Politics & Policy

Terrorism’s New Operating System

Reforming our thinking.

Fears raised by Los Angeles’s power grid failure earlier this week, this time because of an error in city utility work, was a stark reminder of how the national psyche has become attuned to the potential for terrorism to wreak havoc on our major population centers. The outage took place almost exactly 24 hours after a former southern California native turned al-Qaeda fanatic, Adam Gadahn, took to the airwaves and threatened Los Angelinos as the next victims of the terrorist group’s wrath.

America should not be so sanguine about these seemingly idle threats from Islam’s lunatic fringe.

Britain’s response to the London terror attacks in July provides an even clearer example of the present misperceptions in counterterrorism circles about who the enemy is and how it operates. When authorities there investigating the simultaneous strikes against London’s transport hubs learned the attackers were British-born, middle-class Muslim youth, their analysis focused on unraveling the domestic tentacles of what was perceived as a homegrown terror network. An understandable response, but misconceived.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks against the United States, terrorist groups like al Qaeda had well-understood hierarchies with operating systems that functioned much like the human central nervous system. These groups needed little state support because they were essentially states within the states that harbored them.

Four years and two wars later, having suffered the destruction of much of the physical infrastructure and basing areas that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq offered, al Qaeda and its affiliate terrorist networks have evolved their global operating system into an airborne virus capable of infecting concentrated cells of disaffected followers to carry out by proxy the orders of their hidden masters. Citizens and residents of targeted countries who are able to lie dormant longer and at a fraction of the cost of transplanted cells are the new weapons of choice.

Couriers carrying handwritten notes or memorized messages from the likes of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have been caught in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey during the past four years. A suspected London bomber even appeared on video with al-Zawahiri three weeks ago. The terror masters would like us to believe that state sponsorship with its highly organized logistics, funding, weaponry, and intelligence are still unnecessary support structures in the continuing expansion of their global terrorist enterprise.

Not likely.

What if terrorism’s global operating system has evolved into a much more sophisticated nexus–untraceable state sponsorship acting in concert with highly intelligent, well-trained, and carefully chosen foot soldiers who Western analysts would never conceive as partners? What if its new operating software is like the AIDS virus, constantly mutating from one nameless, faceless protocol address to another, transmitting its deadly code without need for regeneration or further direction, and with the necessary but well-camouflaged logistical and planning support states can offer?

Imagine that a state seeking to redress strategic imbalances in the quantifiable military threats it faces from larger powers trains a new, heretofore completely unknown battery of terror masters. They move as businessmen and women, as mothers with families, as low-level functionaries in embassies–in short, as people not worthy of intelligence monitoring by the West’s traditional antiterror infrastructure.

Imagine further that having successfully moved from the state’s nerve center to the localized target country, these infecting agents quietly observe and learn the personality traits, habits, weaknesses, and strengths of a community of naturalized or born citizens who periodically gather in mosques, local eateries or other communal meeting places–in sum, places where the unsuspecting proxy cell members would not know they are being “vetted” for future service as terrorists. Once willing local proxies are identified, they are injected with a viral code of highly specific intelligence data about potential targets, methods of attack, how to assemble and deploy locally the weapons required to carry out their deadly missions and a philosophically sustaining message from the messianic figures who inspire them from afar.

The foreign agent then disappears, untraceable and unlikely to ever be seen again in the infected environment, or to even be used by the state sponsor for future missions. The newly formed terrorist cell structure to which the infecting agent gives rise proceeds to either execute its mandate as a super cell, or gives rise to sub-cells with specific but insulated instruction sets that enable long-term multiple attack scenarios to materialize. Each super cell breaks the link to the sub-cell it gives rise to once the instructions and inspiration have been passed on–no forensic evidence to tie one cell to another, no traceable links, no fingerprints.

The sponsoring state achieves its critical objective–redressing the strategic imbalance through destabilizing acts of terror–while remaining fingerprint-less in the crimes it conceives and supports. It infects enough local cells to insure sustainability of the enterprise over a long period of time, while also insuring that if one cell fails in its mission, another is standing by to carry on. The local proxies achieve whatever dubious objectives they have–fulfilling a jihadist mission in pursuit of some misguided concept of paradise, or just causing chaos, death and mayhem.

Failure to recognize that such may be the imagination of terrorism’s strategic planners, whether they sit in Teheran, Damascus or on a yacht in the Mediterranean, is to foresee our doom in their hands. That our enemies know enough about our societal weaknesses to conceive such self-perpetuating measures demonstrates how urgent the need for reform in our counterterrorism thinking is.

The key to combating the newly evolving terror strategy lies in fusing advanced technology with the same type of low-tech human-intelligence framework adopted by our enemies to subvert us. There is an urgent need at a national level to develop and incorporate a new generation of cyber-protection systems that guard our critical infrastructure (so-called Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition [SCADA] Systems) like the Los Angeles power grid from gifted militant hackers, some sitting afar and some closer than we’d like to admit.

The new soldiers of our frontline defenses must include Imams trained under government mandate to spot the infecting agents, including the hackers who breed among us. The new corps of imams must also move rapidly to prevent invective from filling their mosques and sanctuaries so as to give rise to groupings of people susceptible to terrorist manipulation.

We must imagine how the least likely terrorist alliances are the most likely to rise up against us–Shiite mullahs working with Sunni fanatics, or Baathists with Islamists, for instance–and then craft strategies based on raw data collected by human beings, not just computers and satellites, to unravel their plans. This requires urgent rethinking at an interagency level in our government about the distribution of intelligence resources on inanimate data collection systems. We need many more human spies–period.

We must adopt effective international standards for tracking would-be terrorists from the early stages of their transformations, whether at Pakistan’s Madrassah schools or in southern California’s universities, by installing technologically innovative systems like fingerprint I.D. that register and catalogue masses of faceless, nameless people–enabling us to track them right to our shores.

And we must be ruthless in compromising the intelligence and military industrial complexes of the states that seek to dismember us, whether through expert computer hacking or advanced surveillance airships that can monitor the most sensitive communications of the terror masters and their corps of transmitters, so we know who or what the enemy really is.

Time is no friend of societies infected with terror’s new fatal viral operating system.

Mansoor Ijaz, chairman of Crescent Investment Management, negotiated Sudan’s offer of counterterrorism assistance to the Clinton administration in April 1997 and co-authored the blueprint for a ceasefire of hostilities in Kashmir between Muslim militants and Indian security forces in the summer of 2000.

Mansoor IjazMansoor Ijaz is an American hedge-fund manager and venture capitalist. He is founder and chairman of Crescent Investment Management Ltd, a New York investment firm that operates a proprietary trading ...

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