Pragmatic | Intelligence as Immunisation

On preventing terror strikes.

From Poor Economics: Rethinking Poverty & the Ways to End it by Abhijit V. Banerjee & Ester Duflo:

It is probably even harder to learn from experience about immunisation, because it does not fix an existing problem but only protects against potential future problems. When a child is immunised against measles, the child does not get measles. But not all children who are immunised actually contract measles (especially if others around them who are the potential source of infection are immunised), so it is very difficult to draw a clear link between immunisation and the lack of disease. Moreover, immunisation just prevents some diseases — there are many others — and uneducated parents do not necessarily understand what their child is supposed to be protected against. So when the child gets sick despite being immunised, the parents feel cheated…[pp 60; Poor Economics]

Immunisation and disease. This is the closest metaphor one can ever get to for understanding the linkage between intelligence and terror strikes. Intelligence is a protection against potential future strikes. Even when intelligence doesn’t work, there might be no terror strike. When intelligence succeeds, the terror strike that didn’t occur will never be known to the public. And when an incident occurs because intelligence wasn’t resourced and tasked to monitor that particular strain, a lot of us feel cheated.

Preventing terror strikes deals with a complex set of issues. Unfortunately, the balance of probabilities is stacked against the intelligence agencies as the terrorist has to succeed only once, whereas the agencies have to do so every single time.

However, it doesn’t mean that the probability of a terror strike can’t be reduced further. By a continuous process of improvement and refinement — development of smart intelligence, thorough investigation, law enforcement, forensics and biometrics, financial tracking, protection of critical infrastructure, accounting for and management of explosives and radioactive materials — we can reduce the chances of a terror strike.

Mumbai terror strike of November 2008 pointed to gaps in information sharing and the translation of intelligence into pre-emptive action in our systems. In case of the recent bomb blasts in Mumbai, in contrast, the intelligence agencies did not have any information or leads whatsoever. NATGRID — its Phase-1 is scheduled to be completed in 26 months time — would have helped in the former but would be ineffective in the latter.

Preventing terror strikes is a significant challenge and it is not possible to declare that any part of this problem has been solved or eliminated. The only way to confront that challenge is to continuously improve our ability to detect and intervene before terrorist acts are commissioned. And you have to have luck on your side. But as Samuel Goldwyn famously said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.