Does “Connecting the Dots” Protect Us?

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Part of “The Terrorist Who Wasn’t” is a frantic effort to pin down details of an imminent terrorist attack, and to enable law enforcement agencies to prevent it. Set in the 1990s, before the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the main characters in the story frantically collect, combine and analyze information from multiple sources. In other words, they must “connect the dots” to form a full picture.

hijackers-groupHow does the story compare with the real-world history of the 9/11 attacks? While coping with public anger and fear in 2001, politicians and media used the catchphrase “connect the dots” to mean combining intelligence inputs from all agencies to forecast and prevent the terror plot. The implication was that all government agencies needed to share information to predict future terrorist attacks. Some politicians and media outlets proclaimed that connecting the dots would have stopped the deaths and destruction of 9/11.

In research for this book, I learned more about the difficulties of stopping terrorism, and the value of connecting the dots. Borrowing a few details from the real 9/11 investigation, my fictional attack gets through the warnings—connecting the dots—after painstaking efforts. The characters know definitely that an attack is forthcoming. They know names of some of the people, and eventually learn the cities where the attacks will begin.

Connecting the dots, however, doesn’t stop the attack! The challenges for stopping the terrorists remain daunting. In the real-world of the 9/11 attacks, the task would have been just as formidable even with the “dots” connected.

The popular viewpoint is that law enforcement could simply capture the terrorists and ship them to Gitmo. That’s an unfortunate fantasy. The 9/11 killers had each entered the US under legal visas. Though they had overstayed their legal status, law enforcement could only arrest them to be tried like citizens in a U.S. court. Following the usual sequence of events under law, each of the men would have had an assigned lawyer.

The arrest of a large group of terrorists planning to execute a major attack presents a very difficult challenge. The future killers would not have faced any major charges until they carried out or supported their murderous crimes. Until then, investigators could have only reported that several Middle Eastern men had overstayed their visas but had not otherwise broken the law. Until they committed a crime, it would have been difficult to prosecute them as members of a conspiracy.

FBI Director James Comey has indicated that the Bureau is is currently investigating hundreds of terrorist groups within the US. In other words, the bad guys are already here. Apparently, new technology and updated methods have connected many of the dots. Can we be sure that there are no others? No. Can FBI and DHS find ways to disrupt them? Maybe…hopefully…yes. Authorities have connected the dots. Nevertheless, it’s a tough job, requiring extraordinary effort, hundreds of agents, and top-flight police work.

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