Sunday, 28 May 2017

Manchester Arena Why 522 is a 911 Moment

What's so special about the Manchester Arena Attack? Why is it so worrying? The 522 conundrum

Manchester Attack : Counter Terrorism : How do you get every shade in the right place?
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The recent bombing in Manchester Arena during a concert by Ariana Grande on 22nd May 2017 may ultimately well end up being a statistic for global terrorism activities. But those agencies responsible for waging a war against terror would do well to wake up and smell the coffee and consider this event as a cornerstone for anti terrorism measures. But what is so special about this particular event? Here is what it is:

1. The Manchester Arena attack is on the soil of a country which practically wrote the book on intelligence. The MI6 in conjunction with the resources available to them through Five Eyes ,where intelligence is shared between United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Australia and Canada is supposed to be able to detect and predict such events. They have access to the most advanced technology and whatever it is that is required to prevent such attacks. Clearly, if they couldn't prevent it, it's very unlikely any other country could.

2. The Manchester Arena attack took place at a time when the US, the UK, Russia, Iran, France and a host of other countries are intervening actively against ISIS. Given the past history of ISIS being able to motivate local European people into inflicting small to medium level casualties within their countries, such an attack was to be expected and prevented.

3. It is also well known that every year during Ramadan (usually in May), ISIS regularly calls for attack on "infidels"

4. Given the above fact, and the fact that UK elections were due, it is worrying to note that the threat level had not been raised to "Critical", before the attack. Further, it is even more concerning that the Manchester Arena Attack took place, given that before the attack the threat level declared was "Severe - An attack is highly likely".  

As of 27th May 2017, the threat level has been again reduced to "Severe" from "Critical" and the haste for doing so is rather puzzling.

5. It brings forth the embarrassing and depressing question - what more can you do?

The 9/11 attacks were a tragedy which shook the United States into action. They were lucky in a strange morbid kind of way. They had something new to do which hadn't been done already. It made the United States take tough military action in countries it thought the attacks were mobilized from. It also prompted them to increase internal security.

After the 11/13, November 2015 Paris Attacks, France had something new to do as well. Besides declaring an emergency, it launched airstrikes against ISIS. Yet it could not prevent the January 1, 2016 vehicle ramming attack. Thereafter the attacks still continue there as late as 22nd April 2017, but the loss of lives on account of such attacks has been significantly reduced to one or two on account of increasing internal security.

The people too had something new to do to seek solace. Using technology they would take comfort in lighting up buildings, or changing Facebook Profile pictures, or candle light vigils to show solidarity.But the alarming rate of recurrence of such attacks will only make people wonder, as to what it would take to stop such dastardly acts of violence and challenge their coping mechanisms. This time it seems charity concerts and marathons are doing the rounds. My full support to these efforts. But just because people manage to cope and the act of terrorism is no longer news worthy, simply cannot imply that it should be allowed to go on.

This the the 522 conundrum. The UK and allies are already bombing and attacking ISIS. They are already using advanced screening and monitoring procedures.The politicians have already vowed to obliterate terrorism. The people have already sought measures to alleviate the suffering. 

All these methods have failed to stop the terrorist acts.The intelligence agencies were caught off guard. The Government is now once again back in reactive mode. 

Most organizations "escalate" ways and methods to resolve a problem. It suggests of 2 plausible outcomes none of which are heartening. One option to increase scrutiny and take preventive action against a particular community and the other to go about your lives with the "business as usual" approach. Both are not very appealing.

There is a third option which comes to my mind. I am no intelligence expert, but I am experiencing this more and more often. Errors on account of technology. The same technology which is supposed to increase successful intelligence exponentially faster also has the potential to lead us to intelligence failures exponentially faster as well. Take internet for example. Back end companies write algorithms all the time to predict user behavior. They then bombard the user with customized advertisement. They even track user keystroke and mouse movements to "map" the user. Almost all big companies rely 100% on big data analytics. But more often than not, I have found this "prediction" service to be flawed. I see ads  that I have nothing to do with. Relying completely on computer algorithms has often gotten me the wrong bank account number, the wrong address, the wrong flight too. But organizations and their Information Technology pets, obstinately refuse to accept this truth, dismissing it as a "one off" instance when the facts are plastered across their eyeballs. So while various aspects of intelligence failure are being reviewed  it will be prudent to duly factor in the apparent over reliance on artificial intelligence. 

Osama Bin Laden, one of the world's most wanted men, managed to remain hidden from the world's most advanced intelligence agencies simply by staying away from technology. 

So its not difficult to imagine a scene in the offices of the intelligence agencies, a few days before the attack, where there surveillance software has not managed to pick up a single word sounding like bomb. Where Salman Abedi has been seen by their monitoring softwares to be using his facebook /twitter accounts as usual. And where their expensive supercomputer predicts a pretty happy 2017. 

In all likelihood, all Salman Abedi and his accomplices had to do was to replace the word "bomb" with "roses".

Enigma Machine : Author Alessandro Nassiri

The example of Alan Turning : The Enigma also comes to mind. Turning is said to have developed a machine to decode the messages the Nazis were sending to each other using their machine called the "Enigma". It turns out, Turnings machine was able to do so ONLY because he came to know of some common words used in the German messaging. Had the Germans changed those words as well, you can extrapolate what would have happened. (Probably whats happening now.)

Of course, one would rather not go into the morbid and brutal  aspects of Turning's decision to deliberately let British soldiers die, just so that the Nazis wouldn't be able to figure out that their code has been cracked.(Probably what one hopes is not happening right now.)

While the loss of lives in Manchester Arena are comparatively lesser compared to 9/11, the impact was equally strong mainly because the target included innocent children and it jolted people out of their sense of security, specially in the light of the fact that it was widely publicized that war against ISIS was almost closing.

This is a call to all intelligence agencies and security networks to rethink their strategies to strengthen internal security.Avoiding over reliance on computer algorithms and some out of the box thinking may be the need of the hour. I still have faith in the remarkable feats the human brain can accomplish. Lets not give up on it so quickly. The terrorists seem to be using theirs pretty well so far. 


  1. Arnold Franker29 May 2017 at 22:47

    Celebrity Reactions to Tragic attacks like these are becoming a marketing farce. This gives an easy run for the intelligence and security services as they attention is quickly diverted away from their responsiblities.

  2. Without the attack who will read the news?Who will come to Ariana's "charity"? The dogs have allowed the wolves to kill some sheep. It makes the remaining sheep grateful to be alive and more "obedient" to the dogs. It satisfies the wolve's hunger for some time.

  3. Please everyone stop meddling in the affairs of other countries, till the time we are able to fix the gaping holes in our internal security.

  4. The brits got outsmarted alright. Lesson learnt. Time for payback.

  5. Entire Europe needs to consolidate anti terror enforcement.It will bring rich dividends to social development. Rehabilitation is best investment in regions adversely affected by war and violence