Immediately after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 airport security was drastically increased. Anyone and everyone, regardless of color, creed, age, or sex was subject to additional screening when passing through security checkpoints. Along with the increase in security came the calls for profiling. While people claimed they understood and appreciated the increased security, they did not want it to impact them, only those they believed could possibly be terrorists. In other words, the only people that needed additional scrutiny were young Middle Eastern males; just look at who carried out 9/11 and who blows up buses in Israel. Why should lily-white, red-blooded Joe Blow or his senior citizen grandmother have to take off their shoes and risk possibly missing their flight when there are so many Middle Eastern-looking people (this includes Latinos according to some) that represent a much higher risk?
Dr. Edward N. Luttwak believes we should be doing something very similar. In a recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, he writes, “screen[ing] passengers as persons instead of their bodies and belongings has an overwhelming advantage,” namely that this method “can detect a would-be terrorist even if the specific technique he tries to employ is not previously known.” While his risk-based approach has some merit, once al-Qa`ida operators understand which groups are not screened and which ones receive extra attention, they will simply devise ways to join those groups.
On September 11, 2001 the 19 hijackers were all of Middle Eastern, mostly Saudi, descent. For some time after 9/11, many terrorist operatives were of similar background. As al-Qa`ida was disrupted and displaced, and more franchise organizations came online, the probability of a terrorist being of Middle Eastern descent began to diminish. Just as the United States and its Western allies adjusted anti-terrorism defenses based on the last attack, al-Qa`ida adjusted its offensive capabilities by varying the color, ethnicity, and even sex of its operatives in order to defeat the anti-terrorism measures.
The phrase, “wilderness of mirrors,” an allusion to Alice in Wonderland, was how some intelligence experts described the spy war between the United States and Soviet Union. It is still used to describe the war between counter-terrorism professionals and terrorists; one side trying to gain the edge against the other in small battles all around the globe while trying to make the other side believe something that is not true. We continuously try to find ways to thwart the next 9/11 and they, the terrorists, are always looking for that small gap in our anti-terrorism protection rings to exploit and kill people. These small battles can have great, strategic impacts on the overall war.
Sun Tzu said, “All war is based on deception.” By keeping the terrorists guessing, they will never truly know what we know or what we don’t know about them and their operations. That may sound like a Rumsfeld axiom, but in warfare it is absolutely true. If we only screened young Middle Eastern males, al-Qa`ida would recruit (and they have been) or attract Westerners such as John Walker “the American Taliban” Lindh, Daniel Patrick Boyd, or Bryant Neal Vinas. This satisfies two requirements for al-Qa`ida planners, it provides an operative less likely to be viewed as a terrorist by the mainstream public and it gives them someone familiar with Western culture and travel. This last requirement goes toward defeating the Transportation Security Administration’s Behavioral Detection Officers (BDO) who are looking for individuals feeling out of place and nervous. The more confidence an operative has, the less likely they will be singled out by BDOs. We must keep them guessing as to the true capabilities of our anti- and counter-terrorism assets and measures.
Some people ask, “Doesn’t the fact that in an open democratic society most of the anti-terrorism measures put into place are eventually exposed by the media or civil liberties groups?” and “Doesn’t that exposure defeat the purpose of keeping those measures secret from al-Qa`ida so they do not know our capabilities?” In some ways the answer is yes, by exposing our capabilities to the enemy it allows them to design ways to defeat them; however, on the other hand, the terrorists do not know how good those capabilities are and whether they work or not. President Reagan used the idea of “Star Wars,” the U.S. military’s space-based warfare concept in the 1980s, to deceive the Soviets into believing this program would work. They then bankrupted their economy trying to develop a program of their own that could defeat ours. But ours only really existed on paper, not in the near future as Soviet intelligence was led to believe. Pardon the clichés, but power perceived is power achieved and the rest, as they say, is history.