TCS Daily

Who Can't Handle the Truth?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 23, 2002 12:00 AM

Terrorists practice what's called "asymmetric warfare," in which a force takes advantage of its opponents' peculiar weaknesses in order to achieve an advantage even where the opponent would seem to have the edge. Terrorists do this by using the openness of our society to attack vulnerable points, thus doing damage from within that only a vastly more powerful force could accomplish from without.

Asymmetry works both ways, though, and I've been thinking about the weaknesses that terrorists face - and information seems to be an important one.
Terrorists might seem to have an advantage in information: they know who they are, and where they want to strike, while we know neither. But actually, terrorists suffer from some dramatic disadvantages in the information area, disadvantages that can be exploited.

Imagine that you're an Al Qaeda "sleeper" agent in a Western nation. You have to be in communication with the larger organization to some extent, but the amount and frequency of that communication is likely to be sharply limited for security reasons. As an operative, you'll know what you need to know for your own operation and little more. Anything that gives you the big picture is dangerous, as you might talk, and unimportant, since it doesn't facilitate your mission.

But terrorists are human. They will still want to know the big picture, and will tend to try to put it together from other sources, which will chiefly be the news media. And that's a source that isn't under terrorist control, providing opportunities for confusion and disinformation.

This perhaps explains why authorities seem so reluctant to characterize various seemingly terrorist-related events, such as the Los Angeles International Airport shooting, as terrorism, something that has puzzled many, including me, in the past. If Al Qaeda operatives aren't aware that crimes are terrorism, but think they're done by run-of-the-mill wackos, they'll think the war is going less well, and their own morale and motivation may suffer. By artificially increasing the "noise" level, the terrorists' signal is drowned out. It's thus in the interest of the authorities (and, I suppose, the rest of us too) to give the terrorists the wrong idea. This is even more true if the organizational structure of terrorists is degraded to the point that they wind up following (either deliberately or by default) the sort of "leaderless resistance" strategy favored by both neonazi groups and ecoterrorists.

The problem, of course, is that in order to fool terrorists, the authorities' manipulations must be plausible. This suggests that the authorities are not following a strategy of asymmetric information warfare today: The reluctance to call even obvious acts of terror terrorism, which has been the hallmark of recent law enforcement approaches, may have the opposite effect - sufficiently damaging the authorities' credibility that even non-terrorist acts are presumed to be the result of terrorists, thus giving the world (and even the terrorists themselves) an exaggerated idea of their power. That seems to have happened where the D.C. sniper is concerned, with many observers saying that the authorities' reluctance to discuss terrorism is evidence that terrorism may be involved. D'oh!

But the asymmetric-information approach suggests other opportunities that are less likely to backfire. For example, frequent arrests of reported terrorists (even if bogus) and "leaks" suggesting that those terrorists are cooperating with authorities, may cause sleeper agents to lose faith in their organization, and even to wonder if their supposedly "secure" channels of communication have been compromised. Given that terrorists are unlikely to know many of their number, authorities could even "arrest" actors who portray members of the terror organization, leak enough truthful details about the organization to make it sound plausible, then give the impression that they are getting far more useful information in secret interrogations. They could even leak false reports that actual members of terror organizations have been picked up and released, instilling further doubts within the organization - especially when those members deny that it ever took place. And false information about terrorists' support - perhaps suggesting that it is coming from individuals or organizations terrorists and their constituencies would find detestable - might be fed into public media in order to weaken morale and sow distrust.

Is anything like this going on? I don't know - and, I suppose, it's better off that I don't. But thinking about these possibilities has certainly caused me to view news accounts differently, and in one or two cases to wonder. If it's not going on, perhaps it's time to give it a try.



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