Being Terrified: The price of terrorism


Next week, I’ll be on BFM for an interview about spyware, which will be my last Hail Mary play to get a conversation started about the use of surveillance software by the Government. If a radio interview on a popular station won’t do it, nothing on my blog will possibly be able to anyway 🙂

In any case, this post is a pre-emptive response to a slightly controversial idea that I cover (very briefly) in the interview, and hopefully it can be articulated better here than in a radio segment. To be honest, I haven’t fully thought this through, but I believe it at least some some aspects of truth that deserve further attention.

The Idea comes in 3 parts:

  1. Terrorism has changed dramatically with ISIS (or Daesh)
  2. Our conventional approach to surveillance will be ineffective against this new threat
  3. Our surveillance-based response to the new threat may end up hurting us more than ISIS ever could

Let’s go through them one at a time

Terrorism has changed dramatically with ISIS (or Daesh)

ISIS is a new type of terrorist threat, that differs from Al-Qaeda and all other previous terrorist threats on our shores.There were no 14 year old school-girls buying plane tickets to see Osama, and certainly no 16 year old boys were commanded by Al-Qaeda to kidnap sales assistants in Sungai Petani. Why is ISIS so appealing to these young children, and why did Al-Qaeda not have the same effect.

The short answers is that Al-Qaeda were not interested in tween-age girls and boys, ISIS on the other hand will take whatever they can get. It’s the difference between targeted Google ads that appear only for a specific demographic, and highway billboards that appear for everyone.

ISIS has a clear strategic objective, to form a Caliphate in the area of Syria and Iraq.It portrays itself as the necessary good for Muslims, and one all Muslims must support. This message resonates with a large percentage of the Malaysian population, who have also (let’s be honest) been fed a diet of anti-West, Anti-Christian and Anti-Syiah messages.

Even if you reject the idea that 11% of Malaysians support ISIS, you cannot deny that there is a significant sub-section of Malaysians for which the ISIS message resonates. This sub-section is then convinced to either go to Syria and join the ‘Caliphate’, or to become operatives and execute acts of terror locally, that second part is what scares the pants off everyone.

Acts of terror, that can come from ‘self-radicalized’ lone-wolves, are hard to detect and even harder to prevent. 11% of any population, is too large a percentage to be surveiled effectively, even much smaller numbers like 1% (~300,000 Malaysians) would be difficult to get a handle on. Fortunately, the vast majority of self-radicalized lone wolves are amateur terrorist at best, and struggle to inflict the same damage as conventional Al-Qaeda like attacks.

Consider the recent Jakarta attack, where the ‘terrorist’ managed to kill one civilian each, which by any stretch of the imagination is a ‘failed’ operation. I don’t mean to be controversial but two school boys in Columbine killed 15 people, James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people by himself in an Aurora Theatre and Anders Brievik fatally wounded 77 innocent people, before finally giving up. I’m not undermining the deaths of the 4 civilians in Jakarta, but if I think we can safely assume we’re dealing with amateurs here.

In Bali, one suicide bomber went into paddy’s club at Kuta Beach, and blew himself up, and when the patrons ran out, a separate bomb planted in a parked van outside caused even more damage and casualties. The secondary bomb was so powerful, it left a crater one meter deep. The ratio of dead terrorist to civilians was a 101, and involved a significant amount of expertise, support and funding from Al-Qaeda (USD30,000 was the reported amount).

In Jakarta, the assailants used home made guns, that were wildly inaccurate, and  unreliable. Their plan of attack while similar to the Bali bombing, caused far less casualties , primarily because they were amateurs trying to be professionals. The Bali bombers had professional help (by a Malaysian no less), building a bomb that leaves a meter deep crater requires expertise most of us don’t have , and obviously the Jakarta attackers lacked in spades.

I’m not downplaying the ISIS threat, but I’m injecting a certain amount of cold rationality into an discussion that is fraught with over-emotional arguments. ISIS is getting amateurs operatives, and then providing them no funding to carry our terror threats that would hardly qualify for the title ‘acts of terror’ if not for the ISIS branding.

