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A Smarter Kind Of Counterterrorism

November 8, 2010
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By Ilan Berman, Editor of JINSA’s Journal of International Security Affairs

[The following article appeared on the Forbes Blog, November 4, 2010]

It’s a tried-and-true tenet of warfare, showcased throughout centuries of combat, that it is a great deal easier to attack than to defend. Attacking forces have the luxury of setting the time, the place and the means by which conflict is joined, while defenders are forced to anticipate the actions and objectives of their adversaries—or suffer the consequences.

In the age of modern terrorism, those consequences could mean another 9/11, or worse. And while the United States has fared better than most in thwarting these kind of attacks (the Heritage Foundation estimates that the U.S. government has successfully foiled over 30 significant terrorist plots since September 2001), talk to any counterterrorism professional and you’ll come away with the impression that America, like its allies abroad, is still very much playing defense.

But all that may soon start to change, because innovative thinking and technological advances are beginning to make truly proactive counterterrorism less of a pipe dream and more of a reality.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, is seeking to launch a project called “Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales,” or ADAMS. The system, currently still in its proposal stage, would be a complex data-mining software package aimed at detecting “insider threats.” By examining “massive data sets,” ADAMS scans for warning signs of “malevolent insiders that started out as ‘good guys.’” In other words, ADAMS is intended as a screening tool for weak links within the U.S. military—soldiers that may be unstable, harbor jihadist sympathies, or otherwise compromise operational security. In this way, the Pentagon hopes to eventually be able to predict and prevent incidents of fratricide, such as last November’s rampage of Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan, and damaging disclosures of classified material by disgruntled employees, like those that continue to feed Internet clearinghouse Wikileaks.

And while ADAMS may still be a notional effort, others are not. Thus, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is said to have approved a $400,000 project to install “smart cameras” in the city’s subway system as part of continuing counterterrorism advances taking place in the Big Apple. The surveillance units will be capable of detecting abandoned packages and specific clothing colors, and transmit data in real time to MTA headquarters.

But perhaps the most promising counterterrorism innovation in recent times isn’t American at all: it’s Israeli. “Sixth Sense,” a new software and technology bundle just developed by the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, involves cameras that provide real-time imaging of a given area, and an intelligent software package which “learns” over time what behaviors are normal for the location in question, and which are not. The basic principle, industry officials involved with the project explain, is simple: “in every act of terrorism there is secret preparation that can be detected,” and that “moment of truth” can be spotted—and the situation defused—before tragedy occurs. Needless to say, if it proves effective in Israel, such a system could become a major boon to efforts to secure urban centers and transportation hubs here in the U.S. as well.

Which brings us back to the last mass casualty attack on the United States—and the ongoing imperative of preventing a new one. Six years ago, in its final report on the atrocities of September 11th, the 9/11 Commission famously concluded that one of the greatest failures of our fight against terrorism has been one of “imagination.” Today, the emergence of new, high tech counterterrorism initiatives should be seen as a welcome sign that we are indeed starting to think more creatively about our contemporary terrorist challenge.

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