One of the significant differences between terrorist attacks and previous national security threats is the inability to deter them. So the thinking went, anyway, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But the NY Times reports that American strategic planners are not only now questioning that assumption, they’re well into the effort of implementing some intitiatives with the goal of proving it wrong.
Some of the initiatives mentioned in the article don’t seem to qualify as pure deterrence. Getting Islamic clerics to condemn suicide attacks on civilians, for instance, will certainly help dry up the pool of potential recruits, but it’s a pre-emptive effort to inhibit the spread of terror more than a deterrent. Others, I’m not so sure about their effectivenes. I witnessed one of the NYPD’s daily swarms last time I was back visiting, and it was certainly very anxiety-causing to everyone passing by, but I don’t see what impact a hundred-odd cops sitting around waiting for the order to roll out would have on a planned bombing, other than to seriously hobble any subsequent response.
The most promising initiatives to my mind are the efforts to infiltrate online forums and discussion boards frequented by jihadists and wannabe jihadists to sow confusion, doubt and suspicion in the terrorist networks’ communication channels. Another initiative also suggests the accuracy of something that I’ve long suspected. Namely, most of the sting operations that we hear about are in the form of Federal agents impersonating either sellers or recruiters of terrorists. But it seems more efficient to impersonate potential terrorists in order to create distrust among the higher-level recruiting and financing hierarchy about the actual sincerity of their new recruits. In other words, seal off the swamp instead of trying to drain it.
Two other “information ops” ideas I didn’t see mentioned but that have always seemed to me worth exploring are to try to take advantage of the multi-national aspect of al Qaeda by provoking a local backlash against the “foreign” hierarchy. We’ve already seen some of that in Iraq, which suggests that there might be faultlines to exploit elsewhere.
Finally, one of the major components of terrorist attacks — the need to be credited with the attack in the minds of the target audience — creates a natural weak point. The use of rumors and false communiqués to dispute claims of responsibility when they serve our enemies’ interests, or to suggest them when they don’t, would be an effective means to exploit it, although domestic propaganda prohibitions would mean only deploying this tactic abroad.