What Catches Terrorists

 

As you have undoubtedly heard, French authorities have confirmed that Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the mastermind of the Paris Attacks, previously believed to be in Syria — was killed yesterday during a raid on his Saint-Denis hideout. Fortunately, the only fatality besides him and one of his accomplices — a cousin who blew herself up after screaming for help — was a French police dog. A number of other suspects were arrested. Do read the details; it’s amazing.

Based on current reporting, Abaaoud also appears to have been behind several unsuccessful ISIS plots in Europe, including the attempted train massacre that was thwarted by several passengers back in August. Moreover, he and his accomplices were apparently in the midst of planning additional assaults in and around Paris when they were killed. Abaaoud almost certainly wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, but — importantly — not quite yet.

So how’d we find this terrorist mastermind? NSA? CIA? Code-breaking? Stipulating again that reports are early, the answer appears to be through a discarded cellphone the Bataclan murderers used to notify him that they were about to begin. The message, importantly, was completely unencrypted, and led authorities directly to Abaaoud’s current location. It required nothing more than what normal police would do in the course of any other investigation.

Think about it this way: Even if Abaaoud’s name, history, and association with the Islamic State were completely unknown, authorities would still have been able to find him just as fast as they actually did, thanks to this cell phone. All our intelligence agencies’ efforts — including the trolling of billions of communications in what should be a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment and the demands that we surrender access to encryption technology — did not give us as much information as a single cell phone discarded by a terrorist after the fact.

Indeed, there is very little evidence to suggest that Abaaoud’s group — the most successful terrorist cell in Europe in over ten years, largely consisting of young, French, and Belgian-born nationals trained in Syria by a terrorist state with hundreds of millions of dollars — were using any of the encryption technologies our security services and some presidential candidates believe should be compromised in the name of national security. And again, even if there were, it wasn’t their use of this technology that led to the terrorists’ downfall, even after their identities had been revealed. (H/T: Scott Shackford.)

The Paris attacks confirmed once again that Islamic terrorism is a deadly and important threat, and that even a group with some serious vulnerabilities can cause enormous damage and loss of life. But let’s examine what tools actually work against it before we endorse the most ambitious and far-reaching tools to combat it.

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  1. Jamie Lockett Member
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Interesting and not at all surprising.

    • #1
  2. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    It’s much easier to catch a terrorist after they’ve committed a terrorist attack than before.

    • #2
  3. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Fascinating.  Also kind of ridiculous … guy just tosses cellphone into trash after calling his boss.  Fortunately, we’ll always be aided by the human element of stupidity (better when it’s them and not us).

    • #3
  4. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Misthiocracy:It’s much easier to catch a terrorist after they’ve committed a terrorist attack than before.

    Was also going to say this.

    Interestingly, we accept that in many areas of law enforcement.  I’ve made that argument (pretty passionately, I might add) in court during a CPS fact finding trial.  Namely, as a society, we simply cannot go around punishing people for crimes we think they might commit.  We end up sort of having to wait for something bad to happen.

    Now, I think war and terrorism are a bit different…  but they’re things that require a lot of thought, and we shouldn’t pretend that we’re not doing something that we should not tolerate in other contexts.

    • #4
  5. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Misthiocracy: It’s much easier to catch a terrorist after they’ve committed a terrorist attack than before.

    Indeed, though these guys had struck multiple times before and — despite all the other resources available and/or used — the ones that actually worked was a cellphone with a normal text message.

    • #5
  6. Jamie Lockett Member
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Ryan M:Fascinating. Also kind of ridiculous … guy just tosses cellphone into trash after calling his boss. Fortunately, we’ll always be aided by the human element of stupidity (better when it’s them and not us).

    It is the general incompetency of terrorists that leads me to not really fear them much.

    • #6
  7. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Ryan M:

    Misthiocracy:It’s much easier to catch a terrorist after they’ve committed a terrorist attack than before.

    Was also going to say this.

    Agreed. My point is that it’s also easier to surveil someone after they attempt multiple attacks and appear in glossy enemy media. That ended up being less useful than finding a cellphone used to send an unencrypted message.

    • #7
  8. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Misthiocracy: It’s much easier to catch a terrorist after they’ve committed a terrorist attack than before.

    Indeed, though these guys had struck multiple times before and — despite all the other resources available and/or used — the ones that actually worked was a cellphone with a normal text message.

    So, basically, in essence, “terrorists are caught because they make a mistake.”

    That seems pretty tautological, since the fact that they are caught is itself proof that they made a mistake somewhere along the line.

    • #8
  9. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Misthiocracy: That seems pretty tautological, since the fact that they are caught is itself proof that they made a mistake somewhere along the line.

    But how are they caught?

    Is it because their using fancy encryption or secret messages that we intercept, or because they’re using normal texting and not changing location? That seems important.

    • #9
  10. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Jamie Lockett:

    Ryan M:Fascinating. Also kind of ridiculous … guy just tosses cellphone into trash after calling his boss. Fortunately, we’ll always be aided by the human element of stupidity (better when it’s them and not us).

