Terrorists Own the Timeline

It’s up to us to disrupt it
There have already been two widely-publicized arrests of Canadians for plots contravening the Anti-Terrorist Act here in Canada, for some, it’s hard to imagine. The most recent, “the Brampton 18,” involved a sophisticated plan aimed at the sensational destruction of key infrastructure in Toronto and the hostage-taking of Members of Parliament. It is equally difficult to imagine that the global battlespace now includes such potential ­horrors as a “homegrown” plot in Britain designed to out-strip the 9/11 attacks with bold new tactics. But these recent and serious news stories have a something special in ­common – they were all foiled by sophisticated, collaborative intelligence work and dogged, law-enforcement action spurred on by new legislation to proactively neutralize the terrorist threats before they had the opportunity to wreak havoc.

A New Battlespace
Since the struggle against strategic terrorism does not focus on sovereign states in particular, the modern battlespace becomes local and federal, domestic and international, sensational and common place. We know that, like guerilla warriors, terrorists own the timeline – it’s up to the rest of us to disrupt that timeline. Since the battlespace is informational and ephemeral, information superiority will be the most effective means of neutralizing the threat. Brains, not brawn. It must be noted however that brawn is necessary as an expeditionary defence function to take the fight to the enemy in foreign lands and to react decisively with force in the forum of Canadian security once they are located – the two are linked in the context of strategic terrorism. However, the emphasis in the new battlespace must necessarily be placed on finding the ­elusive terrorist cells and understanding their plan before they execute it.

Strategic Terrorism
It is important to describe why the terrorism that Al Qaeda represents is new and different. Terrorists have “changed the battlespace” – by coming from nowhere, striking at civilians, using civilian means of transportation as weapons – but in a strategic, military way, they have also altered the way nations think about domestic security. Bruce Berkowitz, an American expert on intelligence and terrorism, points out that strategic terrorism aims at information superiority, in both its “soft” (an alluring ideological message to recruit and motivate foot soldiers) and “hard” (secure global communications for logistics, financial support, and command and control) forms.

Furthermore, as Canadian academic Janice Stein has written, Al Qaeda constantly evolves, and has shown “a surprising willingness to adapt its mission. This capacity for change has consistently made the group more appealing to recruits, attracted new and unexpected allies, and – most worrisome from a Western perspective – made it harder to detect and destroy.”

The Director of the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, Martin Rudner, in his article Protecting North America’s Energy Infrastructure Against Terrorism, brings our attention to the terrorists’ focus on the interruption of the world’s crude oil supply as a main piece of a seven-stage, twenty-year grand strategy of the modern jihadist movement. Clearly, the radical jihadist threat is both imaginative, highly organized and long-term – a threat to be considered with profound respect.

How can we Combat Strategic Terrorism?
Although existing documentation still often exudes the pre-9/11 tone of reaction and consequence management, there have been marked improvements in intelligence and law enforcement cooperation as well as some legislative measures to allow action before events occur. Nevertheless, there is a continuing need for more effort. We have seen that the ­terrorist timeline is vulnerable – their plots can be disrupted and stopped. We need a Culture of Prevention in government to allow our nation, in concert with its allies, to establish information superiority over the terrorist networks. This will allow for preparation, heightened readiness, and defence before an attack – as well as dealing with the effects of violence after the attack.

The Culture of Prevention that is being proposed here takes form inside our nation’s public and private institutions. It is more than consequence management; it’s more than planning how to react when an attack is taking place or just about to take place. This is about pro-activity. This is about stopping the attack from happening. It can be argued that Canada has moved carefully and slowly in the right direction since 9/11.

Even with recent improvements, the nature of information to be shared, the purpose of its initial collection, and the circumstances and context in which it will be shared can cause a high level of legal risk under the present legal framework – particularly in the realms of law enforcement and prosecution. To adopt a Culture of Prevention it will be necessary to anchor the proposed framework of information sharing and interoperability on the pillars of a National Security Strategy such that the public safety and security ­network corresponds to the foundation of common, agreed-upon strategy. In this way, government, and indeed private citizens, will be able to share information that connects the dots to uncover terrorist activity within and without the country.

The Right Path
Recent successes in preventive security are evidence that we are moving along the right path. The alleged terrorist plot in Toronto that was uncovered on 2 June, 2006 is the most recent, and perhaps best, example of the “Culture of Prevention” at work in Canada. As Angela Gendron (Senior Fellow, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs) explains, in the July, 2006 RUSI Newsbrief, reports:

“The fact that the Canadian security authorities were successful in preventing the attacks was undoubtedly due to … a continuing multinational investigation of suspected terrorist cells in at least seven countries…. Investigations into the cyber-links between alleged militant jihadis are continuing. It is also likely that the Canadian success was dependent on well-placed sources and close co-operation with members of the Muslim community.”

The spectacular, British airline suicide-bombing plot that police thwarted on 10 August, 2006 is further evidence that ­prevention is the most effective approach to this new and insidious threat. Paul Koring reports in the Globe and Mail of 11 August, “Yesterday’s arrests seem to have resulted from successful intelligence that detected the conspirators, either by infiltrating the cell or intercepting communications or financial transfers.”

The Culture of Prevention
While deployed operations with human intelligence and military forces in concert with our allies are necessary to diminish the genesis of jihadist terrorists, and “soft power” solutions are important in the long term to create cultural bridges between Western and Muslim societies, the most pressing need for countries like Canada is to deal with the “homegrown” game. This entails the bolstering of national security in terms of legislation and policy which enables government departments, allies, and private industry to collaborate in stopping terrorists from realizing their goals.

We can do better to combat the terrorist threat to Canada and our allies. In the medium term, national capability in prevention is essential to maintain information superiority in the new battlespace. Canada has come a long way – we have achieved our first major success using the Culture of Prevention against the “Brampton 18.” The priority now is to continue efforts to strengthen our ability to share information both vertically and ­horizontally in government and with the private sector. Furthermore, the complex issue of interoperability must be pursued to ensure that information passes in a timely fashion to the right partners. Finally, the Culture of Prevention needs to be promoted further in government to ensure that all sectors are focused on pro-active efforts to connect the dots which uncover threatening plans and actions.

If we are lucky, the Toronto arrests may cause Canadians to realize that the target of militant jihadis is not just aimed at the United States, but at Western ­civilization and all of its values. Canada, too, is a target and needs to build its preventative capacity to fully integrate with the international effort to overcome the threat of radical jihadist terrorism.

Peter Avis is Director General, Requirements, on the Strategic Joint Staff at the Department of National Defence.
© FrontLine Security 2006