Using the Toulouse shootings as a jumping-off point, in this Stratfor article Scott Stewart discusses the difficulty in identifying and tracking lone wolf or small, autonomous cells of terrorists.
Among radicalized Moslems, and for that matter radicals in general, there is a spectrum that stretches from dedicated terrorists to just loud-mouthed, but passive, cheerleaders. It is a difficult task for security agencies to sort the noise from the signal, and it can be made even more difficult by when in the terror planning cycle a potential terrorist is observed.
It is a good read. I've excerpted the beginning of it below, with a link to the full article at the end of the excerpt.
As for the article's Hot Stratfor babe, since it dealt with people fading into the background, Hélène de Fougerolles was obviously the logical choice. As you no doubt recall, she played the part of "Beach Community Member" in the movie The Beach, which is the type of credit that means you're about as blended into the background as you can get in a movie.
If you haven't seen The Beach, it is a sort of Lonely Planet Backpacker fantasy/morality tale. There is a secret beach in Thailand where all sorts of attractive young folks hang around in swimming suits, practice free love, smoke a lot of dope and so forth. However, greed, passion and desire soon raises their ugly heads, and things don't go so good from that point.
As for Ms. Fougerolles, I can't say I know a thing about her. In fact, I don't even recall her role as "Beach Community Member" in The Beach, but I'm sure she did a fine job of acting as she ran around in the background. Regardless, from her credits, it seems as if she's had an active career and isn't hurting for parts.
Tactical Realities of the Toulouse ShootingsBy Scott Stewart, April 5, 2012
Mohammed Merah, the suspect in a string of violent attacks culminating with the March 19 shooting deaths of three children and a rabbi at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse, France, committed suicide by cop March 22 after a prolonged standoff at his Toulouse apartment. Authorities believed Merah also to have shot and killed a paratrooper March 11 in Toulouse and two other paratroopers March 15 in Montauban.
While Merah's death ended his attacks, it also began the inevitable inquiry process as French officials consider how the attacks could have been prevented. The commissions or committees appointed to investigate such attacks normally take months to complete their inquiries, so the findings of the panel looking into the Merah case will not be released in time to have any impact on the French presidential election set to begin April 22. However, such findings are routinely used for political purposes and as ammunition for bureaucratic infighting.
Like the suspects in many recent terrorist attacks in other countries, Merah had previously come to the attention of French authorities. He reportedly traveled at least twice to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region and was interviewed by authorities upon his return to France in November 2011. Some media reports have even suggested that Merah had worked as an informant for French authorities. Merah's older brother, Abdulkader Merah, also reportedly was investigated in 2007 for helping French Muslim men travel to Iraq to fight. These facets of the case will certainly be examined in detail.
While it will be many months before the official reports are published, already we can draw several conclusions from this case. This is because the same essential problems occur whenever a Western government attempts to pre-empt vague, potential threats posed by an amorphous enemy. Indeed, these issues surfaced several times following attacks by Islamist militants in the United States, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. They also were seen in the July 2011 attacks in Norway.
In short, government bureaucracies do not deal well with ambiguity -- and terrorist actors, particularly at the grassroots and lone-wolf levels, are nothing if not ambiguous. They tend to be insular and dedicated, and they might not be meaningfully connected to the command, control and communication mechanism of any known militant group or actor. This makes them exceedingly hard to identify, let alone pre-empt, before an attack is carried out.
As the political debates in London following the 2005 attacks (and in Washington following 9/11) have shown, that governments somehow are expected to prevent all terrorist attacks. When one occurs, political investigations into the cause of intelligence failures ensue and, on occasion, considerable finger-pointing and agency reorganizing. The public, after all, needs to feel secure.
