What’s wrong with our approach to terrorism?

These notes were compiled from an informal lecture given by Mike German, former FBI agent, to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2010.

Mike German graduated from Northwestern Law before joining the FBI. He worked undercover as a member of various neo-nazi organizations to understand and expose domestic terrorist groups. He now works for the ACLU, promoting whistle-blower protections for intelligence community personnel. He is the author of Thinking Like a Terrorist.

Inside the Neo-Nazis

Mr. German initially supposed that Neo Nazis were stupid, unpredictable, and violent people. He found their groups to compose a cross-section of Americans, and they were generally intelligent and organized.

Following the principles of Louis Beam in “Leaderless Resistance,” Neo-Nazis reorganized themselves from the cellular, hierarchical organization to a more sustainable system of decentralized “standing cells”. There is an organizational and personal division between the more violent, operational cells, and ideological groups. Some within the ideological side do not approve of the violent means taken by the operational cells. Mr. German feels that law enforcement personnel need to observe that line drawn between groups who obey the law and those who don’t. By classifying them all in one group, we strengthen their resolve and cohesiveness instead of dissolving them and neutralizing their violent components.

Fundamental Neo-Nazi doctrine teaches that Cain, who they claim fathered the Jews, was born from a sexual union between Eve and the serpent. Cain’s murder of Abel began a race war that continues today, between the Aryan “Children of God” and the Jews, who according to this doctrine are the literal offspring of the devil. There is considerable infighting between different supremacist groups along doctrinal lines.

When asked how he was able to repeatedly infiltrate these groups, even after he blew his cover with the last one by acting as a witness in court, Mr. German replied “anyone could have looked me up and found out who I was. If you arouse their suspicion enough that they are looking into your background, you’ve already messed up.” The mafia knows all of the surveillance tricks used by law enforcement, but the risk of being caught is just a cost of doing business.

A Fractured FBI

After completing a successful operation, the FBI seemed uninterested in debriefing Mr. German on what he had learned. He noticed a general lack of communication within the Bureau. “People just didn’t know who knew what.” An organizational disconnect also compounds the problems experienced in combating terrorism: There are two disparate worlds within the FBI — Counterintelligence and Criminal Justice. The intelligence side does the initial investigation and the criminal side carries out the prosecution. The Intelligence side is disorganized and frequently doesn’t follow procedure, but the fault for any problems will automatically fall on the Criminal side when the prosecution runs into problems caused by incompetence during the investigation and intelligence phase. This occured after 9/11, when the Criminal division got blasted for their apparent mistakes. The Intelligence side was actually to blame.

Mr. German mentioned an instance where FBI officials used White-Out to falsify documents. An Inspector General was baffled by their laziness in covering up mistakes, until German told him that no one in FBI cares about the behavior. “There’s someone in the FBI with a half-empty bottle of White-Out, and they still have a job.” There is a culture of protection and loyalty within the FBI that prevents problems from being aired and corrected. Whistle blowers are frequently disciplined, fired, or even prosecuted.

The turf battles depicted in cop shows are more or less accurate. FBI is always bickering with ATF over jurisdiction in explosives cases. Instances where they were able to collaborate were much more successful than when they bickered. On one of his cases, someone from ATF was on the case from the beginning, and he was able to give expert advice to Mr. German.

The FBI will improve when top management decides to enforce a code of ethics within the agency. Mr. German was disappointed when Leon Panetta, who hadn’t even worked in intelligence, got into a battle with ODNI only a month into office. He was already showing fierce loyalty to the agency, and not the larger National Security community. German says that we wouldn’t need whistleblower laws if the top management enforced a culture of honesty and transparancy. “The constitutional system doesn’t operate within the intelligence community.”

What Motivates a Terrorist?

The NS community either has the wrong picture of terrorists, or thinks that Americans are too stupid to hear the truth. One official explained an attack as “Al Qaeda are bloodthirsty killers and they hate us.” German explained the fundamental theory of urban guerilla warfare by Carlos Marighella: the purpose of attacks is to cause a specific reaction. For example, a white-supremacist group in Los Angeles was planning on massacring a prominent black church in 1992. They weren’t driven by blind hatred–they expected that the black population of Los Angeles would respond in widespread violence (especially in the wake of the Rodney King riots), and white supremacists would respond defensively and validate their own position.

German describes a case in Egypt where a young French girl died in a bomb attack. The press coverage focused on the fact that extremists had killed a young girl, and this emphasized the difference between the terrorists and the general population. Terrorists are most vulnerable immediately after an attack–the way we respond determines whether it was successful or not.

In another case study, Mr. German states that the French position in Algeria was permanently damaged when their torture of suspects was revealed to the general public. They used hooding, standing in uncomfortable positions, and subjection to noise (many of the techniques employed recently in Cuba and the Middle East.) Soon thereafter, Algeria won its independence from France.

He concludes by saying that when we respond to violence by treating an entire group of people as potential enemies, we accomplish the direct purpose behind the attacks.

Category: Crime


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Article by: Dave

Dave Cannon is a Seattle-based entrepreneur and consultant to nonprofits and small businesses. He loves Thai food and takes terrible photographs. You can follow him on Linkedin.
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