Some terrorist attacks are more significant than others because of the repercussions.
BERLIN, GERMANY — Sometimes acts of terrorism are met with direct kinetic action and today’s discussed attack is a great example of that. On April 5, 1986 a bomb went off in a Berlin disco (yes, there were discos in Germany in 1986), killing three people and wounding more than 200. Two of the dead were US servicemen as were many of the wounded.
Suspicions fell immediately on Libya, in part because there was speculation that the attack was in revenge for the US sinking two Libyan patrol boats in the Mediterranean in March 1986.
I know that 1986 was a long time ago so here is a quick history refresher. In those days Libya, and more specifically their quixotic leader Muammar Qadhafi, was seen as one of the top, if not the #1, terrorist actors in the world. The regime was believed to be a sponsor of, and often directly financing, terrorist groups around the world. Libya was probably just a little behind Iran on the s*** list.
As a consequence, the US government of Ronald Reagan decided to get their own bit of revenge, launching airstrikes at the Libyan city of Benghazi, killing more than 100 people. One of the deaths was allegedly a daughter of Colonel Qadhafi, although some doubt this girl ever existed (implying that her death was a propaganda piece).
Here is where it gets interesting.
At the time of these events, I was toiling as an Arabic linguist/Middle East analyst at CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence agency. There were rumours that the ‘evidence’ of Libyan responsibility was found in an intercepted message. I cannot go into detail on where this came from but I can tell you that when President Reagan publicly lowered the boom on Libyan complicity the senders of that message drew their own conclusions.
This is a very risky move in the intelligence world. Letting your adversary know that you are ‘reading his mail’ leads him to change the way he does things. Meaning that it becomes harder to find similar information in the future.
This is a very risky move in the intelligence world. Letting your adversary know that you are ‘reading his mail’ leads him to change the way he does things.
There is a great scene in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as British mathematician/code breaker Alan Turing, in which the wizards of Bletchley Park have broken Nazi codes and learned which target in England would be bombed next. Authorities decide they cannot warn civilians in that area as it would tip off the Germans that their cypher had been compromised. As a result innocent Britons died.
These are the real world decisions made every day in the intelligence sphere. You weigh your ability to inform against your need to protect your sources and methods. It is a constant struggle.