Showing posts with label Times Square bomber. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Times Square bomber. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 2)

READ: Part 1 here.

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

Now let’s look at the two main arguments that lawmakers and spy agency officials constantly put forward to justify the far reaching and arbitrary nature of the current surveillance programs. Governments around the world agree that acts committed by seemingly normal people with no affiliation to a terrorist group are both the new soup du jour and their greatest fear. Yet, a few honest people in security establishments also add that there is virtually no way to detect or stop these people unless we can find a way to read their minds.

This begs the question whether programs exposed by Snowden, like PRISM, are an attempt by the government (perhaps unwittingly) to build a machine designed to detect an act of terror before it happens? A sort of pre-crime unit like in the one in the Steve Spielberg movie, Minority Report. Is the US government attempting to collect every piece of communication from every citizen, in the hope of trying to establish a pattern of behaviour that might indicate self-radicalization? Proponents of the current NSA programs would have us believe that such a program is the only way for the government and security agencies to keep us safe by stopping lone wolf attacks. 

Many lawmakers defend these programs by talking about the number of terrorist attacks that have been thwarted as a result of this surveillance, but are conveniently unable to provide any statistics due to national security concerns. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have publicly admitted that “in spite of all that added spying, they couldn’t point to one single case that was solved, or one single terrorist act that was thwarted through the use of these Patriot Act provisions.” (Source: Washington Post Article). Some people disagree with this view and argue the opposite, but, since we do not have access to ‘sensitive’ information, let’s look at the last few major terrorist attacks that have been thwarted.

In the case of the Times Square bomber it was a vigilant food vendor that alerted police and not the massive surveillance apparatus the government has built. It was a last minute tip from a Saudi informant that prevented the printer bombs, aboard cargo planes, from exploding in midair en-route to Chicago. The two packages bound for the US, had passed undetected “through four countries in at least four different airplanes, two of them carrying passengers” (source: NY Times). The Nigerian underwear bomber’s father personally went to the US Embassy in Abuja to warn the US government that his son was becoming radicalized. This tip was passed on to counterterrorism officials in the US, yet less than a month later Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully passed through Nigerian and Dutch security using his real identity, paying cash for a one way ticket and never checked luggage – all things that are supposed red flags in our post-9/11 Patriot Act security apparatus. The older brother in the Boston marathon bombings was identified by Russian intelligence, who warned US intelligence that this young man on a path to being radicalized. I guess the NSA’s multi-billion dollar machine did not think so. 

Time after time we have seen that human intelligence is the only surefire way to thwart a terrorist attack. Human intelligence will always be the most valuable and effective way for us to stop any kind of attack, because all attacks require time to plan and the process of radicalisation is visible to the people closest to the would-be terrorist. The attacker needs time to procure bomb-making expertise, buy physical materials and will likely also have some accomplices. A friend, co-worker, family or community member will witness changes in these people; homegrown terrorists do not live in isolation. All of the recent lone wolf terrorists in the US have been well-educated and functioning members of society – but all must at some point have displayed signs of odd behaviour and warning signs to the people around them. This is where we need to focus. 

No amount of reading emails or storing metadata from our Skype and cellphone calls can provide this intelligence. We should focus our energy on winning trust in local communities and educating people to inform authorities the moment they see well-defined warning signs. I am not talking about asking everyone to spy on neighbours, but about picking up on overt changes in behaviour in people we have known all our lives.

One other factor that should concern us is the government’s growing reliance on machines and data. Every data scientist will tell you that ‘too much’ data is worse than having none at all. It can actually hamper one’s ability to prevent attacks because you either miss the needles in the haystack or spread yourself too thin trying to understand and connect every dot. Consider the sheer amount of data being collected today; it requires authorities to cast a much wider net and as a result lose focus on the more important warning signs.  

I am not suggesting that we abandon spying programs or get rid of the entire Patriot Act. Nor am I suggesting that we lay down our arms and meekly accept our fate. We absolutely must be vigilant and put measures in place to prevent attacks, but there also needs to be a discussion about the limits and oversights that must be placed on these programs. Government needs to be more honest about the realities and limits of how safe we can be, rather than pandering to voters and behaving like there is always something more that can be done after a new attack. 

America’s founding fathers were acutely aware of too much power corrupting people and built safeguards into the constitution. Today, our government and security agencies are building deeply sophisticated and frighteningly broad surveillance systems designed to spy on their own citizens in the name of protecting us from acts of terror. The problem is that this is a disingenuous and irrational argument, one that will not make us safer, but will lead to greater abuse of power with less transparency and virtually no accountability.

