In the war on terror, intelligence plays a much greater role than in many past conflicts. Good intelligence has always been essential for success. It helps to preserve the element of surprise and disorient the enemy. It also protects our own troops and interests, by determining the enemy's force size and strength. Major American achievements such as the Allied landing at Normandy on D-Day could not have succeeded without good intelligence, to confuse Hitler as to the intended invasion point and to detect Nazi force movements on the French coast.
But because of the unique nature of the war on terror, American success depends even more upon accurate intelligence than in the past. Our enemies are more dispersed and congregate in smaller groups, with no geographic boundaries. They must be tracked and located in many countries and on several continents. Their movements are not as obvious as those of an army, with no tanks, no divisions, no planes to signal an invasion. They infiltrate a country and attack surreptitiously, moving within existing social and legal structures. The war on terror is not confined to a clearly marked front, but is waged in civilian neighborhoods, increasing the risk of unforeseen collateral damage. All of these factors, and many more, mean that intelligence is an inescapable element in our victory over radical Islamist terrorists.
1. Identify Terrorists
The first role of intelligence is to identify and locate our enemies. They do not wear uniforms or belong to national armies and so can only be identified by their behavior. To accomplish this difficult task, intelligence agencies must determine and monitor the behaviors that would likely accompany terrorist activities. These may include active involvement in mosques or schools led by individuals of known radical sympathies, participation in online message boards that support radical activities, or affiliation with groups involved with or funded by radical organizations. By themselves, none of these activities positively indicate that an individual may be a potential terrorist, but they are specific behaviors that may accompany the potential for corruption.
Making this identification is often more difficult than it might seem. Much of the terrorist training and organization process now occurs on the Internet, where identifying the person behind a screen name and tracking them to their geographic location are extraordinarily difficult. Other activities require infiltration of social, family, or religious groups that are characteristically hostile to outsiders. Finally, many religious, financial, or civic organizations that may support terrorism are transnational in nature, making access to membership records elusive at best.
These challenges do not mean that the task of identifying terrorists through intelligence methods is impossible. Many of our greatest successes in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted from accurate intelligence providing the identity and location of terrorists and insurgents. Accurate intelligence has helped curtail the activities of many transnational funding and support organizations and numerous pro-radical websites have been identified. Some have been closed down, while others have been used as tools for identifying potential terrorists and preventing attacks that may still be in the planning stages. Overall, however, the task is an extremely difficult one that requires the best efforts of extremely qualified individuals.
2. Preventing Attacks
The second objective of intelligence in the war on terror is preventing further attacks against American interests. When intelligence officials have identified potential terrorists or important communications channels, they can then monitor these for indications of a pending attack. This particular use means that known communications channels may be allowed to continue functioning, to prevent users from moving to other, unidentified methods. In this case, the American public in particular may never hear of these successes, but will see their results in increased security at certain targets. When the Homeland Security threat level is raised or protection of specific buildings or infrastructure elements is increased, this is an excellent indication that the American intelligence community has unearthed discussion of a potential plot through such clandestine communication. Of course, it is impossible to identify and prevent all attacks using this method, necessitating the constant presence of law enforcement and other security measures in certain areas. But identifying potential attacks and likely targets can help allocate scarce resources to the areas of most pressing need.
3. Stopping the Flow of Money
Like any other activity, terrorism cannot succeed without a secure financial basis. Terrorism is an expensive business that demands payments for training, equipment, communications, and recruitment. Few individuals have the resources to fund their own private jihad and so must rely upon the largesse of wealthy families and religious organizations to keep their enterprises alive. This money travels in a variety of ways over many miles to reach its targets. To greatly impact international terrorism, intelligence agencies must locate the channels through which this money flows and either monitor or stop them. Several organizations around the world that are ostensibly dedicated only to preventing religious discrimination or aiding Muslim business and educational ventures have already been identified as sources of terrorist or radical financing. But the most effective way to halt the distribution of money to terrorists is through regulation of the international Muslim financial network. Islam establishes a set of rules by which Muslim financiers and banks may operate, distinct from that of most countries. This network transcends political boundaries and lacks the transparency of contemporary financial networks. Attempts at regulation are largely unsuccessful, amid the inevitable cries of religious persecution and against the legal realities of the countries of origin for these institutions. However, some progress has been made at tracking the flow of money through these channels, contributing to the dwindling financial resources of many terrorist cells.