Prior to 9/11, the U.S. Intelligence Community was still largely focused on the old Soviet Union. The IC had built its expertise during the Cold War. So it would not be a stretch to say that most intelligence analysts were familiar with The Communist Manifesto and could explain what “perestroika” meant, but knew little about the Quran and the various sects within Islam.
However, times have changed and new threats have emerged. When intelligence analysts examine Islamic-based terrorism, otherwise known as Qutbism, the high level of expertise is not widespread within the IC.
Today’s Terrorism Has Greatly Expanded since Its Origins in WWII Egypt
The terrorist threat today was born from a religious movement that began in Egypt, which used Pakistan as an example but was ultimately refined in Egypt. Modern Salafism grew out of post-WWI Egypt.
Salafism was influenced by the creation of Abul A’la Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic religious party based in Pakistan. The party provided an ideology based on Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones.
The ideology of Qutbism is characterized by the word “jahiliyyah,” which means ignorance. Qutb accused Muslims of being in a state of ignorance, which he blamed on secular leaders in Islamic countries. For a more detailed history of Qutbism, see Richard Shultz’s book Global Insurgency Strategy and the Salafi Jihad Movement.
Qutb’s work was denounced by the influential Salafist cleric Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani. His denunciation forced Qutbists to find new authorities for their goal of redefining Islam.
They turned to Abdullah Azzam, a cleric who studied in Egypt and was greatly influenced by Qutb’s work. It was Azzam who ultimately gave permission for the offensive jihad led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They formed Al Qae’da based on the principles laid down by Azzam.
Islam has a long-established foundational understanding of the faith through its developed jurisprudential rules, known as fiqh. After Qutb and Azzam, bin Laden embraced a new version of Salafism, one that rejected fiqh.
There are three recognizable forms of Salafism: Jihadi, Qutbism and its political Muslim Brotherhood, and Quietists, such as Albani. After 9/11, bin Laden praised the 19 martyrs of this new faith who carried out the attacks by saying they conducted the operation without regard to fiqh.
U.S. Analytical Processes Need to Change and New Constants Need Analysis
While there are intelligence analysts in the IC who contextually understand the ideological foundation of Qutbism, their level of understanding of Qutbism is not comparable to that of the Cold War analysts who were well-versed in the tenets of Marxism and the Soviet military.
In the past, the IC built templates of how Soviet Red Army units would deploy. Previous operations were analyzed to learn important lessons. Those analyses refined U.S. understanding of Soviet warfare tactics, which enabled us to develop collection capabilities to detect Soviet weapons systems.
For example, the U.S. Intelligence Community was sophisticated enough to determine which radar emissions corresponded to specific surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). But it would be misleading to infer that today’s intelligence analysts do not try to study the multitude of current threats that range from Qutbists, lone-wolf terrorists and potential threat nation-states such as North Korea.
However, our current analytical processes are not refined enough to develop a sophisticated understanding of those threats.
The U.S. Army still relies on a deliberate planning process – Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) – to examine potential threats. While it is a proven process, IPB does little to examine data that is collected after operations commence. Furthermore, there is no systematic process that provides evaluative criteria.
During the Cold War, a threat was assessed as capabilities, plus intent. That definition still applies today, but the constants that need to be analyzed are now found in variables such as terrain, targets and system capabilities. It is not uncommon to see intelligence analysts select data and plot them on a map to determine threat activity.
Today’s threats need to be examined using processes that collect and categorize vast amounts of data to develop an understanding of the areas terrorists try to influence. To make this assessment properly, the data need to be categorized into areas, organizations, people and other characteristics cited in the threat reports.
In addition, the intelligence reporting must remain consistent with the potential threat that is being analyzed. For example, if a potential lone-wolf terrorist is analyzed, the data associated with that potential threat should not be categorized into data on ISIS.
Even if the potential lone wolf pledges loyalty to ISIS, he or she must be assessed apart from ISIS. An exception could be made if there is verifiable proof that the lone wolf is an ISIS member or operating under their guidance.
Criteria Should Be Modified to Suit Each Potential Threat
After threat reporting is analyzed, it must be evaluated because not all reporting is equal. Evaluative criteria need to be established to determine the value of each intelligence report.
Various criteria should be established for each potential threat. Also, ideological understanding provides enhanced relevancy to the overall analysis.
The nodal analysis and evaluative criteria need to be synthesized into potential hypotheses and threat target sets. In providing hypotheses on the likelihood of potential threat activity, the intelligence analyst should take care to ensure that no personal bias finds its way into the threat analysis.
By doing so, the intelligence analyst can determine the targets that carry more weight and are a greater potential threat. The analyst can then refine operational decisions. One byproduct of evaluative analytical processes is intelligence collection refinement.
Intelligence Collection Refinement
The value of hypotheses and target scores can determine how much collection is focused on a certain area. Low scores could indicate that the collection asset might not be the best one to collect in regards to evaluating potential threat activity. It might also be an indicator that high-value collection is underutilized, or that some hypotheses might have low scores but have high, single collection values.
By refining our analytical processes, intelligence can become a very specific tool that informs counterterrorism, homeland security, and other critical strategies that focus on finding and defeating the various threats we encounter today. Not all reporting is of equal value, so the greater we can understand the ideology, the more enhanced and relevant our analysis will be.
The U.S. Intelligence Community’s mission to defeat terror threats must focus on finding and removing those that are creating the raison d’etre for terrorism. In addition to removing ideological cancers, IC strategy must also focus on empowering future Albani-like clerics who refuse to justify or support potential threats. This combined approach will enable the IC to identify and defeat the complex global threats we encounter today.