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Novel Approach: Counterterrorism as Pulp

The year is 2020. A young Muslim preacher has been proclaimed thenew caliph, attracting a worldwide following that includes thedaughter of an American senator. Civil wars and insurgencies ragethroughout the Muslim world and beyond. Muslim athletes at theOlympics declare loyalty to the caliphate over their own nations.Histories of previous caliphates soar on Amazon's best- sellerlist.

A dystopian novel's potboiler plot? Not exactly. The scenario comesfrom a global trends estimate by the National Intelligence Council,a government advisory group. But, if it sounds more likebest-selling fiction than sober policy analysis, the similarityisn't a coincidence. Ever since former White House terrorism czarRichard Clarke revealed that he looked to Tom Clancy novels forinsight and the 9/11 Commission declared that the government'scardinal sin amounted to a "failure of imagination," Washington hasbeen busy trying to stimulate creative thinking about securitythreats. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and variousconsulting firms have invited everyone from government officialsand academics to thriller writers and self-proclaimed "futurists"to imagine themselves into the shoes of America's adversaries.While novelists have been treated like policy experts, policyexperts have been encouraged to get in touch with their innernovelists. As a result, fictional scenes from inside Al Qaeda havebecome increasingly common features of counterterrorism analysis.

These creative gyrations have generally enjoyed a positivereception. Interviewing novelist-turned-securityadviser BradMeltzer on CNN, Lou Dobbs exclaimed, "I think a lot of people,including myself, are surprised to hear that the government has theintelligence, the sense, to turn to creative artists like you." AndJames Fallows, writing recently in The Atlantic, legitimized thecreative approach by interweaving excerpts from fictional Al Qaedaaccounts with real quotes from convicted terrorists. Certainly allthis imagining is tremendous fun--or, at least, more fun thanwriting and reading policy briefs. But it's not necessarily a smartway to fight terrorism.

Policymakers have struggled to get inside the heads of their enemiesas far back as ancient Rome, when Tacitus imagined a speech thatthe British tribal leader Calgacus might have given to rally histroops. In the modern era, the Prussian army is credited withcreating the concept of kriegspiel, or war- gaming, which, in itsinitial iterations, allowed officers to test battle plans by movingmodel armies across maps. War-gaming was imported to the UnitedStates toward the end of the nineteenth century. For a long time, itremained a predominantly military activity, often with domesticforces represented by a blue team and enemy forces by a red one. Inthe 1960s, however, businesses-- most prominently Shell oil--beganusing similar methods to plan for future uncertainties. And, in the1980s, the entire enterprise took on a countercultural gloss, asbusiness leaders enlisted artists, scientists, and academics tohelp craft their predictions.

But, since September 11, 2001, the practice has enjoyed a resurgencein popularity. Our adversaries, the thinking goes, are tougher tounderstand and predict than in conflicts past. During the cold war,for instance, it was relatively easy to gauge Soviet intentions andcapabilities. Not only did we have better human intelligence, butthere was a visible political-military apparatus to watch. We couldsee their missiles and know which ones were pointed at us. BeyondPentagon red teams that tried to anticipate Soviet responses toU.S. moves, there wasn't much need to speculate about the Sovietmind. Radical Islam, by contrast, is a much shadier world. Althoughjihadists are prolific communicators, issuing videotapes andconversing in Internet chatrooms, it's difficult to tap into themind-sets and motives behind the propaganda. So policymakers haveincreasingly turned to fiction as a way to better understand theenemy, as well as to shake up the intelligence system and fill inknowledge gaps. As Jon Nowick, director of the DHS's red teamprogram, told The Washington Post, "We paint a picture where thereare no dots to connect." Or, in the more colorful language of theNational Intelligence Council's Robert Hutchings: "[L]inearanalysis will get you a much-changed caterpillar, but it won't getyou a butterfly. For that, you need a leap of imagination."

Thanks to this line of thinking, people like Meltzer are in demand.Meltzer has six novels, three comic books, and the cancelled dramaseries "Jack & Bobby" to his name. His latest thriller, Book ofFate, currently holds the number-ten spot on the New York Timesbest-seller list. It's about a presidential assassination attempt,the Masons, and a 200-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson.The Washington Post noted this month that Meltzer's strengthsinclude "rock-'em sock-'em action and conspiracy tales that begintamely enough and vault into the realm of breathlessimprobability."

