On 30 April 2013 I appeared on Channel NewsAsia, a regional Television news network based in Singapore. In preparation for the show I was asked to prepare answers for several potential questions. Those questions and answers appear below.
1. Has the presence of an increasing number of closed circuit TV cameras and security officers lured us into a false of security?
Just as increased security at banks and shops can discourage criminals and reduce the incidence of crime, increased security against terrorist activities can reduce the chances of successful terrorist attack. But we cannot eliminate all crime, and we cannot eliminate all terrorism. If we think that more security can ever mean perfect safety, then we are fooling ourselves.
2. Can we ever keep up with the terrorists?
As police officers know, criminals are very innovative. Keeping up with them is hard. Staying ahead of them is harder still.
But the fact that we have had so few incidents around the world in the last decade shows that a lot of counterterrorist efforts are working. That includes not just local efforts in individual countries, but cooperation in tracking support for international terrorists, the movement of money, the movement of people for training, and so on.
People often say, “Law Enforcement has to be successful every time; terrorists only have to be lucky once.” But it is also true that every element of a terrorist plan has to work for an attack to be successful. I think the community of responsible nations has done a pretty good job of interrupting terrorist success.
3. What are the dangers of improvised explosive devices, the ease of access to these dangerous devices and the kind of technology that terrorist are using increasingly?
Military Grade or commercially produced explosive devices are very lethal because of their power and design. They are also very stable – they require a special initiator and do not go off until the user is ready. They are traceable – many contain chemical signatures that can tell experts where the explosives were produced or when. And frequently they are tightly controlled. This makes getting and using high grade explosives problematical.
Improvised Explosive Devices are sometimes less powerful gram for gram than commercial or military explosives (like TNT) because they are made with materials readily available in stores and markets. But if used in the right place (as in a crowd) they can be very lethal. Also, IEDs might be used in great quantities. It might be very hard to get a truck full of commercial explosives, but relatively easy to mix a truck full of improvised explosives. And users – especially suicide bombers – might not worry much about stability once they are in a crowd.
Taken together this means that IEDs are very useful in civilian settings – even if less reliable in traditional criminal or military settings.
4. What can we do to curb the growth of self- radicalized individuals? How do we spot one?
That is a hard question, but the New York City Police Department has published an excellent study that traces the steps of radicalization.
One of the most important steps is the presence of a key person or organization acting as a catalyst or radicalizer. No one sits alone in a room and becomes a radical. They must be recruited and energized as radicals. And this must be done in public, at least initially, to attract more recruits. The internet is a great resource for radicalizers. That means law enforcement and average citizens can see such attempts and report them or take action.
The next step for people being radicalized is to seek out people with similar views. It is not profiling for law enforcement to watch known radical groups with known radical views as they attempt to attract and radicalize others.
Another important step is that people becoming radicalized cut themselves off from friends and family, and frequently talk in increasingly radical terms. Friends and family members always notice this change – and can intervene by themselves or with authorities.
Radicals frequently need additional training, which may require overseas travel. By itself, overseas travel means nothing. Together with other indicators, such travel to questionable destinations should be a red flag of warning.
Lastly, radicals working to conduct a terrorist attack must collect the proper materials and train. This is another opportunity to see something wrong and say something.
So there are lots of ways that we can see that something is wrong and ask good questions before a potential terrorist if fully radicalized.
5. There are signs that the American public now view increased domestic intelligence gathering efforts with deep suspicion because they fear the authorities will target certain individuals or groups. In Singapore, we have a multi- racial society, how can we strike a balance between security and sensitivity?
American government and society is built on the concept that no one person or organization should have too much power because that power might be abused. So every government organization works within a system of checks and balances. One organization might enforce the law, but another agency provides funding for their activities, and a different agency provides guidance and oversight. This is why American domestic affairs frequently seem conflicted and contentious – the whole domestic system was designed as an “invitation to struggle” for public support. Domestic intelligence collection and action runs at cross purposes with that deep tradition against the consolidation of power.
Balance may be achieved by robust oversight. Allow the Administrative branch authority to create intelligence assets, but watch them closely from the Legislative brance, and control their growth, funding and other resources to make sure they have only enough power to accomplish their mission. And that oversight must be as public and transparent as possible.
I am in no position to tell Singaporeans how to run their government and society. They seem to be doing a very good job at this without outside help. But my one recommendation for Singaporean consideration would be to consider maximum transparency and openness in security procedures – consistent with the security mission, of course.
6. Are surveillance and intelligence gathering still effective in spotting early signs (in the case of 26- year- old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he was alleged to be under the watch of the FBI)?
It is much too early to know what exactly happened in this particular case.
But as a general statement, I suspect that law enforcement was too intrusive with preventative investigations for the first few years after 9/11; and too sensitive to the complaints of some ethnic groups in the last few years.
Striking the right balance is hard. I think US law enforcement is still working on finding and maintaining that balance.
7. What role can society then play?
Citizens recognize normal behavior – and abnormal behavior. They should not be afraid to ask friends and family about strange behavior, or report unusual behavior to authorities.
An attack in the US was once thwarted because the owner of an apartment – an American Muslim – said, “I am renting to some young men who keep carrying heavy, full suitcases upstairs to their room, and light empty suitcases down stairs This is very strange behavior.” The police discovered explosives and chemicals used to make Improvised Explosive Devices.
So be involved in the lives of your friends, family and fellow citizens. When behavior seems to have changed dramatically and become potential dangerous, say something. You might save the person being radicalized as well as others who might later become victims.