Multi-Way Tragedy


Saturday, at Paris’ Orly Airport, a man attacked a soldier, tried wrestle her rifle away from her, and was shot and killed. Earlier, he had exchanged fire with police in another incident when he was pulled over for speeding. In the earlier incident, he fled in his car; he had a record of robbery and drug offenses. That’s a summary of some of the facts in the case. [mcdc] [cnbc]

Let me first say: this is a tragedy all around. I wish nobody had shot anybody.

Sentinelle Force [source]

Sentinelle Force [source]

The soldier that was attacked was part of the “Sentinelle” force – a militarized police unit similar to US SWAT teams – that have been deployed to protect critical infrastructure from attack. Most countries that have experienced terrorist attacks have responded with something similar; I remember after 9/11 there were National Guard troops at the airport, lugging around M-16s with empty magazines. (I know they were empty because I asked!) In German airports the security carry H&K MP5s. I saw one state police SWAT trooper in Boston’s Logan Airport carrying a suppressed H&K MP5D. These are seriously nasty weapons, designed to put out a tremendous amount of lethal fire very quickly – which is why the sensible deployments have the magazines empty. It oughtn’t take a counter-terror genius to realize that if someone gets their hands on one, they have just armed the opposition with military weaponry, in a crowded location, and invited a pitched battle. I guess the only way to make it worse would be to have grenades or light artillery: “Hey! Let’s have a grenade launcher!”

It’s a good thing for everyone at Orly Airport that day that the attacker was not very competent and that the woman soldier he attacked was competent and maintained control of her weapon. It seems like the attack was impulsive – I would guess that the attacker knew he was being investigated and was going to get caught – so he figured he’d go out shooting. I don’t want to seem dismissive but that dynamic ought to be immediately obvious to anyone involved in law enforcement and counter-terror.

To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape. – Sun Tzu

This incident is the perfect illustration of why the NRA’s “only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns” dictum is bullshit. We might just as well say “only an idiot brings a gun to a place where guns are particularly undesirable.” Security experts have talked about this problem for a very long time – the whole airport security mess (Bruce Schneier calls it “security theater”) is particularly stinky. “Let’s make people cluster up outside of the security perimeter, in big security lines, where a suicide bomber can be certain to find a crowd and probably get a few cops, too.” Unfortunately, most counter-terrorism strategies seem to assume that the opposition are really stupid; I think that’s why the US is so freaked out about ISIS: ISIS appears to be media-savvy and semi-competent.

Whenever I think about the “assume the enemy is incompetent” paradigm, I get cold chills when I imagine how these mediocrity-based approaches would work against the Vietcong. Or any competent, thoughtfully-led, insurgency force ever.

Worse, the writing has been on the wall for some time – this marks the fourth such incident in two years. So far they have all been minor but that’s largely because the attacks seem impulsive and poorly prepared. Imagine what three prepared people with pepper spray and clubs, attacking at once, could do – especially if they brought their own ammunition. The previous attack before this one was similar – someone tried to grab a gun from a guard at The Louvre, intending to cause mayhem. How many close calls like that are going to happen before the shit really hits the fan?

Destroyed logistics, Da Nang, 197? Your strength is my target

Destroyed logistics, Da Nang, 197?
Your strength is my target

In his brilliant book The Best and Brightest [amazon] David Halberstam describes one of the problems with counter-insurgency operations as being that, once your enemy realizes they can harass your force, you need to bring in more forces to protect your force, and then more forces to protect the protectors’ supply lines, and more forces to protect them, etc. He describes how the US got sucked deeper and deeper into what amounted to trench warfare, as it built firebases, and then airbases to supply them, and firebases to protect the airbases, and then walked into Giap’s feint at Da Nang out of fear of having their own Dien Bien Phu. Halberstam’s explanation is lucid: “doubling down” doesn’t work when your opponent is able to asymmetrically ramp up your misery. Protecting civilian infrastructure against organic attacks is a worse problem, still. Those who remember the “Washington Area Sniper” can extrapolate the kind of damage that un-organized irregulars  are capable of.

There is another aspect of this case which ought to be obvious and disturbing: the attacker at Orly was already profiled as a threat.

Some computer algorithm, plus surveillance data, plus whatever, had concluded that the attacker was worth…  doing what, exactly? about. We also see this sort of thing with the Boston Marathon bombers and others: the entire apparatus of counter-intelligence and surveillance is a complete waste. It gives the counter-terrorist information they cannot or do not use. This is why I refer to surveillance databases and analytics as the “retro-scope” – unless you are dealing with an enemy that plans on a long enough time-horizon and does you the courtesy of planning using channels that you monitor, all you can do is be a complete jackass and shake your head and say “we suspected he might be a problem some day, but we couldn’t do anything.” When the Paris attacks of 2015 were over, the retro-scope was useful for bringing down a number of the attackers’ associates, but only because the attack had happened.