In 2004, he got a call from DHS. "They said, `We'd love to have youcome in to brainstorm different ways for terrorists to attack us,'"he recalls. And so he found himself ensconced with dry-erase boardsand croissants in a Virginia conference room, teamed up with achemist, a psychologist, a Secret Service officer, and someintelligence types, and assigned a mission. "They'd say, `Here'syour target. How would you attack?'" he explains. "Then I would comeup with the craziest idea I could come up with. And the SecretService guy would say, `No, here's where we should do this becausehere's the security flaw.' And the chemist would say, `You don'twant to use that chemical, because it dissipates in the air.'"Minus the dry-erase boards and croissants, Meltzer imaginesterrorists sitting around doing the same thing.

But that may be giving them too much credit. One problem with thesekinds of exercises is that they assume a level of organization andstrategy that may not exist. Fawaz Gerges, a professor at SarahLawrence College and author of Journey of the Jihadist: InsideMuslim Militancy, says his interviews with convicted terroristsreveal a surprising lack of strategic sophistication. For example,he notes, an Egyptian extremist imprisoned for playing a principalrole in the assassination of Anwar Sadat was more than ready toadmit how "amateurish the whole thing was--that it was a miraclethat they pulled it off, how unprepared they were for theconfrontation that subsequently unfolded." Marc Sageman, whose bookUnderstanding Terror Networks was called "the most sophisticatedanalysis of global jihadis yet published" by The New York Review ofBooks last December, agrees. The core members of Al Qaeda, heexplains, "may have a strategic vision, but they're not connectedwith the rest of the people, who are self-generated,self-organized." It's possible to strategize as your enemy wouldwhen it's one military analyzing another and there's a fixed chainof command. Terrorism, though, is not like that. The bumbling, thespontaneity, the role of chance aren't easily captured byred-teaming.

Moreover, when creative thinking isn't creative enough, it can be awaste of time. This category includes a mock Al Qaeda briefing thatMike Scheurer--the former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unitand author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War onTerror--presents at military conferences. On energy policy, forinstance, Scheurer's jihadist character riffs:

This is unbelievable, Brothers, but three decades after Saudi KingFaisal's blessed 1973 embargo, U.S. leaders are unwilling toinstall an energy policy that would remove Arab domination of theireconomy. ... And oh the irony, Brothers Osama and Ayman [AlZawahiri], American parents are now paying exorbitant prices at thepump, and we are receiving a portion of those windfall profits tohelp us kill their soldier children in Iraq, Afghanistan, andelsewhere. Truly, God is great.

Scheurer's Al Qaeda operative reasons suspiciously like a liberalAmerican senator--or maybe Thomas Friedman.

The biggest danger, however, isn't that a lack of creativity willproduce bad fiction; it's that an excess of creativity will yieldunrealistic scenarios. Sageman has taken to disdainfully turningdown red-teaming invitations because he says they tend to fall intothis trap. "People involved in these exercises usually haveoveractive imaginations," he says. Former Clinton National SecurityCouncil staffer Steve Simon, now at the Council on ForeignRelations, concurs. "These exercises are like Rorschach tests," hesays. "Somebody shows you a blot, and you project onto it all youranxieties and all your fevered dreams and fears." This points to alogical flaw in the idea that the less we understand about ourenemies, the more we should use our imagination. In fact, the fewerfacts we have to work with, the more likely it is that ourimagination will take us in the wrong direction. And there's a realpossibility that wrong direction will attract the attention ofpolicymakers and draw resources away from bigger risks.

Indeed, all this focus on imagination may already have distracted usfrom the real problem. Contrary to the 9/11 Commission's criticism,a number of officials proved up to the task of imagining September11. Scheurer begins Imperial Hubris by declaring, "Not only was thescale of the 11 September attack imaginable, but ... U.S.intelligence officers--often at the risk of their lives--had spentmost of a decade gathering and analyzing the intelligence that, hadit been used fully and honestly, would have allowed all U.S.leaders and, indeed, all Americans to know what sort of storm wasapproaching." In other words, maybe instead of indulging ourimaginations, we should simply be paying closer attention toreality.

By marisa katz