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Disrupting Terrorist Plans

CURRENT APPROACHES to counterterrorism are too reactive and defensive, says Benjamin Nerud, a deputy branch chief at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, who spoke at the GovSec conference in Washington, D.C.

Nerud wants counterterrorism efforts to focus more on what are referred to as the terror groups’ moral and physical centers of gravity. A physical center of gravity is the attack mechanism. The moral center is the moral foundation on which terrorists justify their actions. Before you can defend against a terrorist group, you have to understand its centers of gravity.

Efforts at understanding have to go well beyond the simplistic presentations about the enemy often circulated among security professionals and the public, he says. “Rather than a PowerPoint briefing that gives you bullets that say, ‘They don’t like our freedom.’ ‘They don’t like democracy.’ Well, yeah, but there’s a whole lot more to it than just that little bullet,” Nerud tells Security Management.

The next step is for counterterrorism experts to delve into “critical capabilities,” which are “those adversary capabilities considered crucial enablers for the adversary’s center of gravity to function as such and are essential to the accomplishment of the adversary’s assumed objective[s],” Nerud writes in a paper on the issue. From there, he extrapolates into operational capabilities and every requirement needed to fulfill each capability. For example, he looks at everything from target selection to the terrorists’ OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop, which is essentially a decision-making process.

“You can take away critical requirements of an adversary’s targeting process and affect their whole planning cycle. You can actually make them go away because they can’t figure out how to attack you,” says Nerud.

And although it may seem that such action might direct the terrorists to choose another target, “targets are carefully chosen based on [terrorist] doctrine…the symbolism, and the overall effect,” says Nerud, adding, “simply moving on to a different target requires the expenditure of more resources than may be available to the organization and may not result in the desired effect. While most terrorists do identify secondary targets, they are part of an overall single course of action, not a separate event.” Thus, anything that impairs terrorists during their target selection process may also prevent them from choosing backup targets at the same time, even less-hardened targets.

The point is that if there is a way to cut terrorists off at every stage in the process, they cannot actually get far enough in the process to attack the target. If the process is implemented effectively, it has what Nerud terms a “cascade effect.” In one example, if the potential victim employs the countermeasure of limiting public information about its group or location, and obscuring ability for its locale to be surveilled, then the terrorists’ response will likely be to use more aggressive information-gathering techniques, to use less optimal surveillance locations, and to make unverifiable assumptions. This puts the terrorist group more at risk for detection early on and makes it lose the ability to orient itself, so it will end up spending more time on surveillance or more time on an ineffective attack plan.

“While the benefits of such a system are generally focused on a specific asset, it does have a cascade effect on other targets in the region. By increasing the level of effort terrorists require to develop an attack plan, it creates increased opportunities for law enforcement and intelligence assets to detect and intervene,” says Nerud, who points out that this also requires terrorists to make riskier choices.

“Bottom line, employing countermeasures designed to impact critical requirements disrupts the terrorist’s OODA Loop,” he writes.

Nerud adds that there are several very good models and counterterror ideas currently in use. “But we need to reexamine what we’re doing and maybe modify our strategy so that…it’s not just defensive but it’s proactive in that you’re actually affecting their ability to even plan an attack. And when you start doing that, then you’re achieving real deterrence.