July 4th and the Unknown Unknowns

The heightened terrorism concerns around the July 4th holiday weekend are troubling. The evolving terror threat in the United States is metamorphosing into one where the greatest concerns are from what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls the “unknown unknowns.” Although some pundits panned Rumsfeld for the statement, he was accurate in his diagnosis of the problem.

The older terror models constructed around operational cells, taking orders from a terrorist central-command, are the “known unknowns”, and they still present a clear and present danger. But the difference with these types of threats is that we are aware of many of these groups, many of their affiliated groups, and are currently pursuing an investigative and intelligence gathering strategy to destroy them and their plans.

With self-radicalized terrorists we have a number of challenging “unknown unknowns” investigative and intelligence gathering obstacles which differ from the terror-cell model. Obstacle number one is, we don’t know who these people are? Many of these individuals can learn the tools of the terror trade, and can absorb terrorist propaganda, using nothing more than a keyboard and an Internet connection. This solitary radicalization leaves behind few investigative breadcrumbs because the individual’s limited interaction with others in the terror arena limits the potential for detection and pre-attack mitigation as he crosses paths with the “known” terrorists being tracked and monitored.

Obstacle number two is the self-radicalized terrorist’s tendency to default to simple, yet deadly, attacks using homemade explosives or small arms. Homemade, simple explosive devices can be made by following instructions on the open Internet and by acquiring easily acquired chemicals. Absent any additional surreptitious behavior, the purchase of these easily accessible items is unlikely to arouse suspicion. Again, leaving behind few investigative breadcrumbs. These simple attacks also require little, if any, training. Training requires contacts and actions which can all leave behind a trail of evidence and learning to pull the trigger of a firearm or to remotely depress a detonator device doesn’t require a significant investment of time or energy.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Conservative Review. The featured image is by Carolyn Kaster/AP.

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