“The Dilemmas of Terrorism”

by LTG Patrick M. Hughes (Ret.)
U.S. Army (Retired)


Reprinted with special permission of the author and the World Future Society, publisher of “Futurist” magazine.

During the past few years the United States has been struck by several acts of terrorism. The most invasive and devastating attacks on 11 September 2001 were further complicated by the follow-on delivery of anthrax through our government mail system. However, we should not forget earlier attacks against our forces and facilities in Saudi Arabia, the first attack against the World Trade Center, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the attacks against our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the strike against the USS Cole while at anchor in Aden Harbor, Yemen. There have been other planned attacks that were successfully interdicted by alert citizens, good police work, accurate intelligence, and sometimes sheer luck. Clearly the trend — an increasing incidence of large-scale terrorist activities specifically targeted against the U.S. — is alarming. If history is a precursor to the future, we will suffer more terrorist attacks in the months and years ahead. The apparent goal of the terrorists is to achieve larger effect in the future. The terrorist target: unwarned, unprotected U.S. persons and facilities.

There are some clear issues embedded in the post-mortem of all previous attacks: What was known beforehand that might have been indicative of the impending attack? What sort of warning could have been given that might have mitigated the attack or even led to its preclusion? What could have been done that wasn’t and why? What can we do to reduce the level of terrorist success to zero? What else should we do to protect ourselves? What should we do now with limited resources and options we have at hand?

In order for citizens to fully answer these questions we need information that is not resident in the public domain. On the friendly side, details are classified or restricted for good intelligence and security reasons, especially the fact that terrorists will learn from any information that is made public and from our knowledge of their actions, if that information is compromised. On the side of those who attack us, everything depends on secrecy. Indeed the central feature of virtually every failure by terrorists is that their operational secrecy was somehow compromised, their efforts were detected and action was taken to interdict them. Every terrorist success is dependent on successful secrecy and on the failure of those who either note or know some piece of information but fail to act on it or fail to be motivated to act. This feature of the problem “secrecy on all sides” complicates not only action against terrorists, but also action to warn against impending terrorism.

There is no easy answer for this conundrum. Secrecy is a necessary element of the fight against those who rely on secrecy to do the work of terrorism. The solution cannot be to lay bare all that is known on either side.

In this atmosphere of secrecy, an informed and alert citizenry would seem to be the best defense against any untoward circumstances, especially those that relate to terrorism. The dilemma is that the “alert citizen” is essentially uncontrolled and can over-react or under-react according to many variables, including bias and misconception. To add another element of complexity to the problem, an increase in information about impending terrorism, especially in the form of warning, begins to loose its credibility if the terror event does not occur. This “Chicken Little” syndrome is already present in our society; the terrorists know it and are taking advantage of it. In their view, they own the clock, and the timing of the next event, as long as their preparation remains secret, is up to them.

Another dilemma is context. In a war zone, or in a hostile foreign environment, uncertainty is a constant, the enemy is usually known and assumed to be present, the level of alert is high, and the expectation is urgent.

In the new conditions we are experiencing we travel and work throughout the world in areas where uncertainty is present but we assume some form of security anyway. In so doing we relax the level of alert, our expectation is for a safe and secure passage and unimpeded activity, and we lack an adequate sense of urgency. Or we stay home because we are uncertain. Recent events in Israel are a microcosm of the “contextual” issue and point up the human element of this problem. People are simply not going to let the threat from terrorists interfere with their right to assemble, even if assembly creates the ideal target.

In the “war zone” of the United States this contextual dilemma is more complex. We do not want to expect uncertainty – just the opposite – even though we have demonstrable examples of why we should be alert to the possibility of terrorist actions. We do not have a sense of urgency. Perhaps we did just after 9-11, but we have now returned to some level of “new normalcy,” where we know of the possibility but hope for improbability.

There are variations among us. Some few people have reacted to the terrorist threat in extreme ways, equipping themselves for disaster and reporting everything they see and hear that does not fit their personal belief system. Others have reacted by accepting the inevitability of future terrorist events and hoping against hope that they will not be present when those events occur. The authorities, government leaders, police, intelligence and security officials and first responders, all have variations on the theme of balance. They seek to be ready for an event that they hope will never come, but that they expect nevertheless. They live with contrived certainty in an uncertain environment.

There are only a few persons in positions that give them the full range of knowledge, authority and power to act, and the responsibility to engage in deliberate planning to interdict and carry out offensive activities, to preclude terrorist action. Generally we do not know, we cannot know, what these people are doing or even who they are, because their success depends on viable operational security and secrecy. Thus we are left with depending on those who are appointed to protect us without knowing what they are doing, a condition that embodies uncertainty and conjures up another dilemma that terrorism has brought to us, the potential for the deterioration of our constitutional rights in the context of security.

An illustrative part of this problem is the collection of private communications, the potential abrogation of individual rights-to-privacy, and activities that use “challenging” technologies to gain access to intimate information.

This informational dilemma is not the only erosion of our personal liberties. Barriers outside buildings, armed presence in public places, the requirement to routinely “prove” identity, the nature of association with others, and numerous other facets of “new normal” life have now been included in the larger effort to protect the citizenry by knowing more about them. This is a condition fraught with obvious concerns but the argument favoring these circumstances is powerful: in an age of terrorist activity and the possibility that terrorist can use weapons with mass effects, including nuclear, biological, chemical and “new science” weapons, we simply cannot afford to absorb such attacks. We must do whatever is necessary to preclude them. As direct and clear as that postulation is, one cannot help but be struck by the high potential for protection to become odious.

Countering terrorism should be at the front of every citizen’s mind if for no other reason than the security restrictions and challenges to individual rights that have beset us as an outcome from terrorism. The cure is, seemingly, an unhappy and even unpalatable set of impediments and encroachments. But the threat is real.

