Inside The Terrorist Mind, One U.S. Headline at a Time

In counterterrorism there’s an old concept that essentially goes… to prevent a terrorist attack you have to get inside the mind of the terrorist.

You have to be able to understand the terrorist mindset well enough to think like they do.

This is similar to the law enforcement approach: To catch a criminal you should think like a criminal. This works equally well for a wide variety of other dangerous subjects, including toddlers, dogs and presidential candidates.

Here’s the thing… let’s say you got inside the mind of a terrorist for a moment or two. Now, for the sake of moving things forward, I’m going to suggest our terrorist is a fundamentalist, radical jihadist with strong allegiances to Al Qaeda and an unswerving hatred of the West.

Even though he’s never actually been insulted or slighted by a Westerner, he knows what he doesn’t like. In anyone but a terrorist that’s an admirable quality.

Now I don’t mean to imply by choosing an Al Qaeda supporter who happens to be a radical Muslim that all terrorists are Muslims. It’s just a convenient example, since so far the vast majority of terrorists we’ve been dealing with for the past decade plus are radicalized Muslims with an overbearing, if not altogether predictable, bad attitude towards all things American.

But as a disclaimer, just so we don’t tick anyone off, I’m not profiling.

So we have our imaginary terrorist, and let’s say he’s sitting in a little safehouse somewhere in, umm, Pakistan. Again, not implying anything, just needed a location for scene building. Now remember, terrorists don’t operate in a vacuum… Al Qaeda is very media savvy and many of their supporters are intelligent and focused on the world around them.

There he is, just finished up some breakfast, and now he’s perusing the past week’s headlines in the Waziristan Daily Examiner (motto “Dog bites Infidel, that’s not news. Infidel bites dog, that’s not only news, it’s an indication of the Infidels desire to wage war on Islam.”)

Scanning the news from the despised West, here’s what our terrorist would be looking at this past week…

Headline: "Possible Surveillance of Washington State Ferry System Overshadowed by Concern That Publishing the Suspects Pictures May Have Violated Civil Liberties and Upset Countless Self Righteous Liberals"

Did you see this story?

The FBI, alerted by well meaning and watchful citizens and workers using the nation’s largest ferry system, sought the public’s help in locating two unidentified men who, according to witnesses, appeared to be conducting surveillance on the technical layout and operation of the ferries.

The system, identified as the nation’s primary maritime terrorist target by counterterrorism experts, has long encouraged a policy of “see something, say something” to enlist the public’s support in identifying potential threats.

Well, this should be a lesson for anyone who thinks they see something in the future.

The two men, whose pictures were taken by a ferry worker, reportedly were seen on several occasions acting suspicious, showing unusual interest in areas off-limits to the public and in the technical operations of the boats. The photos show two men of undetermined ethnic background, but speculation is that they look Middle Eastern, Spanish or somewhat like my cousin Anthony.

To recap, we have an identified and heavily used terrorist target, the ferry system. We have two men acting suspiciously enough to be noted by several people, including one who takes their photos. We have the information going to the FBI, and we have the FBI turning to the public and the media for assistance in locating these gentlemen. So far, so good. It’s pretty much how we would have liked things to go before 9/11, right?

And then, we put our own unique American twist on the effort. No sooner had some media outlets published the pictures than some other media outlets piously announced that they would have nothing to do with this dastardly effort to slur the good name of two unknown possible terrorist suspects.

Now mind you, no one had accused them of being terrorists, the FBI was simply looking to follow up on the reporting of their suspicious behavior and determine the facts.

Isn’t that what we expect the bureau, the CIA and our other agencies to do? Haven’t we had numerous commissions, hearings, reports and task force studies designed to get our counterterrorist efforts to function more efficiently? Aren’t we supposed to be looking to identify threats? Isn’t that the freakin’ game plan?

Apparently, the fact that the men looked to be something other than Icelandic (no offense to our Icelandic friends) raised the alarm for all those incredibly sensitive people out there who object to anyone implying that terrorists may occasionally be foreign looking. What a load of crap. (Note: “What a load of crap” is the registered trademark of the Peoples Weekly Brief.)

