The Challenge of Intelligence Assessment Regarding International Terrorist Organizations

, November 5, 2007

Vol. 7, No. 20     November 5, 2007

  • In the past, intelligence assessments dealt with sovereign countries. Today, in the era of global terrorism, we are dealing with Muslim fundamental terrorist organizations, entities without territories or sovereignty, entities without any hierarchy, with no uniforms, reporting systems, recruiting centers, or training camps.

  • Furthermore, in the past, conventional wars were relatively short events that occurred as an interval between periods of peace or coexistence or cold war. Today, the Western world, Israel included, lives in a state of constant war. The threat is permanent, while it changes faces, locations, strategies, methodologies, and capabilities – and you have to assess it while fighting them.

  • Signal intelligence and imagery offer excellent intelligence, but you cannot ask any questions and get any answers. Thus, through human intelligence you are better able to understand your enemy and the threat he poses far better than through any other means of intelligence gathering. But penetrating these groups is very hard. We are dealing with families, blood connections, and a religious culture that is impossible for a foreigner to penetrate.

  • If Iran acquires a nuclear capability, is it going to activate it or not? Will a nuclear Iran be pragmatic or messianic? For the intelligence officer this question is academic. Any intelligence officer would recommend that the state should prepare for the worst-case scenario and not for any lesser eventuality.

  • Should fighting terrorism be based on reaction or on pre-emption? Since there is an ongoing war, since the threat is permanent, since the intention of the enemy in this case is to annihilate you, the right doctrine is one of pre-emption and not of reaction. When we are dealing with an enemy which plans all the time and waits only for the opportunity in order to attack, what is the point even morally to wait and only do something when he comes to attack?

 

 

Terrorist Groups More Difficult to Assess than Sovereign Countries

 

In the past, intelligence assessments dealt with sovereign countries. Today, in the era of global terrorism, we are dealing with Muslim fundamental terrorist organizations, entities without territories or sovereignty, virtual entities. These are entities spread all over the globe, without any hierarchy, with no uniforms, reporting systems, recruiting centers, or training camps. It is an environment in which every believer subscribes voluntarily to membership in the organization. It is an invisible army led by a divine message to fight the infidels in order to build the new, eternal Muslim caliphate. Any intelligence organization must face these basic differences when it tries to assess and evaluate the threats today.

Furthermore, in the past, conventional wars were relatively short events that occurred as an interval between periods of peace or coexistence or cold war. Conventional wars are limited in time, while the war against international terrorism today is a constant factor. The Western world, Israel included, today lives in a state of constant war.

In the past, because war was an interval between two relatively quiet periods, you had all the time in the world to gather information about your adversary in order to prepare your intelligence assessment and make recommendations. Today, the challenge is to prepare your assessments while fighting. The threat is permanent, while it changes faces, locations, strategies, methodologies, and capabilities – and you have to assess it while fighting them.

In the past, you dealt with a military, with an air force, a navy, armored and infantry units. All of these components were very tangible and it was relatively easier to assess the overall threat from them. Today, however, the doctrine of the terrorists is developing and changing all the time.

If the conflict is a religious one, it involves an indefinite war which may end only if and when the rest of the world becomes Muslim, and Islam succeeds in establishing a Muslim caliphate. If we are dealing with terrorist organizations that are more political than religious, we are also talking about a continuous conflict that ends when the terrorists achieve either a state or some kind of self-determination or other form of sovereignty.

In the past era of conventional wars, the religious factor was marginal or secondary. In the present-day environment, however, the religious factor has become dominant and it affects all the rest. Islam includes a huge variety of groups, sects, races, peoples, states, traditions, and written and unwritten sets of laws.

For Israel, intelligence assessments in the past dealt mainly with regional issues. Today, however, when we have to cope with the global jihad, even small intelligence services find themselves facing the challenge of covering the whole world because the present-day global jihad has spread all over the place. In order to cope with it, you need to have first-class intelligence gathered in Britain, Germany, in the Far East and South America.

 

 

Sources of Intelligence

 

Human intelligence is the only form of intelligence where you can ask questions and get answers. Signal intelligence and imagery offer excellent intelligence, but you cannot ask any questions and get any answers. Thus, through human intelligence you are able to understand your enemy and the threat he poses far better than through any other means of intelligence gathering. But when it comes to gathering intelligence on the global jihad, human intelligence is very problematic and difficult to achieve. Penetrating these groups is very hard. We are dealing with small groups where everyone knows everyone else. We are dealing with families, blood connections, and a religious culture that is impossible for a foreigner to penetrate. So in assessing the global jihad and the Muslim terrorist organizations today, the added value of human intelligence is very much lacking.

Intelligence officers used to say that 95 percent of intelligence is found in open sources, which is basically the media. Yet open sources and the media are being used by politicians, business people, and various other interests which each have their own “spin.” This is making it more and more difficult for the intelligence officer or analyst who must deal with all these spins.

 

 

Assessing the Intentions of the Adversary

 

Traditionally, when assessing a threat in the intelligence field, we have to cope with two main issues: What are the intentions of the enemy, and what are his capabilities? In the Middle East, the intention of the adversary is always very hard to discover because the region contains many Arab countries with authoritarian regimes, whose intentions usually are to be found only in the head of the head of state, whereas in the West, the intentions of the state are disseminated and are known by a relatively large number of people.

The intentions of international terrorism and global jihad are a matter of public record. Still, there are some intentions that are not known. For example, if Iran acquires a nuclear capability, is it going to activate it or not? In other words, will a nuclear Iran be pragmatic or messianic? According to what they are preaching, they are very messianic, but once they achieve a nuclear capability, are they going to use it or not? On the level of intentions, no one can come up with a proper answer.

In order to understand the intentions of the Iranians now, you have to try and understand what’s in the heads of a relatively small group of religious leaders. Yet even among themselves there are different opinions.

Still, for all practical purposes, for the intelligence officer this question is academic. The recommendation of any intelligence officer would be that the state should prepare for the worst-case scenario and not for any lesser eventuality. In this case, it means that Israel and maybe others should prepare for the eventuality that a nuclear Iran will use this capability.

 

 

Reacting vs. Pre-empting Terrorism

 

Should fighting terrorism be based on reaction or on pre-emption? My opinion is that since there is an ongoing war, since the threat is permanent, since the intention of the enemy in this case is to annihilate you, the right doctrine is one of pre-emption and not of reaction. To use reaction as the main strategy means to sit quietly and wait until the enemy comes to attack you. But when we are dealing with an enemy which plans all the time and waits only for the opportunity in order to attack, what is the point even morally to wait and only do something when he comes to attack?

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Shabtai Shavit held a variety of senior positions within the Mossad for over 32 years, including head of the agency between 1989 and 1996. Since 2001 he has been the Chairman of the Board of the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, advisor to Israel’s National Security Council, and advisor to the Subcommittee on Intelligence of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on September 6, 2007.

Shabtai Shavit

Shabtai Shavit held a variety of senior positions within the Mossad for over 32 years, including head of the agency between 1989 and 1996. Since 2001 he has been the Chairman of the Board of the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, advisor to Israel's National Security Council, and advisor to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.