We have another dilemma. What do we do to sound the alarm and to act once alerting information is present?

The problem of collecting, processing and analyzing, and deciding on dissemination and action with regard to information about terrorism, is different from most other intelligence and security conditions, in part because the information is seldom clear or definitive. This is especially true in the demanding context of the U.S. homeland and our societal order. Without going into the many legal and functional details that are involved, an explanation of parts of the problem may suffice to make the point that discerning indications and issuing warning (I&W), of an impending terrorist attack, are both complex and procedurally difficult, more akin to reporting an impending crime before the event than to alerting the citizenry of an imminent attack from a traditional opponent.

Suppose that a piece of information comes to an appropriate authority from a highly classified source, a source that is dependent on continued secrecy for its viability. The information is not absolute, but it is noteworthy. It indicates that something is happening or will happen soon that may presage a terrorist event. Key details are missing – time, place, and nature of the event – but enough information is present so that a warning can be given. The tradeoff is that if you sound a warning with full disclosure of the information from the source, you will compromise the source. If you don’t sound a warning, you risk unacceptable results.

Judgment is called for. Analysis and further processing, that takes time, leads to a controlled public release in which the fact of the warning is relatively clear but the basis for it is not. The ensuing uncertainty leads to several different results. Some understand and accept the warning in good faith. Some lose faith in the warning system and criticize it. Others lose faith in the collection system. The “Sky Is Falling,” syndrome kicks in. Measuring the effect of the warning is difficult since nothing may happen. The warning action was necessary but the result is unsatisfactory.

Assuming that the warning was public, and even sometimes when it was not, the terrorists were alerted too, and it is their clock. They can usually stop and start activity according to their appraisal of the security situation and their understanding of opportunity. It may not be that simple, but the circumstances of warning in the public domain would seem to favor the terrorist when flexibility and adaptive change are required.

In another example, information comes in pieces to different agencies, organizations, and analysts. Individually the pieces of information, in current context, are not clear and do not provide the basis for a warning. However, when the pieces are brought together, using the metaphor of a partially assembled puzzle, the meaning and the pattern of the assembled information becomes more apparent. This is especially true when a clever and knowledgeable analyst examines all the information and places it in appropriate context. The results may be adequate to issue a warning but explaining the nature and details of the warning itself are very difficult to do without damaging the system that produced it. We are often left with a warning attributed to analysis and opinion, a poor substitute for fact and detail.

Unfortunately we know from inquiries after the fact that I&W information has been available in pieces but was not brought together and no warning was given, in part because the mechanisms to do so were not in place. In some cases the information was “analyzed” and a warning was attempted without effect, usually because some part of the “responsibility and authority” chain broke down.

In recent cases this failure has been recognized but without action to address the need for change such recognition solves nothing. The impediments to assembling all the information in one or two places and having the very best analysts examine it continuously are largely parochial and bureaucratic but nonetheless real. The clarity of detail available in the reporting system is occasionally adequate for any thinking person to discern the indicators of an impending event and motivate them to warn. But, without a clear understanding of the indicators by appropriate responsible authorities, lacking the right inquisitive and suspicious mindset, without the necessary operational and informational security to protect the sources, sensors, methods and the information itself, and absent an understandable and dependable mechanism to alert and warn, we will continue to respond to uncertain conditions with uncertain actions.

Much has been made of the concept of asymmetry as a tool of terrorism. It is important to note that terrorism by its very nature embodies the age-old concept of using some unexpected or unconventional approach or some non-traditional capability to achieve success. It is equally important to realize that the asynchronous nature of the terrorist’s action, to do something at a time and tempo that is not expected, is a vital element of success. It is asymmetric and asynchronous synergy that makes terrorism such a powerful capability against traditional defensive targets and traditional mindsets.

Part of the response we give lip service to is to “think outside the box,” and to imagine and understand the “art of the possible,” in order to anticipate or predict and thus warn of the next terrorist event. These are worthy goals, but the fact is that unrestricted terrorist options constitute many possible courses of action, limited only by intervening conditions and circumstances. Invasive insightful intelligence is a much more appropriate goal. This is where we seem to be successful, within the limits of our capabilities, and failing within those same limitations. Some better intelligence gathering approach is needed, especially with regard to human intelligence. This is fraught with difficulty but seems both necessary and worth the cost. According to media reports we are embarking on this very course. Let us hope that personnel selection, training, support, and policy and procedure, will be up to the task.

We are faced with these and other dilemmas that, together, form a distinct and clear danger to individual liberty and to most systems of government. This alone should be motivation enough to act to stop terrorists in their tracks whenever and wherever we can. We must somehow focus on and achieve an acceptable system of protection, prevention, preclusion and reaction to the scourge of terrorism – without losing the ideals and precepts by which we navigate the difficult pathway into our future. This cannot be done by committee or by independent activity by many agencies and organizations acting parochially. Instead, some form of centralized and evenly applied approach must be devised and undertaken by appropriate leaders. In the United States, the President must lead this effort.

What will the future bring? Uncertainty at best. The possibilities are daunting and there seem to be no good solutions to the underlying reasons for terrorism. We can clearly see the need to preclude terrorist attacks. Our dilemma is to figure out how to do that without compromising the values and freedoms we have come to rely upon for our quality of life.

About the Author

Patrick M. Hughes is a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General with more than 30 years of experience in military intelligence and related activities. He served as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency, as the Director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command, as the Director of Intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and completed his active service as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is President of PMH Enterprises LLC, a private consulting firm providing advice and assistance in the fields of intelligence, security, and international relations. He can be reached via e-mail at

More information about the World Future Society may be found HERE!

Webmaster’s note: We are also very proud to have General Hughes as an active and very supportive member of the Mobile Riverine Force Association.