Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 19, 2006

Stratfor on terror tradecraft and organizational learning

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christian Beckner on January 19, 2006

Fred Burton at Stratfor has an interesting new article (written before the Bin Laden tape) on terrorist tradecraft, which can be read by opening the top link at this Google News search.

Burton discusses the impact of the devolution and decentralization of al-Qaeda on their effectiveness as a ‘learning organization.’ He argues that while al-Qaeda can still find a rich store of technical information via the Internet, their ability to develop practical, tacit knowledge and skills – “tradecraft” – is severely constrained by their devolved status. He notes:

The technical skills of terrorism (bomb-making, targeting, deployment) are important, but tradecraft — those subtle skills needed to maintain secrecy and operations in a hostile environment — are crucial to both the individual jihadist and his network. The craft is equally crucial to intelligence officers, who must be able to operate in similarly hostile environments without detection and to spy on others, while appearing to outside observers to be doing nothing out of the ordinary. For instance, the skills required to run a surveillance detection route without tipping off anyone following that you are trying to flush them out do not come easily. Intelligence agencies spend hundreds of hours on the streets, teaching their officers these skills and critiquing them heavily in real-world practicums.

Poor tradecraft, as history shows, has long been the Achilles’ heel of the jihadists and frequently has helped to pre-empt plots. In fact, it could be argued that poor tradecraft has caused the jihadists as much, if not more, grief than have penetrations by the intelligence services that hunt them. This is a weakness that is difficult to overcome with technology: Online training manuals and other instructional materials discuss the importance of surveillance work and even go so far as to tell jihadists what kinds of information to gather, but the texts do not teach how to gather the information without being detected. It is this omission — this dearth of street skills or tradecraft — that has produced vulnerabilities in the jihadists’ attack cycle.

Burton gives numerous examples of poor terrorist tradecraft, and later argues that the combat and insurgency experience gained by operatives in places like Iraq, Chechnya, and Afghanistan today are unlikely to translate into strong tradecraft experience, given the “hit and run” nature of insurgency vs. the paced and stealthy nature of terrorist operations.

My key reaction to the story is that we need a renewed emphasis on behavioral detection as a homeland security tool. If agents and officers are well-trained, behavioral detection can be just as valuable as technological detection, and it can play a very key role in aviation security and border security activities. And there should be a greater emphasis within homeland security grant programs on training in behavioral detection for state and local law enforcement officers.

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