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From the al-Qaeda Playbook – How Terrorists Avoid "See Something, Say Something" and How We Can Stop Them

America is getting smarter in its efforts to reduce the risk of a terror attack. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has dismissed the color-coded threat advisory system (a favorite target of late-night comedy) and replaced it with a two-tier National Terrorism Advisory System. The Secretary recently announced the launch of E-Verify, an innovative service that allows individuals in the U.S. to check their own employment eligibility status before seeking employment. And DHS has been active in rolling out the “See Something, Say Something” campaign, designed to incorporate public participation in our counterterrorism efforts.

Yet, these efforts, while noteworthy, do not eliminate the threats against our country. We are dealing with an intelligent adversary, the epitome of resilience. Indeed, al-Qaeda’s (AQ) adaptive capacity continues to serve it well. Just as we are improving our security posture and building best practices for citizens and communities, al-Qaeda also provides direction for its followers – Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants, The Al Qaeda Training Manual. It is a guide to the tactics, inspiration and legitimization of AQ operations. It also teaches terrorists how to avoid detection by our security initiatives, such as “See Something, Say Something.”

The Manual is organized in eighteen “lessons,” which walks the reader through an introduction, describing the principles, requirements and missions of a military organization, to direction and guidance to be followed if a “brother” lands in prison or a detention center awaiting trial. There are many counterterrorism questions one could ask, but the most obvious is, how did we get our hands on this manual?

In 1997, CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen conducted an interview with Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Bergen knew bin Laden as a Saudi dissident who had declared war on the United States and led an organization connected to anti-American attacks throughout the Arabian Peninsula. As expected, bin Laden delivered an abhorrent discourse about the American presence in the Holy Land. Bergen departed, aired the interview and nothing happened.

The following year, ABC’s John Miller was the honored guest for a repeat performance of the bin Laden tirade. Bin Laden left little to the imagination, methodically pronouncing his justification for the ‘fatwa’ against “all Americans.” Unlike the interview with Bergen, bin Laden made good on his threat 90 days later – orchestrating the near-simultaneous bombings of United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

During the embassy bombings trial, Dr. Jerrold Post, a recognized expert on international terrorism, was asked to serve as an expert witness on the psychology of terrorism during the death penalty phase. The training manual was discovered and seized as evidence in May 2000 during a search of a home by British investigators in Manchester, England. The residence was that of Anas al-Liby, a fugitive charged in the bombing conspiracy and the180-page translation of the manual was provided to Dr. Post.

The manual has taught us a great deal about how AQ plans attacks. Masters of leveraging technology, terrorists understand the importance of remaining invisible during the planning phases of their plots. Acquiring important site information is now easily obtained online, and surveillance capabilities are enhanced through programs such as Google Earth. Public webcams have also been leveraged, as demonstrated in 2009 by Farooque Ahmed, who scouted subway stops along Washington, D.C.’s Metro system for terrorist attack.

Yet, eventually, attackers will visit the target. This is where the community becomes a critical element in our counterterrorism efforts. From the manual, we know how AQ operatives gather site information during the surveillance phase of their planning and avoid our “See Something, Say Something” efforts. Knowing this, we can better focus our collective watchfulness.

The “Twelfth Lesson: Espionage / Information-Gathering Using Covert Methods” instructs surveillants to gather critical site information, including detailed drawings and/or photographs. Drawings should be so detailed that a first-time viewer could visualize the location. Photos, preferably panoramic, should be printed (if necessary) at home, avoiding public photo venues that might report the image content to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Night photography is discouraged, as to not arouse suspicion. Close attention is paid to vehicular access and traffic design (to determine the feasibility of a truck bomb attack), parking locations, pedestrian volume, lighting, public areas and security presence.

Armed with this knowledge, citizens can employ a common-sense approach to “See Something, Say Something.” Ask yourself, would an artist draw what you see them sketching? Are the photos a person is taking something you would place in your vacation or family photo album? Give yourself the “reasonableness” test. Is it reasonable that the activity is likely tourist or terrorist in nature? Trust your intuition.

Community resilience to terrorism, facilitated by public education, has been effective in countries such as the United Kingdom and Israel and can be more fully engaged in the United States. Building resilience is an adaptive process, one that impacts community culture and can psychologically empower citizens to own a stake in the fight against terrorist threats and their consequences. Learning about our enemy – and teaching our citizenry about what we learn – is a critical first step to resisting attacks and should become an integral part of our overall homeland security strategy.

Dr. Erroll G. Southers writes about aviation and transportation security, violent radicalization and counterterrorism matters. Read More
  • Kevin McCarthy

    Thank you Erroll for an insightful and well crafted analysis. These are precisely the concepts which I was articulating to Scott Neuman in his 20 Apr 2011 piece, New Terror Alert System Aims For Clarity, Not Color (http://www.npr.org/2011/04/20/135574051/new-terror-alert-system-aims-for-clarity-not-color) for NPR.org. My concluding comment in the article was, “The single best resource we have in this country is the people. And we’re not using it”.

    Your phrase “Community resilience to terrorism, facilitated by public education” is spot on. Security for the US will depend on an actively engaged populace with the ability to share information in a timely manner and leveraging public-private partnerships. We -all the people of the US- are in this together and need to build the Greatest Generation of our age.

    • Erroll Southers

      Kevin: Your comment in the Scott Neuman piece was an accurate assessment of an antiquated system. Evolution is a critical element in response to a dynamic threat and we both agree with the importance of education, intelligence, applied research and the focus on a common purpose to reduce the risk.

      Greatly appreciate your feedback!

  • Anonymous

    Taking reasonable precaution is prudent. Spending hundreds of billions poorly guarding against fewer than 500 al Qaeda is simply stupid and reactionary.

  • Firsteng

    There isn’t a logical word in this statement. Bomb sniffing dogs at points that may be under attack is smart. Turning our whole society into Hitler’s SS days with a paranoid, uneducated bunch of zombies will only make the US a socialist’s armed camp. You can still just walk into the US on the borders. Is it really the American people that is at stake here to protect – or the assets of corporations that rape the Middle East daily.