Required reading: The Terrorist Recognition Handbook: A Practitioner's Manual for Predicting and Identifying Terrorist Activities

Posted on by Ben Rothke

My full review of The Terrorist Recognition Handbook: A Practitioner's Manual for Predicting and Identifying Terrorist Activities is on Slashdot

The TSA’s reaction to last week’s terror attack is a textbook example an incorrect kneejerk response.  Their response will do absolutely nothing to mitigate terror risks.  Had the TSA followed the direction that this book suggests, the attack would have never happened, and passengers could not worry about having not to use the bathroom during the final hour of their flight. 

Terrorist Recognition Handbook: A Practitioner's Manual for Predicting and Identifying Terrorist Activities, is unique in that author Malcolm Nance is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community and writes from a first hand-perspective, but with the organization and methodology of writers such as Pipes and Emerson. Those combined traits make the book extraordinarily valuable and perhaps the definitive text on terrorist recognition." 

The main theme of the book, as detailed in chapter 1 is critical awareness. The book notes that criminal investigators spend years studying criminal behavior to better understand and counter crime. Nance writes that the field of terrorism is no different as it is a specialized subject that requires serious study and requires that those in the front line of defense be as knowledge as possible. 

In a later chapter, Nance gives the Iraq war as an example of a group of leaders that were not as knowledge as possible and ignored the advice of those that were as knowledge as possible. Had the Bush administration consulted Nance, a trillion dollars and thousands of lives could have been saved in the Iraq debacle. 

The book is divided into 5 sections comprising 21 heavily-detailed chapters. Each chapter is a progression in detailing, understanding and identifying terrorists. In chapter after chapter, the book details every aspect of terrorism and indentifies all of the various elements. The various aspects of different guns, explosives, and other elements are described and categorized in detail. 

In the section on suicide bombers, an important point the book makes is that contrary to popular belief, suicide bombers are rarely insane. They are most often intelligent, rational individuals with beliefs that those in the West finds difficult to comprehend. Nance does not for a second rationalize the actions of such groups and individuals. But notes that it is critical to understand why they do it in order to prevent future attacks. 

Chapter 8 is quite valuable in that it provides a comprehensive overview of how terrorist cells operate and are organized. While the cell is the fundamental unit of a terrorist group; cell operations and their members are the least understood part of terrorism. Their operations are always secret and never seen, until they attack. The chapter details the many types of terrorist cells, operative membership pools, and how cells and leadership communicate. 

Chapter 19 is a fascinating primer on al-Qaeda and the global extremist insurgency. The chapter details how al-Qaeda divides its enemies into two categories: Far Enemies and Near Enemies. The terms are taken from the Islamic concept of the community and those who oppose it. While the far enemies of al-Qaeda are the USA, Australia, UK, Europe and Israel, the near enemies are those Moslem's or nations that al-Qaeda sees as corrupted governments or apostate rules. These include the governments of over 20 countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, India and many more comprising billions of people. 

While the post-9/11 attacks from coalition forces have indeed hurt al-Qaeda and killed many of its top leaders, Nance notes that al-Qaeda now acts a terror strategy consultancy. This transformation of al-Qaeda is in response to the loss of its base of operations in Afghanistan and the displacement of its leadership to the Pakistani border. The most significant changes were a shift of operational responsibility from the regional terror commanders, who executed a long awaited plan for jihad operations, to a more radical and difficult to detect posture: jihadist who were self-starting and worked independently from al-Qaeda. 

The most significant changes al-Qaeda's structure occurred when it was able to co-opt the Jordanian Salafist group Tawhed Wal Jihad and organize the foreign fighters into Iraq into al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI changed the structure of the military committee's roles dramatically and Iraq would become the cornerstone of al-Qaeda's global operations. Much of the invasion of Iraq was premised on a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. There was never such a link, but the war turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as al-Qaeda is now a mainstay in Iraq. 

The book writes that it is important to note that contrary to popular belief, al-Qaeda is not a single terrorist group, rather a collection of like-minded organizations that cooperate and receive funds, advice and orders from Osama bin Laden and his supporters. al-Qaeda has transformed itself from a physical chain of terrorist training camps to a virtual network that uses the Internet to create a network centric information and advisory body. Nance therefore notes that al-Qaeda has transformed itself from a global terrorism operation into a terrorism management consultancy. The 6 main aspects of this consultancy are that al-Qaeda: provides inspiration, contributes finances, shares collective knowledge, provides weapons resource and contacts, accepts responsibility and releases video propaganda. 

Besides a few minor historical errors, some grammatical and punctuation mistakes, and not a lot of details about cyber-based terrorism, Terrorist Recognition Handbook: A Practitioner's Manual for Predicting and Identifying Terrorist Activities is a most important book in that it avoids all of the hype, politics and bias that come along with such titles, and simply focuses on its task at hand, to be a field guide for anti-terrorist and counter-terrorist professionals to use to prevent attacks. 

Such a title is sorely needed by groups such as the TSA, who still think that anti-terrorism means having people remove their shoes at airports. The book notes that the European approach of guarded vigilance via a sustained level of anti-terrorism readiness and awareness is a much better concept than the US approach of spiking to heightened alert levels. 

The Terrorist Recognition Handbook is a must-read for anyone tasked with or interested in anti-terrorism activities. One would hope that every TSA and Homeland Security manager and employee get a copy of this monumental reference. It would change the face of TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, and might perhaps really enable them to identify terrorists, and not simply require the elderly to take off their support shoes at airport checkpoints.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

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