In what seems likes eons ago, former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld once provided his take on what the US intelligence community knew about the terrorist threat during a news conference. It is worth repeating here.
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Rumsfeld was widely ridiculed for this statement because it sounded so bureaucratic and unwieldy (it probably didn’t help that he uttered these words about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction which, of course, never turned up). There is, however, a lot here that makes sense when applied to counter-terrorism.
Agencies such as CSIS, MI5 and the FBI are in the business of knowing things. They use their legislative mandates and investigative tools to find out who poses a threat to the nation and they try to put the pieces together before something bad happens. But sometimes knowing is not enough.
I thought about this when I learned that the alleged terrorist on the Brussels to Paris train a few days ago was “known” to both the Spanish and French security services (it turns out that he was “known” to the Germans too). But what does “known” mean? It’s hard to say without full disclosures from intelligence organisations, but if my experience with CSIS helps, it implies that the person surfaced in an investigation or that his name was provided by an allied agency. It does NOT necessarily mean that the person was being investigated or monitored 24/7.
There have been a number of cases in recent years where people “known” to the relevant agencies ended up carrying out attacks. A few examples might help illustrate this
- Major Nidal Hassan killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas: he was not shy in providing PowerPoint presentations extolling extremism to other army staff
- Muhammad Siddique Khan, the leader of the July 2005 attack on the London metro, had been of interest to MI5
- Martin Couture Rouleau, the killer of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec in October 2014, had been interviewed by the RCMP 3 weeks before his attack
Other cases include Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber), Mohammed Merah (Toulouse) and the Charlie Hebdo attackers. So, if we knew about them, why didn’t the appropriate agencies stop them?
Well, like most things, it’s complicated. The Fort Hood attack probably succeeded due to a combination of political correctness and lack of imagination by US agencies. 7/7 came off in part because MI5 was swamped with higher priority investigations. And the October running down of the Canadian Forces officer was probably unpreventable even if he had been under active surveillance.
So, why weren’t these terrorists arrested before they struck? In a lot of cases, there is simply not enough evidence to lay charges. And, as a senior RCMP officer said about Couture-Rouleau, “we can’t arrest people for what they think”.
In the end, our protective agencies are doing the best they can with finite resources. But sometimes things will happen that we probably can’t prevent.
One of the most popular pulp fiction characters of the 1930s and 1940s was The Shadow (Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows). Our security agencies usually work in the shadows and they know a lot.
But despite their knowledge, evil sometimes triumphs.