Why the determination of terrorist risk should be left to professionals

OK, it is probably best to get this out right at the start.  When it comes to ‘terrorism experts’ I have a HUGE bias.  As a former practitioner, someone who spent decades in counter terrorism as an analyst for a security intelligence service, I lean heavily in favour of listening to those who work in this field – although that crew is woefully mum for reasons both good and bad – over those who view the problem from the outside (i.e. journalists and academics).  But before I get hate mail (or worse) let me also state categorically that I have many, many, many friends in the two aforementioned fields and I also have a deep respect for their work and views.  Unfortunately, as in all domains, including intelligence by the way, there are good and bad, competent and incompetent.

What then to make of an article that I came across today by John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, in which he says quite openly that the so-called threat from returning Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters has been grossly overexaggerated and may in fact not exist?  Unfortunately, he also takes a cheap shot at those of us who are paid to stop attacks,  insinuating that we also ‘facilitate’  them.  I have two words for you John, the second of which is ‘off’.

In fairness, our esteemed Cato Institute fellow is not 100% wrong.  There has been a tendency to embellish the threat from seasoned returning terrorists by the media, some in academe and, yes, some in government and security intelligence circles.  This is done for a variety of reasons I suppose: for the record though as an analyst I find any inaccurate analysis inexcusable.

But is the threat truly not real?  Is Dr. Mueller right?  As an aside, I did look into his previous articles on the Foreign Policy Web site and noticed a trend to speak in terms of ‘alarmism’ and ‘fear factory’ so I guess we know where the good professor comes from.  As far as he is concerned the threat is completely made up and I wasted 30 years of my life working a phantom menace (hey, wasn’t that also the name of a Star Wars film?  I should have gone to Hollywood instead of making shit up I suppose).

Sorry Mr. Mueller but your writing clearly demonstrates that you are in over your head and heavily biased in an unhelpful way.  Please allow me to walk you through how this works in the real world.  The threat from those that want to sow fear in our populations is real.  There are people that like to rape and kill – didn’t I just read about the discovery  of hundreds of mass IS graves?  – and I don’t think the world’s intelligence agencies ‘facilitated’ that.

Here is the challenge when your livelihood consists of preventing attacks rather than pontificating about them.  You never know when someone is going to move from talk to action as there are no good predictive models.  So, you end up launching a tonne of investigations, hoping that you have the right pieces in place when the serious plots unfold.  We get it right most of the time, but alas not all of the time.

Getting back to those returning IS terrorists, yes the threat is real although not perhaps as dire as some have said.  According to a REAL expert, Norwegian scholar Thomas Hegghammer, about one in nine returnees ends up trying to carry out a terrorist attack.  His theory is based on data and analysis, not on the back of a napkin calculation by the way.

So one in nine is much better than nine in nine but here’s the rub: which one?  Returnees seldom parade their intentions openly, meaning that those of us in the intelligence and law enforcement communities have to consider all nine until such time we assess that eight are just wankers and we zero in on ‘the one’.  All hoping we haven’t missed something.  After all, as I have said before, we are only as good as our last failure, not our last success.  That is not a complaint or a whinge – it is an acknowledgement of the nature of the business.

In the end when it comes to an assessment of the true level of terrorist threat I go first to what the professionals say, not to someone convinced this is all ‘alarmist’.  And I’d modestly suggest you do the same.



2 thoughts on “Why the determination of terrorist risk should be left to professionals

  1. Martyn

    Hi Phil
    I agree there is far too much commentary by people who have little understanding of the area or empirical data. It worse than that. Some of the “experts” themselves have little idea. for instance, the various risk assessment instruments (e.g. VERA 1 and 2; ERG22+, RADAR) are not really based on good science or accurate knowledge, derived from people who actually know anything about the ideas driving radicalised folks. That is apparent from the various criteria the developers have used. So many of them are turning radicalization into a psychological condition rather than what it is. A collection of highly specific beliefs. [Not my ideas by the way.] There is some good work, but the snakeoil salesmen and women, whether in the media or, academe or the security and intelligence space, seem always to win.

    1. Phil Gurski Post author

      Thank you Martyn for taking the time to comment. I agree on the limited usefuleness of the ‘threat assessment instruments’ all of which I have been critical of.


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