According to U.S. state officials, programs like PRISM have apparently already yielded victories over terrorists inside the United States. This offers an explanation as to why U.S. President Barack Obama has not only maintained the surveillance program set up by his predecessor, but expanded it. Mr Obama understands that the system is necessary and gets results. But, like the Woolwich attack in the United Kingdom and the Boston bombings in the United States, some of these grassroots plots are going to make it through the present configuration of the wall of surveillance.
As ex-Director of the National Security Agency Micheal Hayden points out, transnational terrorists are followed and monitored in a very similar way to a game of football. Two sides consisting of many players in different roles compete strategically to break the other’s system to “score” and hopefully come closer to beating the opposing side - either ideologically or tactically. In this process, the chances of success for a state intelligence apparatus are much greater than those of a stateless transnational terrorist group.
As we’ve seen in the past decade or so, the state has the resources and ability to break the groups opposing it. The terrorist group needs to be extremely lucky all the time, whereas the state intelligence agencies have the upper hand and need to be unlucky only once. If enough pressure is enacted on terrorist groups, the game really is stacked against them.
But when it comes to grassroots terrorism and home-grown militancy, the chances for success are directly inverted. The state intelligence apparatus needs to be lucky all the time, while the grassroots terrorists need to spot a gap in the wall only once. The nature of a grassroots terrorist is that they typically do not discuss their devious plans with many other people and are careful to hide their position on the terrorist attack cycle until it is too late for state intelligence or law enforcement to intervene.
In many examples over the years, the first anyone knew about a potential attack on a Western target was after it had occurred. Grassroots attackers can be extremely deadly because they could be any one of us. The individual responsible might have been known to law enforcement or state intelligence, but the pieces were either too disparate to put together or no one noticed the pattern appearing. Imagine how despairingly an intelligence analyst sees their job in this reality.
Human reaction to these terrorist events, when they happen, is widespread outrage at the incompetency of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The people always demand to know why those officials tasked with protecting their loved ones were clearly so inept to let a bomber or shooter slip past. A call is typically lifted to prosecute the officials and make sure these attacks do not happen again. The sentiment is very valid, especially following a tragedy which can invoke wrenching feelings of pain and retribution in those victims suffering.
But United States President Barack Obama is absolutely correct when he patiently explained to members of the press June 9 that there is a trade-off, or a balance that needs to be found when it comes to privacy and security. The American people were outraged at the disgusting events in Boston, and equally irate at the revelations that the NSA is potentially monitoring the internet traffic of everyday Americans. In both cases, the American citizens are correct to be angry, but they need to tell the NSA and Mr Obama just how much they want their intelligence agencies to protect them from terrible events like Boston in the future. This will not be an easy discussion to have.
Because they can’t have it both ways. It is impossible for the American intelligence apparatus to protect their citizenry completely if they cannot diligently address the very heart of the identified problem. Long ago the heart of militancy and jihadist terrorism was in faraway lands; today it is just as likely - if not more likely – to come from down the street in a typical suburban American city.
The difference between transnational terrorists and grassroots is that home-grown attackers are playing with penalty kicks in the great game of ‘Security Football’. Sooner or later, if a country’s intelligence agencies can’t monitor those threats sufficiently, that terrorist ball is going in the back of the net. Pretending that the threats could not possibly come from people living around you, when much of the evidence suggests otherwise, is a recipe for disaster spitting in the face of the security and privacy debate.