    It is the general incompetency of terrorists that leads me to not really fear them much.

    I agree.  In the very least, it makes me hopeful that we could likely get the edge on them.

    • #10
  11. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Ryan M:

    Misthiocracy:It’s much easier to catch a terrorist after they’ve committed a terrorist attack than before.

    Was also going to say this.

    Agreed. My point is that it’s also easier to surveil someone after they attempt multiple attacks and appear in glossy enemy media. That ended up being less useful than finding a cellphone used to send an unencrypted message.

    It is pretty amazing.  Also amazing that they didn’t move locations.  I don’t intend this as an argument but an observation … maybe something to do with our feckless responses to terrorism enables them to feel untouchable and get lazy.

    • #11
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Misthiocracy: That seems pretty tautological, since the fact that they are caught is itself proof that they made a mistake somewhere along the line.

    But how are they caught?

    They are caught because someone noticed their mistake, but it only becomes a mistake because it’s noticed.

    Is it because their using fancy encryption or secret messages that we intercept, or because they’re using normal texting and not changing location? That seems important.

    Obviously, any criminal is more likely to be caught if their mistakes are dumber.

    A criminal who is caught because their encrypted message was decrypted still made a mistake: They didn’t use strong enough encryption. However, this only becomes “obvious” after the fact. Right up until the message is decrypted, the encryption remains “strong enough”.

    In the case of suicidal combatants, the encryption only needs to be strong enough to delay investigators until the combatant can execute their attack.

    In the case of Paris, they decided that encryption wasn’t necessary to achieve that goal.

    I repeat myself: It’s generally not difficult to “catch” a suicidal terrorist after they’ve made their attack.

    • #12
  13. Jamie Lockett Member
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Ryan M:

    Jamie Lockett:

    Ryan M:Fascinating. Also kind of ridiculous … guy just tosses cellphone into trash after calling his boss. Fortunately, we’ll always be aided by the human element of stupidity (better when it’s them and not us).

    It is the general incompetency of terrorists that leads me to not really fear them much.

    I agree. In the very least, it makes me hopeful that we could likely get the edge on them.

    We already have the edge on them. In general I think fears over terrorism far exceed the actual dangers of terrorism.

    • #13
  14. Jamie Lockett Member
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Ryan M:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Ryan M:

    Misthiocracy:It’s much easier to catch a terrorist after they’ve committed a terrorist attack than before.

    Was also going to say this.

    Agreed. My point is that it’s also easier to surveil someone after they attempt multiple attacks and appear in glossy enemy media. That ended up being less useful than finding a cellphone used to send an unencrypted message.

    It is pretty amazing. Also amazing that they didn’t move locations. I don’t intend this as an argument but an observation … maybe something to do with our feckless responses to terrorism enables them to feel untouchable and get lazy.

    Or they’re just arrogant.

    • #14
  15. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Ryan M: Namely, as a society, we simply cannot go around punishing people for crimes we think they might commit.

    True.

    Ryan M: We end up sort of having to wait for something bad to happen.

    We have a solution. We pass more laws to punish people before “something bad” happens all the time: drug laws, DWIs, jaywalking….

    • #15
  16. Inwar Resolution Member
    Inwar Resolution
    @InwarResolution

    Look, electronic surveillance is a difficult issue – not all good or bad.  However, I don’t think that we can conclude anything from this event.  I’m not sure that their capture via “traditional” detective means after committing multiple attacks really says anything about whether electronic surveillance is useful (or dangerous).

    • #16
  17. Pseudodionysius Member
    Pseudodionysius
    @Pseudodionysius

    Islamic State’s official magazine carried a photo on Wednesday of a Schweppes soft drink can it said was used to make an improvised bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people on board.

    The photo showed a can of Schweppes Gold soft drink and what appeared to be a detonator and switch on a blue background, three simple components that if genuine are likely to cause concern for airline safety officials worldwide.

    “The divided Crusaders of the East and West thought themselves safe in their jets as they cowardly bombarded the Muslims of the Caliphate,” the English language Dabiq magazine said in reference to Russia and the West. “And so revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits.”

    Western governments have said the Airbus A321 operated by Metrojet was likely brought down by a bomb and Moscow confirmed on Tuesday it had reached the same conclusion, but the Egyptian government said it has still not found evidence of criminal action.

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Pseudodionysius:

    Islamic State’s official magazine carried a photo on Wednesday of a Schweppes soft drink can it said was used to make an improvised bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people on board.

    The photo showed a can of Schweppes Gold soft drink and what appeared to be a detonator and switch on a blue background, three simple components that if genuine are likely to cause concern for airline safety officials worldwide.

    Clearly, the manufacture of Schweppes Gold should be prohibited.

    • #18
  19. Pseudodionysius Member
    Pseudodionysius
    @Pseudodionysius

    Misthiocracy:

    Pseudodionysius:

    Islamic State’s official magazine carried a photo on Wednesday of a Schweppes soft drink can it said was used to make an improvised bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people on board.