But the uncomfortable truth is that there is no such thing as complete security. Given the nature of the terrorist threat and terrorist actors, no intelligence or security service in the world could identify every aspiring militant who lives in or enters a country or could pre-empt their potential acts of violence. This is impossible even in states that employ draconian security measures, and the challenge is obviously amplified in societies that value civil liberties and due process. The challenge is especially pronounced in cases where the subject is a citizen who has not yet broken any laws, or there is not sufficient evidence to support prosecution for any violations. A distinct tension exists between security and individual liberties.
Within that context, then, the tactical challenges and expectations faced by counterterrorism agencies are useful to consider.
Certainly, when the Merah case is reviewed in hindsight and in isolation it will become obvious that there were clues -- pieces of a puzzle -- that could have been fitted together to indicate Merah posed a threat and warranted focused intelligence and investigative efforts. As noted above, a few of those clues already have appeared in the press, and there are sure to be other clues revealed as the investigation progresses.
Anyone can be a brilliant investigator after the fact, but solving a puzzle in real time is very difficult -- especially considering that Merah did not exist in isolation but was one of myriad potential threats French authorities faced. France is not North Korea, a homogeneous society where the few resident foreigners easily can be monitored. France is a huge, multicultural country that is home to many religious and political dissidents and refugees. Moreover, France's Muslim population may number as many as 5 or 6 million, which equates to somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of the total population. Thus, even if one were to use profiling techniques, which can be problematic in their own right, identifying radical Islamists -- who make up only a small percentage of France's Muslim population -- would be a tremendous undertaking.
Even if one were able to positively identify all the radical Islamists in France, there would be a further challenge of differentiating between what could be called "jihadist cheerleaders" -- radicals who voice political or ideological support for the jihadist cause but are not actually violent -- from those militant jihadists willing to commit attacks. The most vociferous are not always the most likely to conduct an attack, but their heated rhetoric usually draws a lot of scarce government resources. Even among those willing to wage physical jihad, there is an additional difference between those who believe they can fight only in Muslim lands and those who believe they can conduct attacks in the West.
Sorting through the galaxy of potential suspects is a daunting task for the French government. Obviously, if there is intelligence that a suspect is directly linked to al Qaeda or another known terrorist group, it is easy to classify that individual as a high-priority intelligence target. Such a suspect would then merit 24/7 physical and electronic surveillance, an endeavor that could tie up as many as 100 people, including surveillance operatives, supervisors, technicians, photographers, forensics experts, analysts and interpreters -- and this would be to monitor only one suspect.
But in the real world, intelligence is seldom, if ever, so black-and-white. And quite often, investigators and analysts are left to work with bits of partial information. This problem is compounded by the very structure of the jihadist movement, which consists of al Qaeda, its franchises, grassroots sympathizers and lone wolves. The jihadist landscape has been described as a "network of networks" or a "network of relationships," a characterization that has become even more apt as the capabilities of the central al Qaeda group have been degraded. In application, this means that when considering any particular plot, there may not be any clear-cut chain of command or communications networks on which to focus intelligence resources. The network within which jihadists operate is difficult to delineate, as are the targets they choose to attack. This same ambiguity also exists in the non-jihadist realm as seen in attackers such as Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh, Theodore Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph.
This means that, without hard intelligence indicating a link between a particular suspect and a known militant group or network, government agencies often place suspected operatives into lower priority categories, which means they receive less investigation and intelligence monitoring. Indeed, it is often nearly impossible to gather hard intelligence about a person's thoughts and intentions, and this is the crux of the dilemma facing the French and other governments as they attempt to assess the threat posed by individuals and small, insular groups.
Not all puzzles are equal. Investigating an attack after the fact is a matter of identifying the puzzle pieces and placing them together to form a complete picture of what happened. But identifying plotters and their plans before an attack occurs is far more difficult. It is more like sifting through the pieces of thousands of different puzzles, all jumbled together in one big pile, and then attempting to create a complete picture, without knowing what the end result -- the attack -- will look like.
Read more: Tactical Realities of the Toulouse Shootings | Stratfor