Brussels, Terrorism and Technology: How Thousands Beat Billions
After the terrorist attacks in Brussels, the question has come up again: “How did the attacks happen?” How could terrorists, using burner phones and bombs made from easily available sources, evade detection? Especially since they were being hunted all over Europe. The answer is fairly simple: disciplined operatives with thousands of dollars that can beat billions of dollars.
Operational Discipline and Security
First, the terrorists have learned their lessons. Whether it’s leaks from Edward Snowden, or just the brutal on-the-job training, the jihadis have learned what can and can’t be monitored. Two things are very tough to monitor – encrypted communications and one-time use devices. With encrypted communications, there is at least an assumption the bad guys are using the same device most of the time. Once a name is attached to a device, at least you know something is going on.
On the other hand, with burner phones, you know there are communications going on. You just have no clue which one of the billions of messages sent each day is the one you are interested in. It’s like hiding in plain sight. And because the device is used once, it’s nearly impossible to tie a device back to a person.
Keep the circle of communication tight, use phones once – just once – and you now have the current recipe for how to avoid billions of dollars of signals intelligence investment (SIGINT). To have a fighting chance, you need human intelligence – HUMINT.
Terrorism On The Cheap
History lesson: the Soviet Union not only lost the war in Afghanistan, this loss directly contributed to the end of the USSR. All because a Stinger missile only cost $38,000. Stingers routinely shot down Mi-24’s, MiG-21’s and Mi-8’s. Aircraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars shot down by fighters who rode horses, camels and Chinese donkeys.
This is the history lesson repeating itself. Not in the mountains of Afghanistan, but on the streets of Brussels. The same lesson we also painfully learned from Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols when the Murrah Federal Building was destroyed with an ANFO bomb – ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The material to make powerful bombs is still easy to get, here and in Belgium.
What’s The Answer?
I don’t know that’s any good answer. We lack the human intelligence we need to prevent these attacks. We’re certainly not seeing the traditional ‘chatter’ anymore. Communications are either encrypted or hidden among the billions of other messages with one-time use devices. And political correctness has made it difficult, if not impossible, for our intelligence community and law enforcement to do their job.
One things I do know – you can’t prevent an attack you can’t detect. Luck and hope are not effective strategies.