    The photo showed a can of Schweppes Gold soft drink and what appeared to be a detonator and switch on a blue background, three simple components that if genuine are likely to cause concern for airline safety officials worldwide.

    Clearly, the manufacture of Schweppes Gold should be prohibited.

    Canada Dry, Canada Cry, Canada Why?

    • #19
  20. Quake Voter Member
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Respectfully, I don’t read the logic of this line of argument.  Neither NSA, CIA, nor French intelligence services broke the case.  So we should rely in the future on mistakes and good luck to break — post-multi-mortem — the next massive murderous scheme?

    Collected intelligence and dedicated professional teams didn’t break the case, so this background knowledge and expertise didn’t contribute to acting on the good luck quickly and lethally?  A rather easy assumption.

    The terrorists did not use encryption tech this time, so let’s assume they will not use it in the future.  This makes as much sense as saying on September 12, “We’ve hardened the cockpit doors so the threat is effectively over.”

    I confess I have perhaps too little patience with the social histrionics of conservatives who are often ready to deny law enforcement basic tools for the 21st century and just as ready to malign the motivations of police officers as campus radicals.  On this issue, as well as “mass incarceration” and “militarized police”, it just seems squishy conservatives are desperate to signal that they are not, you know, conservative.

    Conservatives are not the cool kids.

    Assuming the next hundred or thousand victims won’t be targeted and executed using readily available technology isn’t intellectually honest.

    If you are going to change your mind after that next attack, your present stance is not based on principle, but body count.

    • #20
  21. PHCheese Member
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    It is amazing that a simple phone technology tripped them up, sort of like having your own sever.

    • #21
  22. Eric Hines Member
    Eric Hines
    @EricHines

    One side note: it’s too bad Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed in the raid.  He would have had a fair amount of intel value that could have been extracted.

    Eric Hines

    • #22
  23. Richard Fulmer Member
    Richard Fulmer
    @RichardFulmer

    Jamie Lockett:

    Ryan M:Fascinating. Also kind of ridiculous … guy just tosses cellphone into trash after calling his boss. Fortunately, we’ll always be aided by the human element of stupidity (better when it’s them and not us).

    It is the general incompetency of terrorists that leads me to not really fear them much.

    I just wish we’d stop advertising their mistakes.  Next time they might not be so incompetent.

    • #23
  24. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    PHCheese:It is amazing that a simple phone technology tripped them up, sort of like having your own sever.

    The point is that they, arguably, weren’t tripped up, since they succeeded in carrying out their attack.

    On the other hand, this counter-argument also relies on tautology since it implies that the fact that they didn’t encrypt their communications is itself evidence that they weren’t thinking any further than their immediate objective.

    • #24
  25. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Richard Fulmer:

    Jamie Lockett:

    Ryan M:Fascinating. Also kind of ridiculous … guy just tosses cellphone into trash after calling his boss. Fortunately, we’ll always be aided by the human element of stupidity (better when it’s them and not us).

    It is the general incompetency of terrorists that leads me to not really fear them much.

    I just wish we’d stop advertising their mistakes. Next time they might not be so incompetent.

    It only qualifies as incompetency if their actions fail to achieve their goals.

    • #25
  26. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Misthiocracy: The point is that they, arguably, weren’t tripped up, since they succeeded in carrying out their attack.

    They succeeded last Friday. They were, however, apparently working on a number of others at the time of their captures/deaths yesterday. Those attacks are now thwarted.

    God only knows how much additional intel is going to come from that raid (hopefully, a lot).

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Misthiocracy: The point is that they, arguably, weren’t tripped up, since they succeeded in carrying out their attack.

    They succeeded last Friday. They were, however, apparently working on a number of others at the time of their captures/deaths yesterday. Those attacks are now thwarted.

    It’s a fair cop.

    ;-)

    • #27
  28. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Misthiocracy: It’s a fair cop.

    I see what you did there. :)

    • #28
  29. mezzrow Member
    mezzrow
    @mezzrow

    “Never let a crisis go to waste.” – some figure of authority

    • #29
  30. Matt Upton Lincoln
    Matt Upton
    @MattUpton

    Quake Voter: I confess I have perhaps too little patience with the social histrionics of conservatives who are often ready to deny law enforcement basic tools for the 21st century and just as ready to malign the motivations of police officers as campus radicals.

    There is quite a bit of histrionics on the other side of the encryption argument, which includes a number of democrats as well as republicans.

    Government law enforcement is asking for the impossible–an encryption backdoor only accessible to them. If a backdoor exists, it can be exploited by anyone. If communication is truly secure, then even the company that developed the protocols cannot compromise it.

    Apple, Google, Cisco et. al. are international companies which cannot give the keys to the kingdom to the US government without seriously harming their business elsewhere. If they don’t provide a secure service, clients will go to someone else. If the government bans those services from being used in the US, open source solutions already exist for secure encryption.

    This genie isn’t going back into the bottle.

    • #30

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