- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Terrorist Threat Demands Creative Intelligence

  • Dominic Contreras
| Winter 2011-2012

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, argues that despite not falling victim to a major terrorist event in the last 10 years, the United States must not be complacent in its counter-terrorism efforts.

Mowatt-Larssen said in a Belfer Center seminar in September that he believes the possibility of a major attack is higher in the next 10 years than in the preceding decade.

Hosted by Belfer Center Director GrahamAllison, Mowatt-Larssen’s talk centered largely on what the former Central Intelligence Agency officer perceives is a deficit in creative thinking regarding counter-terrorism and nuclear security.

Listen to a recording of the seminar:

“What we need most of all is ideas,” he said. “We need new ideas. We’re living in a world where everything is in tremendous dynamic change, and by simply reflexively applying old methodologies, whether they are defense or intelligence or counter-proliferation. . . we are sure to fail.”

Mowatt-Larssen, a senior fellow in the Belfer Center, said that creative thinking and the exploitation of dynamic opportunities can allow small groups of focused individuals— like al Qaeda and alleged anthrax attack perpetrator Bruce Ivins—to accomplish that which was previously the domain of states and militaries. Rather than relying on military contingents and weapons of mass destruction, which are easier to track and regulate, terrorists seek what Mowatt- Larssen termed “weapons of mass effect,” such as airplanes or inconspicuous chemical substances. This has forced those in the intelligence and national security community to cast aside 60 years of state-to-state-based security thinking and replace it with a new state-to-non-state-actor paradigm.

According to Mowatt-Larssen, effectively combating this threat requires a multilateral approach in which information sharing and cooperation within and among governments are the cornerstone in successful counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation policies. Using this approach, the U.S. and its allies “probably stopped . . . at least a half dozen or more specific terrorist attacks . . . in the 2002–2003 timeline because of the way we shared information,” he said. “No country is an island. . . . [and] if you did give everything to everybody you couldn’t stop anything.”

He said the belief in the efficacy of intelligence sharing was so strong, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, that in 2003 a decision was made by the U.S. to share, through an intermediary, sensitive information with the Iranian government that a terrorist attack was possibly being planned within its borders. The exact details of this incident remain classified.

Mowatt-Larssen suggested the creation of what he called a global intelligence capacity. “It’s outrageous that we have an IAEA that’s got no intelligence capacity, what I call genuine analytical capacity, much less a collection capability,” he said, referencing shortcomings in the global institution charged with regulating and safeguarding nuclear material and programs. Unfortunately, he said, “I suspect it will take the next big attack to stimulate this kind of thinking.’’

Mowatt-Larssen suggested a “strategic reorientation of how we think of threats and how we think of actors, [and] how we think of risk management.” He emphasized the need to move away from an ad hoc, reactionary approach to combating terrorism, and move toward a more doctrinal based approach, akin to that used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the intelligence community, this lack of a long-term, doctrinal approach “is one of our worst shortcomings.”

That said, the United States and its allies have seen tangible and measurable successes in their fight against extremism, Mowatt-Larssen said. Even before the May 2 raid that killed former al-Qaeda leader Osama BinLaden, the group’s popularity and effectiveness in the region had been steadily declining. “They’re on the run,” he said. “Their narrative is not as appealing in the Middle East because other things [like the Arab Spring] have transcended it or superseded it.”

Effectively dealing with terrorism demands “new solutions, new thinking, imagination, and most of all taking it seriously as being part of a body of things, not some isolated threat that you have to believe in or not believe in.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Contreras, Dominic. Terrorist Threat Demands Creative Intelligence.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2011-2012).

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