FIGHTING TERRORISM: THE CHALLENGES OF SUSTAINED SURVEILLANCE

FIGHTING TERRORISM: THE CHALLENGES OF SUSTAINED SURVEILLANCE

By Patrick J. Brosnan

The bloody ending on Friday of two hostage crises in Paris shines a bright light on the fallacy of the effectiveness of surveillance of known jihadists and reaffirms a potentially deadly chink in anti-terrorism programs in the United States.  The burning question facing the French government: How did several known jihadists elude surveillance and successfully mount a daring and deadly attack despite being well-known to France’s Intelligence services?  Both suspects had confirmed links to Al Quaeda in Yemen and Said Kouachi’s travels to Yemen between 2009 and 2012 were well-known to France’s law enforcement and intelligence services. Furthermore, his brother- Cherif Kouachi- had been convicted of jihadist-related activities in 2008. The sad and economic reality is that law enforcement and intelligence services- both in France and in the United States- have finite budgets.  One or both of the brothers had been on law enforcement’s radar since Said returned from Yemen but a period of sustained surveillance was reduced to monitoring and then ultimately discontinued due to cost and other priorities. That is the reality and the irony of sustained surveillance: It is virtually impossible to sustain.

As a former NYPD Robbery detective and the owner of an intelligence and investigative firm in NYC,  I have been directly involved in administering and conducting surveillances for over thirty years. Despite what Hollywood may convey,  surveillances are extremely difficult to conduct without alerting the target and very costly to fund, due to the uncertainty of their length, as the target may not engage in any suspicious or criminal behavior for very long periods of time.  These same challenges face anti-terrorism and intelligence officials every day. The identification of potential Jihadists through their travels to Yemen or other Al Quaeda hotspots, or through other intelligence-gathering methods, is relatively simple. The problems begin when trying to put multiple, perhaps hundreds, of potential or confirmed jihadists under sustained surveillance. The first problem is economics: It is very costly. In order to surveil one person 24/7 it requires multiple agents to diminish the probability of the target becoming aware of the surveillance; and the chances of losing the target, in traffic or in a dizzying array of everyday scenarios, is very high.

Lets examine the logistics of the sustained or permanent surveillance of one subject. There are 168 hours in every week and as per the United States Department of Labor Laws, intelligence agents generally work forty hours a week.  Therefore, to assign one agent per week on a target requires approximately five men or women. The minimum number of surveillance agents required to effectively and discreetly surveil a target is three per shift.  Thus, the surveillance of one potential jihadist requires fifteen agents per week.  Multiply those numbers by several hundred terrorists and the logistical and economic nightmare becomes readily apparent. To boot, the agents and their vehicles must be constantly rotated. Add to the mix the extraordinary difficulty of effectively and discreetly surveilling individuals who are, by nature and design, very suspicious and the enormity of the challenge becomes evident. Finally, and perhaps most daunting, from a budgetary perspective; it is impossible to predict when a potential jihadist will actually shift to operational mode and mount an attack.  Armies of discreet and virtually invisible undercover intelligence agents could surveil one target for years before they ever commit a terroristic act. In fact, they may never go operational. All the while the meter is running and draining law enforcement resources to the point where the surveillance is either cut back, due to the lack of activity, or discontinued altogether, for other perceived priorities, as we saw with the Kouachi brothers in Paris.

The answer to maximizing confirmed intelligence information of jihadists is three-fold: First, their communications’ devices must be closely monitored 24/7 and any actionable intelligence gained must be quickly interwoven with the operational strategy of the agents performing physical surveillance. Second, resources must be found to fund sustained physical surveillance of confirmed and potential jihadists. This is an absolute. There is no greater or more pressing reason for the Federal government to have an open checkbook.  Physical surveillances of confirmed or likely jihadists must never be reduced or stopped for perceived greater priorities or due to lack of action by the target.  Once an individual is identified as a threat to our Homeland, he does not become less of a threat because he does not act quickly.  We must be ever mindful that surveillance of terrorists, unlike surveillance of pickpockets or rapists who are driven by greed or lust, can be an excruciatingly drawn-out process. Third, we must tirelessly attempt to plant undercover officers in their lives. We have to be more clever, and more purposefully deceitful, than them. We must put our spooks in their spaces. History has established that jihadists are methodical, thorough and, above all, extremely patient. We must display the same level of patience if we are to identify, prevent and disrupt future terrorist acts in the United States.

Patrick J. Brosnan is the owner of Brosnan Risk Consultants – a security and investigative firm based in Midtown Manhattan – and a crime analyst for Fox News.

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