Our conventional approach to surveillance will be ineffective against this new threat

This new terrorist threat can’t be tackled effectively with our antiquated surveillance programs that look like cold-war relics in the internet age.

Firstly, there is very little to surveil. The definition of lone-wolf implies a lonely operative that has very little interaction with ‘head-office’.  With so little meat to sink our spyware teeth into, our conventional patriot act derived security architecture isn’t going to work.

Secondly, ISIS doesn’t go after the usual suspects, unlike Al-Qaeda they have actually are fighting a war and would like to keep the soldiers in Syria — saying in Syria. Instead ISIS appeals to a sub-section of the Malaysian population that is pre-disposed to their message, these are usually neglected and disenfranchised youths who are as much victims of ISIS as anyone else. Without a clear ‘type’ it becomes difficult to predict who will be radicalized, much less who will carry out the attacks.

And so without the usual tip-offs such as experts gathering one location, Battle-Hardened soldiers returning from Syria, or even just a simple money-trail to follow, surveillance isn’t going to help unless that surveillance is broad and is actively eavesdropping on the entire sub-section of society we deem to be at risk.

Realistically we can’t put every 12 year old Muslim girl under surveillance, and we shouldn’t be intercepting the facebook chats of 16 year old boys. We cannot counter wide spread propaganda with surveillance, because the surveillance needs to be wide spread as well…which is the exact opposite of what it should be.

Surveillance must be targeted and specific, not just to be protect the privacy and liberty of citizens, but in order to just be effective.

Our surveillance-based response to the new threat may end up hurting us more than ISIS ever could

If you’ve ever seen a Dog with fleas, you know the dog is in trouble by the scratch marks and flesh wounds on it. But the fleas don’t actually harm the dog, the flesh wounds are caused by the dog scratching itself, and it is the Dog that is harming itself more than the fleas ever could.

The same is true of our response to ISIS.

If we start enacting laws that completely neglect the privacy and liberty interest of citizens we slowly (but surely) pave the way for our once great nation to be a police state.

Accepting the terrorist threat as a reality we cannot avoid is the price we pay for living in a free country. If we’re unwilling to pay that price, we start ourselves on a slippery slope that leads to only one foregone conclusion. Our very own Penal Code defines terrorism as “acts of violence designed to intimidate the population”, if the population is intimidated then the terrorist have already won, because that is they’re ultimate objective–the killing of people is just a method to achieve that end objective.

We need to be courageous enough to pay that price of freedom, and accept that acts of terror, specifically those that are committed by self-radicalized lone-wolves are inevitable unless we change the story-line of the country. Instead we have cowardly Ministers who claim that surveillance and giving up liberty is the best approach.


According to our Penal Code, simply possessing terrorist paraphernalia is a crime, and that’s what we’re charging the 16 year old who tried to hold up a sales assistant with a fake gun in Sungai Petani. In my view that boy is as much a victim of ISIS as the sales assistant he tried to hold up–if not more.

We need a proper mechanism to ensure that the sub-section of Malaysia that responds to the ISIS propaganda is as narrow as possible, and not try to surveil people we believe ‘might’ be terrorist.

One key idea was to bring in as many Syrian Refugees as we can, and then very easily demonstrate that if ISIS was so great and the ‘Caliphate’ was such a lovely place to be, why then were millions of Syrians and Iraqi Sunni Muslims, from the very area the Caliphate is, chose instead to flee to Europe instead of stay and bask in the glory of ISIS.

Why were conservative Sunni Muslims, fleeing to a land where homosexuality isn’t a crime and tolerated, where people go skinny dipping in lakes, and where pornography and alcohol are freely available and consumed in the open. Did all the millions of Muslims lose their marbles and choose Hell on Earth over the Heaven than ISIS offered, or is there a discrepancy between what ISIS is propagating and what is actually happening in Syria.

Even the most devoted ISIS supporters need to properly resolve this dissonance, and that would prove very hard.

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