El espionaje es clave ante el terror

Posted: May 1, 2016 in El Pais
Tags: , , , , ,

Another very belated post coming after the Brussels terrorist attack, this time for the Spanish daily El Pais. I have pasted the published Spanish below, alongside the English I submitted below it.

To also catch up on some media interviews, had a conversation with La Repubblica about the terror threat to Europe, to the New York TimesGuardian, Wall Street JournalIndependent, Daily Mail, CNBC, Telegraph about the terror threat after the Brussels attacks and the impact to the UK, as well as to the Daily Mail about the recently concluded Tarik Hassane case in the UK and some weapons adverts that were being posted from Libya onto Facebook to the Daily Mail and BBC.

El espionaje es clave enate el terror

Los servicios de espionaje necesitan establecer nuevas prioridades para enfrentarse a las crecientes amenazas

Spanish cops

Ahora que ha pasado la tormenta de los atentados de Bruselas, se levantan los dedos acusadores que preguntan cómo una gran red, responsable de dos gravísimos atentados terroristas, pudo atravesar el cordón de seguridad europeo. Poco a poco se ha ido filtrando información que muestra que los servicios de seguridad tenían en sus radares a individuos que formaban parte de esa red y, a toro pasado, parece que nuestros servicios de inteligencia tenían una imagen muy detallada del panorama. Sin embargo, ese a posteriori resulta una lente defectuosa para analizar los fallos del espionaje, que requieren una lectura mucho más profunda para comprender correctamente cómo pudieron producirse unos errores que, en apariencia, se podrían haber evitado.

El descubrimiento, tras un atentado terrorista, de que se disponía de información sobre las personas involucradas puede resultar deprimente. Después del atentado del 7 de julio de 2005 en Londres, salió a luz que al menos dos de los implicados habían pasado por campos de entrenamiento en Pakistán cuya existencia conocían los servicios de espionaje. De hecho, el líder de la célula y su mano derecha venían apareciendo en los márgenes de las investigaciones desde casi cuatro años antes del atentado, e incluso había fotos de ellos junto a un grupo de condenados por planear un atentado en Reino Unido. También en el caso de los atentados del 11-S en Estados Unidos, las investigaciones posteriores revelaron que los servicios de seguridad ya habían señalado a los individuos implicados como elementos preocupantes. Dos de los miembros de la célula del 11-M que reventó los trenes de Atocha en 2004 eran viejos conocidos de los agentes que seguían la huella del salafismo en España.

Si los servicios de seguridad tenían fichados a esos individuos, ¿por qué no impidieron que siguiesen adelante tendiéndoles una emboscada y atrapándolos? El problema radica en que este planteamiento olvida cómo funciona el espionaje.

Aunque a posteriori estos detalles pueden parecer significativos y una señal clara de un peligro inminente, es posible que quedaran enterrados bajo otra cascada de detalles, hechos e hilos. Volviendo al ejemplo de los terroristas de Reino Unido, existía información de años atrás que los situaba en un campo de entrenamiento hablando sobre su marcha al extranjero para combatir. Pero formaban parte de un grupo de 12 sospechosos y, en aquel entonces, otros colectivos constituían una amenaza mayor. Es una cuestión de prioridades. Los servicios de espionaje disponen de recursos limitados y se ven obligados a elegir y descartar. Unas pistas que más tarde parecerán enormemente significativas, en el momento se juzgan menos importantes y bajan peldaños en el rango de prioridad.

Por desgracia, el establecimiento de prioridades es una ciencia imperfecta que necesita evolucionar para reflejar la amenaza a la que se hace frente. Parte del error de cálculo sobre los conspiradores del 7 de julio en Reino Unido fue obviar que unos ciudadanos británicos pudieran cometer atentados suicidas en su país. Parte del error de cálculo sobre los terroristas del 11-S fue pasar por alto que Al Qaeda pudiera ejecutar una conspiración tan ambiciosa y sofisticada en territorio estadounidense. Parte del fallo en los atentados de París fue infravalorar la intensidad con que el Estado Islámico (ISIS, en inglés) se organizaba para atentar en Europa. Parte del fallo con relación a la célula de Bruselas fue desconocer su tamaño y pensar que París constituía su punto final. Ahora, a posteriori, esa red y sus objetivos pueden verse parcialmente en una serie de atentados e intentos previos, como el tiroteo de Mehdi Nemmouche en el museo judío de Bruselas o la confesión de Reda Hame de que había vuelto a Europa con la intención de abrir fuego en una sala de conciertos.