The question we need to answer is – have we become so irrational in this fear that we would give up freedoms for which our forefathers gave their lives? Are we willing to live in a world where government watches our every move and monitors every form of communication just to find one needle in a vast haystack? I know I do not want to live in such a world. I would rather take my chances and die in a terrorist attack.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Enemy in Our Midst

“Fighting terrorism is like being a goalkeeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only shot that people remember is the one that gets past you.”
Paul Wilkinson

While the Republicans and Democrats continue to expend time and energy fighting and arguing about what to call terrorists. And Conservatives blame misguided left wing political correctness for using soft terminology and for lack of profiling, the world and the profile of the Extremist is being totally re-defined with every new homegrown terrorist being caught in America and abroad. It is becoming increasingly and frighteningly clear that our old rules, profiles and profiling definitions no longer apply. The terrorists are now recruiting and succeeding in creating a totally new breed of monster: people who are virtually impossible to sniff out or detect, most times until they actually commit an act of terror.

In the last year alone, all the men (and a few women) who have been arrested in the act of committing an act of terror, planning one or are already trained and hardened members of Al-Qaeda - not one of them fits the old profile of disenfranchised, poor, uneducated, Muslim and non-American.
Omar Hammami, was born to a white Southern Baptist woman from Alabama and a Syrian immigrant father. He had the most normal middle class childhood and upbringing in Daphne, Alabama until he showed up in a Somalia Al-Qaeda terrorist propaganda video one day with his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, “the American” (The Jihadist Next Door - New York Times). Bryant Neal Vinas was an altar boy who grew up in a middle class suburb on Long Island, New York, with a passion for baseball and the Mets. His father is from Peru and his mother Argentinean. Vinas was arrested last year in Afghanistan and confessed to being trained and assisting Al-Qaeda in a plan to bomb the Long Island Rail Road. Friends describe Vinas as a sweet, charming, young boy with a kind heart, who was perhaps a little gullible. David Coleman Headley has a wealthy former Pakistani diplomat for a father and a white American Pittsburgh socialite mother. By all accounts he had a very privileged childhood. He lived with his father in Pakistan until the age of 17, when he arrived in the United States to live with his mother. In 1998 he was convicted of smuggling heroin into the US. As part of a deal for a lighter sentence, he agreed to work undercover for the Drug Enforcement Agency, which gave him unfettered access to Pakistan, India and the United States. It is now clear he was training with Lashkar, raising the possibility that he had made contact with militants while still working for the DEA. He has admitted to helping plot the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Bombay, in 2008. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, better known as the underwear bomber, is the son of a former minister and chairman of First Bank of Nigeria. He lived in a four million dollar apartment in Central London, and was an Engineering student at a prestigious London University. His teacher and friends remember him as model pupil and “very personable boy". Faisal Shahzad, the terrorist who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square is the son of a former Air Force vice marshal and Deputy Director of Civil Aviation in Pakistan. Shazad graduated from the University of Bridgeport, came back to earn a Master’s in the same school, and was working with a marketing and consulting firm as a junior financial analyst. He became a US citizen in 2009 and married a Colorado-born girl with Pakistani parents. They have two children. He is the epitome of the “average student, employee, and neighbour” that litters the suburban American landscape today.

The list goes on, but what is most alarming to me about all of these men is that they have only one thing in common. Not one of them fits into any of our pre-defined categories or profiles that have been established and used by law enforcement for more than two decades for the hard core
Jihadist. Yet to consider them anything less would be a foolish mistake. After 9/11 we were all painted a picture of the poverty-stricken, opportunity-less, uneducated Muslim male as the person we should fear most to be a likely terrorist. We were told that these men could be found in poorer cities and villages in Muslim countries. And we were led to believe that the focus was on preventing these men from penetrating our borders, not that they already reside within them. Or the fact they are from upper or upper middle class backgrounds, clean cut, born and bred American and some even non-Muslim. So what the hell happened and how did our governments get it so totally wrong? “There's clearly been an acceleration in radicalization in the United States," said Mitch Silber, the director of intelligence analysis at the New York Police Department. He says that Bryant Neal Vinas and many of these men are “poster children for the process, the unremarkable nature of the people who might go through this process and the potential to link up with al Qaeda and the danger that it presents" (‘The radicalization of an all-American kid’ - CNN). Clearly, the internet has made it much easier for people to access and find Al-Qaeda or radicals around the world and more frighteningly the reverse is also true. There was a long held belief that integration and assimilation of the population was not an issue in the United States as it has been in Europe, but that myth, too, has been shattered by among others the Fort Hood shooter and the Times Square bomber. What is clear is that we are witnessing a totally new phenomenon and one that has caught International law enforcement by surprise. But what is far more frightening to me is that it is seemingly impossible to find a common thread between all of these men or a common motivation to profile them in any meaningful way. Without an understanding of their motivations or the turning or tipping point as it may be, we are totally defenseless to identify these men or track them down until after they have shown the demon within them, which most often is too late.

I leave you to ponder the words of author Michael Marshall from his book, Blood of Angels:
“Terrorism isn't James Bond or Tom Clancy. Even Al-Qaeda is looking old school these days---now it's just some guy with a bomb. He walks the same roads as us. He thinks the same thoughts. But he's got a bomb.”