Radicalisation is not measurable or predictable

Officials in France and Belgium are under pressure from frightened, angry citizens who want to know how their security services let men they knew to be involved in extremism carry out Friday’s attacks in Paris.

At least three of nine people now known to have been involved in the Paris strikes had been identified by security services as potential threats.

Ismail Omar Mostefai (29), involved in the Bataclan concert hall attack, had been listed in 2010 for reported radicalisation. He still managed to make it to Turkey, and probably Syria, in 2013.

Samy Amimour (28) from Drancy, north of Paris, was under official investigation since October 2012 and was the subject of an international arrest warrant since late 2013, when he is believed to have gone to Syria.

Abdel-Hamid Abu Oud, the attacks’ suspected mastermind, has publicly boasted entering and leaving Belgium to plot terrorist attacks. He was involved in several attacks which were foiled by the police last January, and escaped to Syria at least six months ago, officials believe.

Lapses such as these are not new. Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people in 2012, was not just on the radar of local security services in his home town of Toulouse, he was actually interviewed on his return from a training camp in Pakistan months before his shooting spree. An officer accepted his story of seeking a wife in the unstable south Asian state.

Other services made similar errors. United States authorities came across the trail of the 9/11 hijackers but failed to connect the clues. MI5 had come across Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 bombers, years before that strike.

The service had been intermittently tracking Michael Adebowale and fellow Muslim convert Michael Adebolajo for years before they murdered Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London in 2013. The FBI investigated the elder of the Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, deeming him harmless.

Security services have to prioritise
Reasons for these failures include the nature of Islamic militancy and resources needed to watch just one individual. Dozens of officers are necessary to mount 24/7 surveillance of one person and hours to listen to phone calls or comb other communication. Even the best-resourced services must prioritise.

Security services have evolved various ways of doing this. Most grade the threat from an individual, focusing on those deemed high risk. Those not considered an imminent danger are barely monitored.

But extremists, like everyone else, do not behave predictably. Radicalisation is not a linear, uniform process. Someone considered peripheral and harmless can rapidly become more threatening. Likewise, someone seen as very dangerous can move to less threatening activities or even cease their extremist involvement altogether.

As Stephen Grey, an expert on espionage, points out, it is these former militants who are often the best sources for intelligence services.

“Of course there is a massive value in surveillance but … getting good human intelligence from within a radicalised community is absolutely key. Some of the best sources have been the people who were close in but who don’t like the way things are developing. Counterterrorist campaigns have turned when people are prepared to literally shop their brother or husband,” said Grey, who wrote The New Spymasters (2015).

In Mohammed Merah’s case, an apparent abandoning of jihadi activism may have been a deliberate ploy to throw the spooks off his track. Or it may have been genuine but temporary. The interest of Adebelajo, one of Rigby’s killers, in violent or nonviolent activism seems to have waxed and waned over the years.

If giving security officials greater powers of surveillance may help in some ways, it is far from a silver bullet, however. Agencies are already swamped by vast quantities of data. Human intelligence remains the most valuable tool. And human errors the biggest source of failures. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Jason Burke
Jason Burke works from in transit, probably. Africa Correspondent of The Guardian, author of books, 20 years reporting Middle East, South Asia, Europe, all over really. Overfond of commas. Dad. Jason Burke has over 38885 followers on Twitter.

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