También hay fallos menos abstractos que pueden verse en el caso de la célula de Bruselas y París. El hecho de que ahora podamos ver la mano de Abdelhamid Abaaouden conspiraciones en Europa que se remontan a 2014 demuestra que debería haber sido una prioridad mayor en todo el continente. Eso apunta a un fallo en los servicios fronterizos y en la forma en que los diferentes países del continente comparten información secreta. Schengen crea un espacio común en el que los terroristas pueden actuar con impunidad, y del que por desgracia no se benefician los servicios de seguridad que los persiguen. La cooperación y la coordinación son esenciales para los servicios europeos de seguridad y espionaje, habida cuenta de que su jurisdicción solo llega hasta sus fronteras. Al mismo tiempo, la prioridad también varía entre los distintos países: mientras que para Bélgica y Francia este problema es el más acuciante, ya que existen células activas listas para atentar, es posible que para otros Estados miembros, como Portugal o los países del centro y este de Europa, la amenaza no parezca tan inminente.

Por último, las diferencias legislativas entre los Estados miembros son otra dificultad añadida. Es difícil detectar la ubicación de armas peligrosas, como las pistolas, porque la legislación es muy diferente entre países. Además, las competencias de la policía y los servicios secretos son dispares entre Estados y no siempre está claro con qué organismo homólogo hay que colaborar, con lo que es más que posible que resulte más difícil compartir información. En algunos países, la policía lleva las riendas de las investigaciones, pero en otros los servicios secretos recelan a la hora de compartir información por miedo a poner en peligro una fuente de información al exponerla a un proceso judicial. Esta es una diferencia clave entre los servicios de espionaje y la policía: mientras que la segunda trabaja con un procesamiento judicial como meta, los primeros se mueven en las sombras, evitando el foco de los tribunales. Eso provoca problemas, dentro de los Estados y entre ellos.

Y, sin embargo, estamos ante una amenaza ­paneuropea. En las semanas previas a los atentados de París, las autoridades italianas llevaron a cabo una investigación más amplia en todo el continente contra un grupo que se hacía llamar Rawti Shax: una comunidad compuesta en su mayoría por extremistas kurdos suníes, vinculada a Ansar al Islam, un grupo extremista de kurdos iraquíes muy cercano al ISI, precursor del ISIS. Su desmantelamiento, con arrestos en Escandinavia, Italia, Reino Unido y Bélgica, mostró todo el potencial de la cooperación judicial y entre los servicios secretos en toda Europa.

Pero el éxito duró poco. Al cabo de pocas semanas se produjo la masacre de París y se descubrió que una red más amplia de terroristas llevaba un tiempo activa y operando en todo el continente. Desde entonces se redobló la atención, pero una célula logró colarse en Bruselas. Aunque esta red marcará sin duda un punto de inflexión para los servicios belgas y franceses, la cuestión es si la lección tendrá eco en todo el continente. Toda Europa tiene que aprender las lecciones de París y Bruselas, ya que los grupos y redes vinculados al ISIS (y a Al Qaeda) siguen queriendo atentar en el continente. El espionaje, siempre una ciencia imperfecta, es en última instancia una de las últimas barreras contra la amenaza compleja y sofisticada que representa el ISIS.

Raffaello Pantucci es responsable de estudios de seguridad internacional en el Royal United Services Institute y autor de We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

How Was ISIS in Europe Missed?

As the dust has settled on the Brussels attacks, fingers of accusation have been pointed asking why a large network that produced two major terrorist attacks was able to get through Europe’s security cordon. News has slowly filtered out showing how security agencies had individuals who were part of the network on their radars, and in retrospect a growing intelligence picture looks rich in indicative detail. But hindsight is an imperfect lens through which to look at such intelligence failures, which requires much closer reading to properly understand how such apparently obvious failures could have happened.

It can appear a depressing indictment when in the wake of a terrorist attack, information is discovered to have been already in the possession of intelligence agencies about individuals involved in the attack. In the wake of the July 7, 2005 attack in London it was discovered that at least two of the individuals involved had attended training camps in Pakistan that had been known about by intelligence agencies. The cell lead and his principle support had in fact shown up on the periphery of investigations for almost four years prior to the attack, including pictures of them alongside a group who had been convicted of planning an attack in the United Kingdom. Similarly, for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, subsequent investigation uncovered how the individuals had been flagged up as of concern by security officials. One agent in the FBI had written a memo in which he worried about the fact that so many individuals who were of concern as terrorist suspects were showing up at flight schools seeking to learn how to fly.

But if security services knew, then why did they not act? If they had these individuals in their sites, why did they not prevent them from moving forwards and sweep them up in their dragnets?

