Small Wars Journal

Don't Compare Apples and Rocks

Don't Compare Apples and Rocks

Marc Tyrrell

Mieke Eoyang and Sanaa Khan recently published a piece “Why We're Not Brussels” over at Third Way. In this piece they confidently, and correctly state:

If Tuesday morning’s tragic terrorist attacks in Brussels follow the pattern we have seen over the last fifteen years, pervasive media coverage of the attacks will be followed by bombastic statements by politicians making extreme and overbroad proposals.

What they left out, was the rest of that pattern: the declamation of fatuous fantasies that distance "Us" from "Them". Why this was left out is obvious when one considers the examples of the politicians they list (Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump) and the location from which they write (Third Way,"a centrist Democratic think tank").

The core of their argument lies in one paragraph:

The U.S., on the other hand, has a coordinated counterterrorism policy that ensures communication across all levels of government, from the federal level, to local law enforcement. The U.S. has a vast surveillance apparatus staffed by thousands of counterterrorism analysts who track terrorist communications across the globe. The CIA and FBI maintain a terror watch list, and in coordination with screening agencies at the borders, ensures suspected terrorists cannot enter the country. The sophistication of U.S. counterterrorism efforts allows for far better coordination and preparedness than Belgium’s current policies.

Taken as a whole, this paragraph gives one the impression of the U.S. being a towering collosus of sophisticated, intricate and maximally efficient counter-terrorism operations that is "obviously" better than poor, tiny Belgium. But, before we drink the Kool Aid of bureaucratic bliss, it may be worthwhile to consider each of the statements in this paragraph separately and test them.

The U.S., on the other hand, has a coordinated counterterrorism policy that ensures communication across all levels of government, from the federal level, to local law enforcement.

Really? Who shares what with whom? Let us just consider the example of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. At the request of the Russian FSB, the FBI interviewed him in 2011, but found no evidence of "terrorism activity". Apparently, his subsequent trip to Dagestan also did not trigger any warnings or produce communications from the FBI to local law enforcement.

This is not, I would note, an indictment of the FBI. Each year they investigate thousands of people for possible "terrorism activity" and, yes, some of the results of those investigations do end up with local law enforcement officials. This activity is, colloquially, known as "finding a needle in a haystack", and the FBI is pretty good at it.

Clearly, the "policy" that Eoyang and Khan laud failed. One also has to wonder if this is the same policy that compelled DHS analysts to delete and scrub records of identified supporters of terrorist organizations. Indeed, I would suggest that the "coordinated counterterrorism policy that ensures communication across all levels of government" is, at best, a pipe dream.

The U.S. has a vast surveillance apparatus staffed by thousands of counterterrorism analysts who track terrorist communications across the globe.

Absolutely true and, honestly, irrelevant when it comes to local law enforcement activities. In terms of functional effect, this is about on par with a claim that "The Vatican has thousands of theologians on staff who track Satanic communications across the globe." The existence of this surveillance and the "thousands of counterterrorism analysts" is totally irrelevant if the information never gets to the people who need it, such as local law enforcement or Border Protection officers. Indeed, if Paul Haney is to be believed, the very "policy" lauded by Eoyang and Khan is directly responsible for blocking effective communications.

The CIA and FBI maintain a terror watch list, and in coordination with screening agencies at the borders, ensures suspected terrorists cannot enter the country.

Ah, yes, "watch lists". As with many other aspects of security theatre, watch lists are held to have magical properties. They don't, even if they aren't being "sanitized" by policy directives. Watch lists, as with any other form of bureaucratic record keeping, tend to be opaque in their operation, and limited in their utility, see here, here, and here. Indeed, watch lists have become a way of designating people as possibly guilty with no trial. They certainly do not ensure that "suspected terrorists cannot enter the country"! Furthermore, they do absolutely nothing to stop home grown terrorists. As a magical item, they are a flop.

The sophistication of U.S. counterterrorism efforts allows for far better coordination and preparedness than Belgium’s current policies.

Shall we compare apples and rocks? The U.S. has had a “War on Terror” for the past 15 years. Belgium has had a de facto live and let live agreement with its Islamist population. Are the U.S.'s counter-terrorism efforts better coordinated than Belgium's? Of course they are, but that is meaningless in terms of actually stopping attacks, as Boston and Chattanooga quite clearly show.

If Eoyang and Khan had handed in this paper in one of my Freshman courses, I would have given them a B for rhetoric and an F for logic and data.

Comments

Yes, the Belgians should do that, no question. They also need to encourage a community "distancing" from the Salafist madness.

At the same time, it is crucial that American commentators don't turn around and use this type of event to highlight their own theological.... sorry, "political" causes. I know they will, but I do hope that US citizens will recognize the type of blatant political rhetoric used by Eoyang and Khan.