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Global Viewpoint

What Obama could learn from France about stopping terrorists

To defend itself from terrorist attacks, the US should go on the offensive with a proactive strategy, like France.

By Jean-Louis Bruguiere / January 12, 2010


The failure of the US intelligence community to prevent the Christmas Day bombing attempt is not due to the failure of any individual or department but of the system itself.

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The American emphasis on tough border controls with strict immigration rules and an overreliance on information-gathering technology has failed to make the country more secure.

Only shedding this defensive approach and developing a more proactive strategy that understands the evolving nature of the terror threat, while embracing information sharing and cooperation among intelligence agencies within the United States and abroad, will make a difference.

No fence alone can protect a country from terrorist attack. In North America, the borderlines between the US and its neighbors, Canada and Mexico, are particularly porous. Everyone, for example, knows about the massive flow of drugs and illegal immigrants into the US from Mexico.

Given this reality, immigration law and border controls cannot be the linchpin of any relevant antiterror strategy. Such a defensive “Maginot Line” approach is simply outdated and ineffective, especially in the face of the shifting shape of terror networks, which are now recruiting and training citizens from the West outside their countries to go back home to commit terrorist acts.

Moreover, the fact that the US doesn’t have effective national identity controls jeopardizes its ability to detect in advance entrenched sleeping cells if their members have not already been implicated in illegal activities.

The other problem of America’s counterterror strategy involves information collection through satellites, drones, wiretaps and other communications scanning by the National Security Agency and other agencies. Too much data kills operational information.

The terrorist threat today is scattered and polymorphous. It does not issue from some central command but is a mutating system that responds to any situation or event from which it might benefit. Evaluation of threats depends on a flexibility of mind-set that can match this viral behavior, allowing a prompt and adapted response.

Human intelligence sources are thus usually more effective than technical ones because motives and opportunities to act are very hard to read from a distance through opaque data. Satellites cannot get inside the mind of a jihadist.

The US needs a new approach with new tools and methods. First and foremost, circulation of information in real time is crucial.

Often, it is the small, apparently trivial sign lost in the avalanche of data that forewarns of a coming threat. The more trained eyes there are on information, the more likely that sign is to be read.

If the information provided by the father of the Nigerian charged in the Christmas Day bombing attempt had been properly shared and analyzed, the suspect would have been prevented from boarding a plane headed to the US.

In this respect, the federal system in the US often serves to impede communication. Local police forces are often reluctant to cooperate with federal agencies, and thus information collected in the field doesn’t make it to the national government officials tasked with counterterrorism. This was noted when looking back on the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks but still has not been effectively resolved.