda rise from relative obscurity to becoming the leading brand in international terrorism. This meteoric rise to fame was caused by the catalytic effect of the events in New York and Washington. It was a day were literally the world changed.

The choice of September 11th appears to reflect a use of the numbers used in the United States for dialling the emergency services - the nine, one, one call. By selecting the initial date Al Qaeda also created the opportunity to conduct a follow up spectacular attack ten years later, when the date 11-9-11 would provide a palindrome that would be hard to resist. This has recently appeared to be confirmed as details of the contents of a notebook kept by Osama Bin Laden that was seized when he was killed in Pakistan have emerged which, according to reports in the media, contained a number of references indicating his interest in conducting an act of terrorism on the date of the tenth anniversary.

Thus far, given the United Kingdom has just lowered its threat level, there does not appear to be an imminent danger; although the increasing proximity of the Olympics is being felt widely in the emergency services arena. Perhaps the Security Services feel that any repeat attack on the anniversary of 9-11 would be directed at the United States or elsewhere, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq. The problem for the Security Services however is an absence of so-called 'chatter' is not necessarily a decisive indicator that nothing is being planned. Lone wolves and groups are becoming more adept at staying off the radar horizon.

Terrorist groups across the world have been using the Internet for some time now to spread ideas of how to avoid detection by the security apparatus. This is what intelligence and military people refer to as Operational Security (OPSEC). The current trends are not good as terrorists seem more than capable of inferring the capabilities of national security forces and their defence counterparts.  

However this was not the case ten years ago. At the time the knowledge of the capabilities of the security services to penetrate terrorism networks was not fully appreciated by Al Qaeda. Its OPSEC processes therefore provided potential opportunities for the plot associated with September 11th to be unmasked. This begs a number of important questions.

Was it possible to have foreseen the events of 9-11? Could the intelligence agencies really have envisaged that such a massive attack would take place? Were there indicators that could have been seen if the agencies had looked at the data through a different lens? Were the agencies blindsided by other events, taking their eye off the ball? These are all valid questions, many of which may never be properly answered. The failure of the United States intelligence agencies to prevent 9-11 has often been put down to a 'failure to connect the dots'; a situation that was exacerbated by a silo-based mentality that existed at the time. But what does that 'failure' really mean in practice?

It is said that hindsight is the perfect science. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks intelligence analysts across the western world ploughed through large quantities of historical open source material to try and ascertain the degree to which the attacks might have been anticipated. Their conclusions were inconclusive.

At the time not a lot had been written about an organisation known as Al Qaeda. Their association with a number of high profile terrorist attacks that occurred prior to September 11th, such as the previous attempt to bring down the Twin Towers in 1993 should have provided some clues. The attacks three years before 9-11 in Kenya and Tanzania in September 1998 should also have raised a red flag. But both seemed to go largely unnoticed. Why did these not become key indicators of much worse to come?

The world of intelligence is a complicated one. Material gathered from a range of sources often provides contradictory interpretations. The reliability of sources and associated levels of detail can also vary. Specific aspects as to the actual targets can be absent as threats are made in vague and generic ways.

For the analysts the aim is to build these various sources into an integrated picture that allows concerted action to take place. This is far from straightforward.  Parallels are often drawn with the process of building a jigsaw puzzle from a number of pieces. But the problem is that the intelligence analyst does not have the benefit of a front cover. Gaps emerge in the picture, which are not readily filled. Making links across the gaps becomes a matter of judgement, which can be biased and vulnerable to stereotypical thinking - the brain seeing what it wants to see creating a form of blind spot or scotoma in the analysis process.

Appreciating these difficulties led the former United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to note the famous words that 'we don't know what we don't know'. Some commentators, many of whom lacked even the basic idea of what Rumsfeld was alluding to, chose to mock this use of words, suggesting that he had 'mangled' his words in some way. In fact Rumsfeld was only saying what those who understand intelligence already did know. If there is an absence of any indicators intelligence analysts have nothing to work on but the presumption that an attack is imminent and hope that some specific indicators do emerge.   

It is not that intelligence agencies want to fail. They are very professional people and it hurts when they make a mistake and people die. It just in such complex situations failure is inevitable. It was very difficult to anticipate that the group that had been so involved in operations against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan would suddenly switch their focus onto a broader international agenda to re-establish a Caliphate.

One of the reasons for this is resources. Prior to 9-11 the United States intelligence agencies devoted only a small amount of their time to so-called international terrorist groups. Open source reporting suggests that the team in the United States involved in looking at international terrorism prior to 9-11 was made up of around 50-60 people. Since then the focus has clearly changed and more resources have been invested in trying to counter trans-national terrorism. But does that lower the risk of failure?

The answer sadly is no. If a terrorist group has mastered OPSEC the chances of getting advanced warning of an attack comes down to members of the public being vigilant and spotting unusual behaviour. Where terrorists hide in the shadows away from prying eyes opportunities do exist for the population at large to play their part. Whilst it is important not to drive up the anxiety levels, increased public awareness is crucial.

All the more surprising then that to date little has been done by the government to raise awareness on this issue. It is to be hoped that the tenth anniversary of 9-11 will pass peacefully across the world as people pay their respects to the nearly 3,000 people that died on that day. But, given the nature of the enduring threat from Al Qaeda, and the desire of some to commemorate the death of Osama Bin Laden it has all the potential to be another infamous day in the diary.


Posted August 30 2011 at 1630 by Phil. Comment by emailing: