Belmont Club

Elites Versus the Masterminds

The French have voted to extend the State of Emergency for three more months in reaction to an attack on Paris that claimed 129 lives.  “The lower house of parliament voted overwhelmingly to extend the measures until the end of February and to increase certain powers, including immediately placing people under house arrest if they are considered a risk.” These include the power to detain preemptively detain individuals, carry out warrantless searches, seize data and block websites.

The Eurocrats have declared open season on anything which obfuscates government supervision over individual activity. Reuters reports that “European Union countries plan a crackdown on virtual currencies and anonymous payments made online and via pre-paid cards in a bid to tackle terrorism financing after the Paris attacks.”

EU interior and justice ministers will gather in Brussels on Friday for a crisis meeting called after the Paris carnage of last weekend.

They will urge the European Commission, the EU executive arm, to propose measures to “strengthen controls of non-banking payment methods such as electronic/anonymous payments and virtual currencies and transfers of gold, precious metals, by pre-paid cards,” draft conclusions of the meeting said.

Even in America authorities are demanding limitations on the private encryption of messages despite the fact that the Paris attackers coordinated via unencrypted SMS.

Yet, pushed by their sources in the government, the media quickly became a sound wall of noise suggesting that encryption was hampering the government’s ability to stop these kinds of attacks. NBC was particularly breathless this week over the idea that ISIS was now running a 24 hour help desk aimed at helping its less technically proficient members understand encryption (even cults help each other use technology, who knew?). All of the reports had one central, underlying drum beat implication: Edward Snowden and encryption have made us less safe, and if you disagree the blood is on your hands.

Yet, amazingly enough, as actual investigative details emerge, it appears that most of the communications between the attackers was conducted via unencrypted vanilla SMS.

Bruce Schneier is particularly irked by media reports which continuously refer to Belgian jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud as a “mastermind” in the mold of Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Fu Manchu.

Now that French authorities have named a suspected chief planner of the Paris attacks—27-year-old Belgian ISIS veteran Abdelhamid Abaaoud—the press is building him up as if he’s 100 feet tall. Abaaoud isn’t just another opportunist butcher of innocent flesh, he’s a “mastermind,” concur the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, CBS News, Fox News, Time, NPR, the Guardian, NBC News, the Independent, and other outlets. Even POLITICO gets in on the act, though hedging it as the “alleged mastermind.” …

What makes us so susceptible to the idea that the author of the Paris killings is a “mastermind”? Why can’t he be called something more mundane, like an organizer or a commander? I think we ascribe evil brilliance to terrorists because we can’t accept that a normal working Joe of standard intelligence could kill so freely as this. We see this again and again in novels and movies, presenting us with villainous killers who possess a commanding intellect, like Professor Moriarty, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Hannibal Lecter.

But the desire to attribute setbacks to a “mastermind” may be driven less by the fact of criminal genius than the desire of law enforcement to avoid resembling the Keystone Cops. The New York Times reports that many of the plotters had been known to the European authorities for years yet continued to run rings around the security services until the last moment.

One of the militants in the Paris attacks traveled to Syria from his hometown in France and back, officials said, even after his passport had been confiscated and he had been placed under judicial oversight. So did another, despite having been arrested eight times in petty crimes and having been listed as a national security risk in France.

Even the man suspected of organizing the massacre on Friday, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a well-known figure in the Belgian jihadist scene, is believed to have traveled between Islamic State-controlled territory and Europe a number of times — including for an attack plot in Belgium in January.

The Paris attacks, the deadliest in France to date, have sharpened the focus on the inability of security services to monitor the large and growing number of young European Muslims who have fought alongside the Islamic State or to spot terrorist plots in their early stages, even when the participants are well known to them.

Perhaps part of the reason for apparent police incompetence is that the Jihadists are not considered “the enemy” but rather as criminal suspects protected by the full panoply of human rights. Another New York Times article described how teams of FBI agents tailed suspects for years waiting for them to cross some legal line that would provide a pretext to reel them in. “For F.B.I. agents, watching an Islamic State suspect in the United States is a study in anxiety. Being an Islamic State sympathizer is not against the law. Neither is expressing hatred for the United States on Twitter. Buying guns is also legal, and investigators have watched nervously as terrorism suspects passed background checks and purchased guns more than 2,000 times in the past decade, according to government data.”

The Western decision to deal with Islamic extremism as a law enforcement problem has certain costs.  It means Jihadis cannot be regarded as belligerents living outside of ordinary law. To get at the few the legal system must reduce the rights of all to a very great extent as the French State of Emergency is now doing.

There’s another approach. Unlike the law enforcement paradigm, warfare allows the state to treat the enemy considerably differently from one’s own population.  That made it possible to be fierce at war yet protective of one’s population. By erasing the difference, Western politician find themselves perpetually on the horns of a dilemma.  Unable to name the enemy they must treat everyone with equal suspicion. The Daily Beast, describing “America’s ISIS Air Strike Center in Iraq” notes the key role played by lawyers even in military operations.

The Daily Beast visited the operations room on Saturday, the day after the Kurds had recaptured the city of Sinjar from ISIS with close Americans air support. …

In the control room, the battle captain sat on a desk with a mug of coffee emblazoned with the 82nd Airborne logo. With the target in mind he called across to ask the Kurdish officials to check with their GPS officers that there were no civilians or friendly forces in the area. Next he used a classified phone on his desk to call the Joint Operations Command room down the hall, where an American military lawyer and other Air Force members sat monitoring drone footage and speaking to the pilots.

The lawyers, one working the day shift and the other the night shift, look at the screens to make their assessments. “They are making sure everything falls within the rules of engagement,” said Major Thomas Campbell, public affairs officer with the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command Iraq.

“From the Joint Operations Command room all sorts of checks and balances take place,” he said. “We have very detailed map systems and we understand well each munition that will be dropped, and what the blast radius is, to help us do collateral damage estimates, so we know what the effects will be of what we drop and we try and minimize collateral damage.” …

Strikes carried out during the battle vary in what approval they need from more deliberate, longer-term strikes. Depending on what is being targeted, the major said some strikes are approved at the one-star general level, and some must be approved at the two-, three-, or four-star levels.

In a world where low-observability is the key to  battlefield the enemy often has the the ultimate Stealth advantage.  They are politically invisible. The Military Times reports that the FBI may never tell the public “what motivated a 24-year-old Chattanooga man to kill four Marines and a sailor in an attack on Chattanooga’s U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center last July.”  Not that it doesn’t know, but that it cannot say.

Investigators have said Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez was a homegrown violent extremist but have not offered more details about what motivated the attack that began at a military recruiting center and ended when Abdulazeez was shot to death by police who followed him to the reserve center. …

Comey said he understands the public interest in the shooting, but he did not know whether there would ever be a public report on it.

Even the best data collection can be negated by a filter. Sharyl Atkisson says sources in the White House tell her president Obama ignores intelligence on groups he doesn’t consider terrorists.

Wednesday on Newsmax TV’s “The Steve Malzberg Show,” veteran journalist Sharyl Attkisson said … said, “I have talked to people who have worked in the Obama administration who firmly believe he has made up his mind. I would say closed his mind, they say, to their intelligence that they’ve tried to bring him about various groups that he does not consider terrorists, even if they are on the U.S. list of designated terrorists. He has his own ideas, and there are those who’ve known him a long time who say this dates back to law school. He does not necessarily—you may think it’s a good trait you may think it’s a bad trait—he does not necessarily listen to the people with whom he disagrees. He seems to dig in. I would suppose because he thinks he’s right. He is facing formidable opposition on this particular point.”

They’re just not there — until they strike. Such a tendency in the president, if true, results in blind spots caused by cognitive bias. “These biases can occur not only a with a single analyst but to an entire office of them, leading to a biased form of ‘groupthink'”.  No conceivable increase in intelligence data collection can overcome cognitive bias. “For there are none so blind as they who will not see.”

The West has chosen a singularly ineffective way to counter Islamic — dare we say the word? — extremism.  As a result Jihadi attacks are ridiculously cheap in comparison to the gold-plated army of lawyers and surveillance apparatus necessary to merely contain them.  In order to explain away this embarrassment  the media creates the image of the Jihadi mastermind to square the account.

The apparent helplessness of the West against the Jihadi threat is probably the result of an obsolete mental model applied to a modern threat. Mental models often lag behind radical change. As Benedict Evans noted, the first automobile drivers simply thought of their new conveyances as horseless carriages.  You could “drive a car perfectly well if you think it’s powered by little horses somewhere inside.” Similarly, some early consumers thought of digital camera memory cards as rolls of film.

There are deeper things to think about, though, around how we build mental models to cope with these issues. A few years ago, one of the big UK retailers told me an anecdote from some market research they’d done into cameras. Their customers had said they wanted a solution for storing all the camera cards they had. This puzzled the researchers, so they dug a little further, and found out that a lot of their customers had dozens and dozens of memory cards.

Why would you have dozens of memory cards for your camera?

Well, you went to the shop and bought a new camera, and you got a digital one whether you wanted one or not. So you asked the shop assistant what you used for film with a digital camera, and they sold you a memory card. When it was full, some people took it somewhere that could print the photos for you – a print kiosk, probably – but not until it was full, because once you’ve printed them you can’t put more images on the card. It’s as though you’ve developed a roll of film. Other people just took the memory card out of the camera at the end of a trip, and when they wanted to show people the photos they’d taken they retrieved the card and put it back into the camera.

The current Western leadership may see multiculturalism as nothing more sinister than an updated form of Curleyism; a way of staying in office by flooding the electorate with beholden immigrants. It’s Boston powered by “little Muslims” instead of the little Irishmen of James Michael Curley’s time.

Therefore they will not see the danger. They cannot perceive the change precisely because they cannot reason outside their cognitive biases. For this reason the PC elite will do more of the ineffective same in the face of the new challenges: gun control, increased surveillance, warrantless searches, speech codes and be surprised when they are blindsided again. The sad truth is that Western leaders are constantly outwitted not because their foes are so intelligent, but because they are so infernally dull. We need the notion of the “mastermind” to explain Stuck on Stupid.

Helpless Against the Mastermind

Helpless Against the Mastermind

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