The problem is that this is an incomplete way to consider these details and strands of intelligence. Whilst in retrospect, these details can appear massively significant and indicative of the pending plot, at the time they would have come in they would have been buried in a flood of other details, facts and strands of intelligence. To use the example of the July 7 plotters in the United Kingdom again: the strands of information that linked the plotters to a previously disrupted plot and placed them at a training camp as well as discussing going abroad to fight meant that the plotters Mohammed SIddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer were two of twelve different individuals who were being followed up on by investigators after the earlier set of arrests was undertaken. Investigators did not unfortunately get to follow up on them in time.

At the time Khan and Tanweer were two of a large pool of people, with the two of them appearing more prominently involved in discussions about petty fraud and criminal activity to go abroad rather than try to launch attacks in the United Kingdom. At the same time, security agencies were stretched. Not only were they concerned with the wide network of people they had discovered in the earlier investigation, but also focused on a number of other high profile individuals and cases that appeared more menacing at the time.

The question is one of prioritization. Intelligence agencies have limited resources and are obliged to prioritize what they focus on at any given time. Some strands of intelligence can appear more significant and get more attention. Pieces that later appear hugely meaningful, at the time appear less important and get pushed down the rank of things to focus on. This might be the explanation for why intelligence agencies appeared to largely know about the individuals involved in the terrorist attacks yet seemed unable to do anything about the information.

Prioritization is unfortunately an imperfect science and one that needs to evolve to reflect the threat that is being faced. Part of the mis-calculation behind the July 7 plotters in the United Kingdom was the fact that British nationals would launch suicide attacks in the UK. Part of the miscalculation around the September 11 attackers was that al Qaeda would try such an ambitious and sophisticated plot within the American homeland. Part of the failure around the Paris attacks was a misunderstanding of the intensity of plotting that was underway by ISIS to attack in Europe. Part of the failure around the Brussels cell was to fail to understand the size of the cell and the fact that Paris was not the conclusion of their effort. The larger network and their ambition was in retrospect partially visible in a string of previous attacks or attempted attacks from Mehdi Nemmouche’s shooting at the Brussels Jewish museum, in Reda Hame’s confession of coming back with direction and intent to shoot up a music hall, in Ayoub el Khazzani’s attempted massacre on a Thalys train or a heavily armed cell in Verviers, Belgium. A series of plots that now appear linked and set the groundwork for what happened in Brussels and Paris.

There are also less abstract failures that are clearly observable in the specific Brussels and Paris cell. The fact that now in retrospect it is possible to see Abaaoud’s hand in plots in Europe dating back to 2014 shows how he should have been a higher priority across the continent and not someone who should have been able to slip in and out of ISIS controlled territory and Europe. This speaks to a failure of borders agencies, as well as intelligence sharing across the continent. The fact that for terrorists Schengen creates a common space across which they can operate with impunity is not unfortunately matched by the security agencies who are pursuing them. For European security and intelligence agencies, cooperation and coordination is key, as their mandates only stretch as far as their borders. And at the same time, questions of prioritization are true between states. Whilst for Belgium and France the problem is the most pressing security dilemma of the moment with active cells seeking to launch attacks, for Portuguese or Central and Eastern European member states may not feel as immediate a threat.

Finally, legislative and structural difference across member states adds another layer of difficulty to this problem. Different levels of legislation around dangerous weapons like guns make it a difficult threat to mitigate in a pan-European way. Different mandates for police and intelligence agencies, usually due to history or the power of local federal governments, mean that it is not always clear which partner agency needs to be engaged with and makes it potentially harder to share information with each other. In some countries, it is police who lead such investigations but in others intelligence agencies are wary of sharing with police for fear of compromising a source of information through exposing them to a judicial process. This is a key difference between intelligence agencies and police: police work towards prosecutions, whereas intelligence agencies work in the shadows avoiding the spotlight of courtrooms. These cause problems between and within member states.

And yet, the threat is one that is pan-European. In the weeks before the Paris attacks, authorities in Italy led a larger investigation across the continent against a group calling itself Rawti Shax. A community of largely Kurdish Sunni extremists they were linked to the Ansar al Islam group, an Iraqi Kurdish extremist group aligned closely with ISIS precursor group ISI. With arrests in Scandinavia, Italy, the UK and Belgium, the disruption showed the power of the possible with intelligence and judicial cooperation across Europe.

Success proved short lived. A few short weeks later, the massacre in Paris took place and a larger network of plotters was discovered to have been active and operating across the continent for some time. Since then, attention has been ramped up, but a cell managed to slip through in Brussels. Whilst undoubtedly this network will prove to be a turning point for Belgian and French agencies, the question will be whether the lessons will resonate across the continent. The lessons from Paris and Brussels need to be learned across the continent as the groups and networks emanating from ISIS (and al Qaeda) continue to want to attack Europe. Intelligence, always an imperfect science, is ultimately one of the last barriers against the complicated and sophisticated threat that ISIS poses.

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