The problem is this: insurgents gain power when the detach the people from the government, by forcing the government to commit mistakes or to overreact violently against the people it is supposedly protecting. Mao expresses it:

The general features of orthodox hostilities, that is, the war of position and the war of movement, differ fundamentally from guerrilla warfare. There are other readily apparent differences such as those in organization, armament, equipment supply, tactics, command; in conception of the terms ‘front’ and ‘rear’; in the matter of military responsibilities.
When considered from the point of view of total numbers, guerrilla units are many, as individual combat units, they may vary in size from the smallest, of several score or several hundred men, to the battalion or the regiment, of several thousand. This is not the case in regularly organized units. A primary feature of guerrilla operations is their dependence upon the people themselves to organize battalions and other units. As a result of this, organization depends largely upon local circumstances. In the case of guerrilla groups, the standard of equipment is of a low order and they must depend for their sustenance primarily upon what the locality affords. – Mao on Guerilla Warfare

Mao makes a strong argument that insurgencies will always win because they always have the initiative, always have interior logistics, always know where you are, and you never know where and when they will strike. Once the insurgency makes this sufficiently unpleasant for the establishment its options are horribly constrained. In the US, that might amount to – oh, I don’t know – reactionary nonsense like “keep all the muslims out” or America’s other preferred response: saturation bombing. Hint: that won’t work on Paris, no matter how well it works in Syria and Iraq.

Did I forget to mention that the Orly Airport attacker was French-born?

“Hearts and Minds”:

70 airport workers in Paris, France have had their security passes revoked on suspicion of being radical Islamist in the ongoing state of emergency in France since the November attack that killed 130 people.

The workers were employed at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports and were flagged and their red badges revoked after intensive screening and impromptu searches in the lockers of 4000 workers to identify potential terrorists.[intelligencebriefs]

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Halberstam: I’d include some zippy quotes from Halberstam except my copy is on another bookshelf about 15 miles from here and I’m snowed in.

Let me make a disclaimer: I am not trying to sound like some wiseass who’s saying “this is what the government(s) should do!” The fact is, I have no idea at all what they should do. It seems to me now that the 1st world powers are in the process of checkmating themselves, and there’s no visible “out” from the current position. About all I can think of is that the current approach isn’t working so good and that ought to be obvious. I don’t think doubling down on the surveillance state is at all about terrorism but it won’t help, either. “Situation fucked” – that about sums it up. My strategic advice when the situation is fucked is to de-escalate as much as you can and see if your opponent is willing to unfuck it with you. But when have the leaders of the 1st world tried that radical option?

Comments

  1. says

    Marcus:

    My strategic advice when the situation is fucked is to de-escalate as much as you can and see if your opponent is willing to unfuck it with you.

    Basically, that’s the Haudenosaunee Confederation’s model of peace, as in how to bring it about among people who are bloodthirsty and revenge minded.

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    I suppose we could stop being complete fuck-alls to every person on the planet and maybe do some good for actual at-risk people once in awhile? I mean for a change. Try it out. Do that for a few years? Go completely off the rails maybe? Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Teach. Help. Maybe that would work? Maybe?

  3. Dunc says

    Unfortunately, most counter-terrorism strategies seem to assume that the opposition are really stupid

    It’s an perfectly robust assumption with a great deal of empirical support. I can tell you exactly how many competent terrorist cells there are operating in North America: none. Zero. Nada. Hell, there aren’t even really any incompetent terrorist cells – there are a handful of deluded fantasists, a bunch of LARPers who talk a lot but pretty much never do anything other than drink beer in the woods, and some stupid kids who keep getting radicalised by the FBI.

    If there were any halfway competent terrorists out there, we would know about it, because they’d be carrying out actions on a regular basis – and I suspect that the counter-terrorism strategies would be updated in fairly short order. (Although the simple, inescapable fact is that there are no successful counter-terrorism strategies against a competent and determined opponent other than “find some way to make peace”.) I grew up in the UK when the IRA were regularly blowing shit up left, right and centre, including pulling stunts like launching mortars at 10 Downing Street, and blowing up the Conservative Party conference, killing a bunch of government ministers. The question wasn’t “are they out there?”, it was “how many people have they killed this week?” That’s what terrorism looks like.

    US domestic counter-terrorism is basically LARPing with real guns (and budgets).

    I suppose we could stop being complete fuck-alls to every person on the planet and maybe do some good for actual at-risk people once in awhile?

    Now that’s just crazy talk. How the hell are the “national security” fetishists supposed to get their hate-boners on from that?

  4. says

    It seems to me now that the 1st world powers are in the process of checkmating themselves, and there’s no visible “out” from the current position.

    Terror Alert Level: Zugzwang.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    If there were any halfway competent terrorists out there, we would know about it, because they’d be carrying out actions on a regular basis

    QFT. In the 90s I by pure luck avoided seeing an IRA bomb go off close up by minutes, twice. When there are terrorists in your country, you know.

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