The narrative in place is that national intelligence agencies need tons of intrusive surveillance programs in order to detect terrorist threats and respond accordingly. Unfortunately, the narrative fails to hold up to scrutiny, prompting these intelligence agencies to ask for some credit to be given for all of their hard work, post-tragedy.
The Boston Marathon bombing is just one example. The head of the NSA, Gen. Alexander, has played up his agency's extraordinary hindsight, which allowed it to rule out the chance of another bombing. This occurred at roughly the same time that the only surviving perp was being taken into custody. Plaudits and such but one would think tapping the backbone of damn near everything would result in more prevention, which Americans would unanimously agree to be the preferable to crystal clear hindsight.
This problem isn't limited to just the NSA. Reports from Kenyan intelligence officials obtained by Al Jazeera (but hosted at Public Intelligence) indicate that government and intelligence agencies had almost a year's advance notice that such an attack would take place.
The documents start with the intelligence agency (NIS - National Intelligence Service) noting it had performed a "security survey" that had identified "key installations and shopping malls" as potential terrorist targets. This was performed in 2011 and the findings passed on to government agencies, along with the security agencies guarding prospective targets. From that point, it details the intelligence it had gathered that indicated an attack was not only imminent, but very specifically targeted.
After detailing the movements of two armed terrorists (and their support personnel shuttling them across borders), the report notes that gathered intelligence suggested more attacks, thanks to recent deterrence efforts by Kenya's military. Following this, the report points out, on Sept. 21, 2012 -- one year exactly before the Westgate Mall attack -- that an attack on that very location was very likely.
Meanwhile, the following suspected Al Shabaab operatives are in Nairobi and are planning to mount suicide attacks on undisclosed date, targeting Westgate Mall and Holy Family Basilica; Sheikh Abdiwelli Mohamed, Sheikh Hussein and Sheikh Hassan. They are believed to be in possession of two suicide vests, twelve (12) hand grenades and two (2) AK 47 rifles, and have already surveyed the two targets. They are being assisted by Sheikh Hassan alias Blackie of Majengo and Omar Ahmed Ali alias Jerry who are currently staying near Mamba Petrol Station and Huruma Mosque along Juja Road.
The report presciently notes (in bold red, no less) that it expects the attack to adhere to the blueprint created by a previous, high-profile terrorist attack.
The envisaged modus operandi include, but is not exclusive to, Mumbai-attack style, where the operatives storm into a building with guns and grenades and probably hold hostages.
Additionally, the report points out that Al Shabaab had deployed two teams of 10 Mandax Jibshe ("head breakers") to attack unspecified targets in Garissa and Nairobi. (Statements from government officials have put the number of perpetrators of the Westgate attack at between 10 and 15.) The report also details a warning sent by Israeli intelligence on Sep. 13, 2013, that also suggested a terrorist attack was imminent.
The Israeli Embassy in Nairobi has raised concern with Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kenya over possible terrorist attacks on their citizens during the Jewish Holidays period between 4th to 28th September 2013, by Iran and the Hezbollah whom they accused of collecting operational intelligence and open interests in Israeli and Jewish targets around the World including Kenya.
While the Israeli report may have been off on the background of the attackers, the date range was correct. All of this info (more than 25 pages) was turned over to a long list of government officials as it was collected, including the Chief of Defense Forces, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Interior.
Granted, Kenya's situation is more tenuous than the USA's in terms of impending terrorist attacks. The report details several suspicious incidents and tries to ascertain the ultimate aim of personnel movements and weapons purchases. The amount of data collected makes it difficult to pinpoint the next terrorist attack, much less allow for any concentration of deterrence to one specific area.
But the report also points out that while warnings were
given to various security forces, these seldom resulted in heightened awareness or responsive activity. Scattered throughout the report are discussions of possible targets, many of which would be targeted because of lax security or habitual patterns. The information reported here adds credibility to the claims that the attackers were able to secure space to stow weapons and ammunition in the mall itself before the attack.
So, what good is collecting a ton of intelligence if it's not going to be implemented? The intelligence agency in Kenya may have been stymied by government inaction, but the comprehensive report itself could have easily contributed to this paralysis. With so much potentially harmful activity listed, the unanswerable question may have been, "Where do we start?" With no clear indication given as to what should be prioritized, the info dump almost boils down to pinpointing the next attack to "anywhere, at any time."
The Kenyan government originally blamed the National Intelligence Service
for not adequately warning of this attack, although these documents will certainly see those claims walked back. There are also indications the NIS received another warning about the attack one day before its occurrence, but that warning wasn't passed along to the public, either due to a lack of response time, or worse, that issuing the warning would have revealed operational details.
We've discussed before how gathering intelligence rarely prevents
terrorist activity, thanks to a number of factors. Collecting too much seems to be roughly as useless as collecting too little. When numerous possible events are detailed with no indication of which might be more likely, the reaction will be haphazard at best.
Intelligence agencies are tasked with providing national security, but seldom seem to know how to actually accomplish this aim. All the information gathering is wasted if there's no focused response plan. Sifting this data through various layers of bureaucracy only results in less focus and delayed responses.
But when confronted with this reality, these agencies seem to feel the real
problem is that not enough
data is being collected. The evidence suggesting that intelligence agencies had advance notice of the 9/11 attacks has been greeted by FBI Director Robert Mueller as an indication that the agencies' access to data is too limited. As he has opined more than once
, the bulk phone metadata collections would have allowed the agency to track one of the hijackers, thus allowing it to "prevent" the attack.
This is post-hoc justification for a controversial program. There are too many variables in place for anyone, much less someone that (should) know the system (including the other government agencies tasked with approving action on such data), to make that claim with any credibility. Likewise, in Kenya's case, the information was there, but any number of factors contributed to the failure to prevent the attack. More data isn't the answer. Better, smarter, focused gathering and responses are.