Sunday, July 25, 2004

Predicting Terrorist Attacks

..is generally very hard. I came across an OpEd in the Washington Times by Walid Phares, who acts as an terrorism analyst on MSNBC and Fox. In it, he points to a number of concrete US targets for Al Qaeda in the coming months, based on the presumption that the Jihadists are intelligent, and generally have an in-depth knowledge of the internal politics of their enemies:

I believe that the jihadists have a sophisticated view of their enemies; hence, they do aim at the internal political processes of the systems they fight against. Political conventions are targets, but not the only ones, not at all times, and only when the terrorists' objective is locked in their crosshairs.
Historically, jihadists draw from examples where infidels have been pit against other infidels. To bring them down is the will of Allah, they postulate. How to do it, and in what circumstances, is the job of the jihadi strategic planners. From Sudan to Afghanistan, jihadi tactics have reaked havoc among their opponents' unity. Even the "Ghazwa" (raids) of New York and Washington were aimed at provoking chaos within the United States. Al Qaeda's masters have a thorough knowledge of American political institutions and of U.S. political culture. Jihadi intellectuals have lived here, visited this country and are constantly keeping themselves abreast of our nation's state of mind.
Osama bin Laden wanted to create a deep division in the United States as a result of his mass killing of 3,000 men and women in less than 30 minutes in 2001. He may have miscalculated on the timing, but here we are three years after the attacks, and, indeed, the American political establishment is split on the war on terror and on Iraq. The Madrid attacks reaffirmed this winning formula in al Qaeda's mind. By striking well, with good timing, you've got the infidels reacting as you wish, think these jihadists.
This desire to create a divided house among their enemies, translates into a number of concrete opportunities for Al Qaeda in this election year, although he's quick to admit that they're all theoretical and speculative:
1) Striking the Democratic convention in Boston: Jihadist expectations would be that the American public would give an overwhelming victory to the anti-Bush campaign out of compassion for the victims.
2) Attempting an assassination against Democratic candidates would, in the mind of al Qaeda produce the same result, and hence, rush the incumbent out of the Oval Office.
3) Striking the Republican Convention and attempting to eliminate the incumbent administration's leadership would create such a hole — close to election day — that it would be impossible to advance another serious Republican ticket. By jihadi imagination, fear would push voters to chose the less "adventurous" candidates.
4) Other horrific enterprises would be to strike at other sites while one or the other convention is taking place, so that the political message during the event would be affected.
Phares believes that Al Qaeda will draw on 'inside' operatives, native-born Americans who have converted to their cause, who will cause far less suspicion.

To me, this was another reminder of two closed down DARPA programs, TIA (Total Information Awareness) and FutureMap (also referred to as Policy Analysis Market). City Journal has an excellent article by Heather Mac Donald on how both programs got axed by civil liberties advocates, who mostly based their arguments on scare-mongering and were preaching to a low-tech audience, high on Hollywood movies.
Then, in August 2003, an unsettling DARPA anti-terror notion came to light—a projected futures market in predicting destabilizing geopolitical events, such as wars, assassinations, and terror attacks. Since markets are highly efficient at aggregating information, went the idea—still just blue-sky theorizing—a bad-news predictions market would give intelligence analysts access to knowledge about the world that they might otherwise miss. After all, political elections markets—really little more than highly formal betting operations—have proven far better at predicting vote outcomes than pundits. The goal of DARPA’s FutureMap was to avert human destruction, but understandably it was almost universally condemned as incentivizing death, should terrorists infiltrate the market and use it as an insurance policy. Poindexter did not lead the project, but within 48 hours, he was forced to resign. Weeks later, Congress shut down his entire DARPA office and, with it, TIA research. Ecstatic privocrats danced on TIA’s grave.
Thanks to these 'privocrats' and pundits, we are left to human speculation and pondering on if, where and when a next attack will take place. A futures market, on which only accredited traders from the intelligence communities would have been able to trade, would in my opinion have had the same effect on predicting terrorist attacks, as now has the Iowa Electronic Markets, which for numerous election cycles has produced far better predictions than any opinion poll ever has. Limiting trading in 'terror futures' to the intelligence community, buying and selling among them, using all their classified intelligence information to base their actions on, would have further enhanced its predictability, excluding sentiment-driven 'shorting' of Bin Laden's survival chances.

It's a shame it will never see the light. A very cutting-edge project, it would have provdided the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security with a support tool that would have put it light years ahead of the rest of the world in enabling them where to look for terrorist threats.

Looking at the intelligence mess in the US now, the decision to axe FutureMap without even listening to its advocates, may come back to haunt us in the (near) future.