Back to our terrorist pal in the safehouse as he glances through the headlines…

"CIA’s Internal Watchdog Beats Dead Horse in Effort to Show Who’s to Blame for 9/11."

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, no one does navel gazing better than us. It’s like we’re addicted to self flagellation.

Back in 2005, Congress went to the CIA’s Inspector General (IG) and requested that the IG carry out a narrowly focused study on the CIA’s role in 9/11. Now Congress claims that their purpose was not just to find blame, it was also to perhaps identify people in the agency who might deserve special praise or commendations for their work. Insert PWB registered trademark.

Not even if I was heavily medicated and sleep deprived could I imagine Congressmen and senators sitting around saying, “…ya know Bob, we really oughta see if there’s anyone over there at the CIA who we could reward for all their hard work… it’d be a nice change from kickin’ their butt.”

Call me cynical, but the request to the IG was all about trying to find blame.

So, two years later, out pops the declassified executive summary from the IG’s report. Once again, the public is treated to a titillating look at the internal workings of what is, in all honesty, the most transparent intelligence service on the planet.

The report, focusing on the agency’s efforts to understand, penetrate and combat Al Qaeda during the 1990s leading up to 9/11, gives the agency mixed reviews.

It clearly states that there wasn’t a single failure or missed opportunity that could have prevented 9/11, but notes that the agency’s leadership failed to have a strategic plan to counter the threat.

It echoes earlier reports and much discussed studies that there was a failure to fully share and analyze important information and to play well with others. In particular, it notes that numerous officers had access to cables that, in one way or another, mentioned two of the eventual 9/11 hijackers... yet that information wasn’t properly shared or collated with the FBI in order to initiate follow up surveillance and monitoring.

My problem with the IG’s report is that it fails to examine the underlying reasons for some of the problems it mentions. The report fails to note that throughout the 1990’s the CIA’s budget was under attack as politicians, pundits and inside the beltway eggheads were questioning whether the CIA was even relevant anymore in a post Cold War era.

The report doesn’t examine the impact on the agency of a shrinking Directorate of Operations, as recruitment classes were cut to match budgets, resources were redistributed to focus more on technical than human intelligence collection and morale for ops officers dipped.

And the report certainly doesn’t examine the impact of legislation over the years pushed through by overreaching whiners concerned that, if left to run amok, the agency and other organizations would spend all their days monitoring the average U.S. citizen.

Here’s a hint: The intel community doesn’t give a rat’s backside about monitoring the average American. By the time we reached 9/11, sharing intelligence with domestic law enforcement, including the FBI, was like walking through a bureaucratic and legal minefield of regulations.

Meanwhile, back at the safehouse, the reading continues…

"National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq Says Damned if You Do and Damned if You Don’t."

In an effort to confuse our enemies and keep them guessing, it’s been decided that we’ll continue to plot the course of the war in broad daylight. The latest NIE, coming just before the much anticipated report to Congress on the success (or not) of the surge in Iraq, provides analysis from throughout the intelligence community and follows on from the previous Iraq NIE issued in January.

To summarize, and hopefully I’m not making this too simplistic, the NIE notes that there’s still lots of violence that Al Qaeda in Iraq maintains the ability to carry out attacks, the Iraqi politicians haven’t been able to get much done and the situation will likely suck for the next six to 12 months or so, possibly longer.

At the same time, the NIE mentions that if we draw down troops to basically a limited number designed to support the Iraqi forces and to carry out counterterrorist operations, the situation will suck more. The report notes that there have been security gains in areas where surge troops have been deployed and that, as a result, attack levels have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks leading up to the NIE’s release.

Immediately after the NIE’s publication, politicians in Washington, using special political alchemy, turned the NIE magically into a report which was able to support whatever side you happen to be on. That’s a wordy sentence, but you get my point. Glass half full, glass half empty. Which is likely to be the outcome of the report to be issued soon by the ground commander in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus.

A clever plan to make our enemies in Iraq believe that we’re not sure how best to resolve the situation.

So, back to our starting point. To understand the terrorist, you need to get inside their mind. After this week’s headlines, whaddaya think our imaginary terrorist pal sitting in the safehouse is thinking?

Send me your suggestions, and we’ll print the best responses in next week’s column. Consider it your contribution to homeland defense.

Till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.