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CCC Draws Terrorism Experts to Study Innovation

Article by Kate Lamar

Participants at the conferenceTwo professors in the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) National Security Affairs (NSA) department are determined to understand the causes of innovation within terrorist organizations. Working through NSA’s Center on Contemporary Conflict, with grant funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Advanced Systems and Concepts Office, professors Maria Rasmussen and Mohammed Hafez are pulling together leading terrorism researchers to examine instances of innovation across a wide array of terrorist groups. 

“The United States witnessed the ultimate act of terrorist innovation on September 11, 2001. The threat of terrorists seeking new ways to inflict mass casualties and destruction has not abated as evident by several foiled plots since 9/11. As a matter of fact, Al-Qaeda has made it abundantly clear that they intend to use weapons of mass destruction if they are given an opportunity to do so,” said Mohammed Hafez, a NSA professor in the NPS School of International Graduate Studies (SIGS). “It is eminently clear that we need to be one step ahead of those who seek to do us harm. One of the ways to be vigilant is to understand how terrorists innovate tactically. Understanding the reasons why they innovate, the process of innovation, and the obstacles to innovation can suggest ways to monitor the indicators of innovation and make the acquisition of innovative technologies more difficult.”

At a conference held in Monterey, Calif., this past August, academics from a number of international universities gathered to present key case studies of terrorist innovation, including the 1968 Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacking of an Israeli commercial airliner, the assassination of Spanish Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973, the IRA’s 1984 attempted assassination of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Subways, the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda, and the 2005 London subway bombings by Islamist extremists.

The initial research examined seven case studies and suggests there are two key conditions that greatly influence the potential for terrorist organizations to innovate. The first is the organizations tend to be large and wealthy, allowing them to dedicate people and resources to test and develop new ideas and technologies. The second is the presence of a charismatic leader who is hands on and dictatorial, deciding which new projects to pursue and which to scrap.

“There is no magic bullet. Innovation is not an instantaneous thing, it’s an iterative process,” said Rasmussen. “There are failures and first attempts that happen before a successful innovation occurs. Our goal is to identify the process and key points in the process that are recognizable to law enforcement, allowing intervention before an attack occurs.”

 “One of the key findings of our research and conference on terrorist innovations is that the process of innovation can reveal clues about the intentions of the terrorist adversary,” said Hafez. “For example, Aum Shinrikyo, which perpetrated the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo’s subways, experimented over and over with the use of chemical and biological agents. There were complaints by neighbors about strange odors and dead animals in the vicinity. Had the local police investigated these incidents with due diligence, they could well have discovered the group’s plans and thwarted the attacks.”  

Some attacks lack such distinctly visible signs of testing and development as the Tokyo attacks. According to Rasmussen, there are still detectable indicators in these cases, but they require human intelligence, familiarity with at-risk communities, and coordination between agencies working in these communities.

“One of our preliminary findings is that intelligence was key to early warning, or could have been key to early warnings of terrorist innovation,” said Rasmussen. “Human intelligence is of great importance, but so are other sources such as communities harboring potential terrorists. And communication between branches of law enforcement is also vital, if the disparate sources of intelligence are to be fused, what we all refer to as ‘connecting the dots’.”

Rasmussen stressed that this was only the first phase of the research: “Seven case studies is obviously not enough to draw definitive conclusions. We need to examine a much broader spectrum of terrorist attacks, including both successful and failed attempts at innovation.” Professors Rasmussen and Hafez have been awarded funding from DTRA for research on a second series of cases.

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