There’s an old trope in intelligence circles that defenders have to be right all the time, while the terrorists only need to get lucky once to execute a successful attack. The knowledge that no one is right all the time makes most counterterrorism experts cautiously pessimistic about the likelihood of another successful terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland.
The fact that terrorists have succeeded in a series of recent terrorist attacks overseas that the intelligence community failed to detect, however, suggests that something other than luck is at play. Increasingly, senior U.S. intelligence officials believe that a blind spot has been identified in U.S. defenses by ascendant Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. If these experts are right, then the risk of another major attack on the U.S. homeland has increased significantly.
“Imagine if the United States was under attack by a wave of warplanes that we had on our radar, and then those planes turned off their transponders and suddenly became invisible to us. That’s the analogy I would use to explain what is happening with terrorist plots,” General Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, said in an interview. He cites statistics released by the State Department earlier this year showing that the numbers of terrorist attacks and resultant deaths worldwide spiked nearly 40 percent between 2012 and 2013. “Believe me, those terrorists didn’t just decide one day to give the United States and Europe a pass. They are still trying to kill us. Only now, thanks in large part to Edward Snowden revealing our intelligence collection techniques and procedures, the terrorists know better how to get around our defenses.”
One of the first indications of that intelligence blind spot was a massacre last year by the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Though unfamiliar to most Americans, al-Shabab has been the subject of a “hard stare” by the U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism community in recent years, a campaign that includes regular U.S. surveillance flights over Somalia, both manned and unmanned, as well as occasional lethal strikes on al-Shabab leaders by U.S. Predator drones and Special Operations Forces. So granular was the U.S. picture of al-Shabab operations that ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) experts in U.S. Africa Command boasted of knowing the number of militants in a given area by counting the fires in their campsites.
Yet last September an al-Shabab terrorist cell attacked the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 67 civilians and wounding more than 175 others – and U.S. intelligence experts had no warning. No warning, either, of an al-Shabab attack on a Kenyan coastal town just last month that killed at least 48 civilians.
“I was asked by a Kenyan official why U.S. intelligence didn’t warn them of these attacks, and the answer is because we didn’t see them coming,” said Alexander. “The fact that there were two major terrorist attacks by the same group that we didn’t see coming tells me and a lot of other people in the intelligence community that something is fundamentally not right. Revealing to adversaries how they can avoid our scrutiny by disclosing the details of our intelligence collection methods will have a serious impact. If I am right, the US and our allies will certainly pay a price for those revelations.”