WHENEVER A TERRORIST ATTACK OCCURS, it never takes long for politicians to begin calling for more surveillance powers. The horrendous attacks in Paris last week, which left more than 120 people dead, are no exception to this rule. In recent days, officials in the United Kingdom and the United States have been among those arguing that more surveillance of Internet communications is necessary to prevent further atrocities.
The case for expanded surveillance of communications, however, is complicated by an analysis of recent terrorist attacks. The Intercept has reviewed 10 high-profile jihadi attacks carried out in Western countries between 2013 and 2015 (see below), and in each case some or all of the perpetrators were already known to the authorities before they executed their plot. In other words, most of the terrorists involved were not ghost operatives who sprang from nowhere to commit their crimes; they were already viewed as a potential threat, yet were not subjected to sufficient scrutiny by authorities under existing counterterrorism powers. Some of those involved in last week’s Paris massacre, for instance, were already known to authorities; at least three of the men appear to have been flagged at different times as having been radicalized, but warning signs were ignored.
In the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity, government officials often seem to talk about surveillance as if it were some sort of panacea, a silver bullet. But what they always fail to explain is how, even with mass surveillance systems already in place in countries like France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, attacks still happen. In reality, it is only possible to watch some of the people some of the time, not all of the people all of the time. Even if you had every single person in the world under constant electronic surveillance, you would still need a human being to analyze the data and assess any threats in a timely fashion. And human resources are limited and fallible.
There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous world and that intelligence agencies and the police have a difficult job to do, particularly in the current geopolitical environment. They know about hundreds or thousands of individuals who sympathize with terrorist groups, any one of whom may be plotting an attack, yet they do not appear to have the means to monitor each of these people closely over sustained periods of time. If any lesson can be learned from studying the perpetrators of recent attacks, it is that there needs to be a greater investment in conducting targeted surveillance of known terror suspects and a move away from the constant knee-jerk expansion of dragnet surveillance, which has simply not proven itself to be effective, regardless of the debate about whether it is legal or ethical in the first place.