“Ok, surprise me.”
The enemy always does. For years Hamas has been working on a secret weapon: tunnels. “Eight Palestinian militants emerged from a tunnel some 300 yards inside Israel on Saturday morning, armed with automatic weapons and wearing Israeli military uniforms, the Israeli military said. The gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at two Israeli military jeeps on patrol, starting a battle that killed two Israeli officers and one of the militants, according to the military. The rest then retreated underground, back to Gaza.”
The IDF has taken 30 tunnels so far, many lined with concrete. While the Israelis were not strategically surprised, they were inevitably taken at tactical unawares. They knew there were tunnels but not where all were and how they would be used.
Israeli officials framed the encounters as successes in thwarting attacks on Israel. But they were also an indication that Hamas could strike even during the invasion through a tunnel network that Israeli officials just revealed they had been studying for a year to plan a way to destroy them.
Despite the belief in NSA omniscience, James Kitfield in Breaking Defense points out that Western intelligence has many institutional blinds spots that terrorists have identified. It is now only a matter of time before they strike, but they seem to be holding off until they can pull off the Big One.
We know that intelligence gaps exist and unfortunately politics has ensured the defensive horses are wearing not only blinkers but blindfolds.
“Imagine if the United States was under attack by a wave of warplanes that we had on our radar, and then those planes turned off their transponders and suddenly became invisible to us. That’s the analogy I would use to explain what is happening with terrorist plots,” General Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, said in an interview. … “Believe me, those terrorists didn’t just decide one day to give the United States and Europe a pass. They are still trying to kill us. Only now, thanks in large part to Edward Snowden revealing our intelligence collection techniques and procedures, the terrorists know better how to get around our defenses.”
One of the first indications of that intelligence blind spot was a massacre last year by the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Though unfamiliar to most Americans, al-Shabab has been the subject of a “hard stare” by the U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism community. … Yet last September an al-Shabab terrorist cell attacked the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 67 civilians and wounding more than 175 others – and U.S. intelligence experts had no warning. No warning, either, of an al-Shabab attack on a Kenyan coastal town just last month that killed at least 48 civilians.
“I was asked by a Kenyan official why U.S. intelligence didn’t warn them of these attacks, and the answer is because we didn’t see them coming,” said Alexander. “The fact that there were two major terrorist attacks by the same group that we didn’t see coming tells me and a lot of other people in the intelligence community that something is fundamentally not right.”
The current model of al-Qaeda is much more sophisticated than the original, with a minimum 7,000 jihadists with Western passports supported by intelligence, signals and other specialist cells. While they have waxed, the West has deliberately waned. The Obama administration has defined the threat away by tying the War on Terror to a campaign talking point. They must now maintain the fiction that “Osama bin Laden is dead and Detroit is alive” because that was an electoral promise which on no account must be falsified.
The WOT is now officially over, except for low-level responses like drone strikes and targeted intelligence operations. But what if it’s not? What if the president declared victory with the enemy still rampant in the field? In retrospect, the major strategic miscalculation of the Obama administration may have been a failure to anticipate that the terror threat would evolve. Their implicit assumption was that the jihad would remain at the al-Qaeda 1.0 level indefinitely. They never imagined it would mutate and they would have to take the very roads that they proscribed.
Kitfield’s sources think that something’s up, though nobody is sure what it is. “As a number of ascendant terrorist groups jockey for primacy, U.S. intelligence experts also fear they will compete for legitimacy by launching spectacular attacks on the West, the coin of the realm when Islamic extremists compete for followers and funds. Given the number of European jihadists now fighting in Syria and their proximity to the continent, the first blow may well fall in Europe, but no one can be sure. What the U.S. and Western intelligence agencies share is a vague foreboding that they are about to be blindsided.”
So where’s the attack?
If a major terrorist offensive begins against the West, the response will be hampered by the politics of preclusion. It has been the political strategy of the left since 2001 to denounce certain measures as ipso facto illegitimate. Conventional military operations, profiling, immigration controls, coercive interrogation, etc. were characterized as war crimes and/or politically unacceptable because of the widespread belief that the al-Qaeda version 1.0 could be handled by intelligence and police action, or the threat was confined to countries like Israel or the United States. Israel faced a much higher threat level and responded with higher intensity measures that were branded as apartheid or warlike.
This has created ready-made sanctuaries. But such sanctuaries will stand only if the political balance in the West remains fundamentally unchanged. An al-Qaeda 2.0 onset turning Europe into Israel would vastly reduce the zone of preclusion.
The challenge in deciding whether to attack Europe and the U.S. either separately or together is how to preserve preclusion for as long as possible. Attacking simultaneously in both places may collapse preclusion globally. The fundamental problem in jihadi grand strategy is managing the Western political response. Since the West can be overcome only if it is defeated in detail or brought down all at once, it is important to keep the sanctuaries open until the very last. In every scenario where the West cannot be conquered outright, it is vital to prevent unmanageable political blowback.
The major reason for the absence of large-scale attacks despite the growing jihadi capability is they are not yet sure what the response will be. Ironically, it may be the fear of Europe that is holding terror back. European politics can be far more volatile than American politics. The flip side of the soft left in Europe can be the very hard right.
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