Aviation counter-terrorism efforts seem to have produced a reasonable, though by all means not water-tight, defense against a determined and highly adaptive adversary. The infamous “shoe bomber” Richard Reid made headlines soon after 9/11, followed by Umar Abdul Mutallab’s “underwear bomber” incident in 2009. In addition to these attempts at death and destruction that fortunately lead nowhere, there were multiple cases where terrorists succeeded; for example, the tragic downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in 2015. All this taken with a 95% TSA failure rate in “red team” tests across the U.S. in mid-2015 clearly shows aviation counter-terrorism efforts are desperately in-need-of-improvement.
But what else can be done? Since the approximately $20 billion in airport security technology (x-ray, tomography, chemical analysis, biometric and other systems) the U.S. alone has invested seems to produce mixed results, maybe it’s time to add some tricks that may not cost so much but have a chance of giving an additional boost to aviation security.
It appears that that the addition of some new elements may enhance aviation security significantly. Specifically, one of these elements is called TDMTM – Terrorist Decision Making.
TDMTM means that we are going to take concrete steps to improve in learning to think like our adversaries. Why? Because terrorists are an extremely adaptive creed. They watch; they prod; they learn; they shift, modify, prod again, until they find a weak link – and there are plenty of those. In fact, from a terrorist’s perspective, he has an almost endless bank of potential targets, and every hit is a win.
Getting into terrorists’ heads is one constructive direction we can move in to improve our ability to deal with terrorists’ adaptive skills; we must get into their mind, understand how they think, why they think the way they do and what will be the likely conclusions that they will draw as they look at us – the defenders.
In practical terms, this means a considerable enhancement of our intelligence capabilities. But not any kind of intelligence; now, more than ever, we need to increase our investment in knowing much more about the human element- “who” is carrying the boarding pass (and the potential terror threat)- in addition to knowing about the amount of liquids in their carry-on baggage.
To that end, we need to expand on an unfamiliar branch of intelligence called “Empathy Intelligence”.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Unfortunately, some, including too many professionals charged with security and intelligence operations, seem to think that empathy is synonymous with “bleeding heart liberals”, “humanism”, “softies”, with accepting – maybe even condoning – the deplorable and the unacceptable.
Such thinking is not only wrong factually, it hampers our ability to gather the intelligence we need to make proper decisions.
One of the most telling examples of using empathy in the service of successful decision making comes from the world of venture capital. Michael Moritz, one of the founders of Sequoia Venture Capital, a company that funded companies such as Yahoo!, PayPal, YouTube and Google early on, describes empathy as one of his most important tools of the trade. In his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo writes: “Moritz cultivated a skill few engineers cared about: the ability to empathize with company founders. It was crucial to see their dreams exactly as they did, he believed. Even if they were deluded, you had to know how and where to adjust their imagination.”
The ability to use empathy was so central to Moritz that he told Ramo: “The thing I am terrified of is losing that empathy.”
Imagine, if empathy is so crucial to enable a real and deep understanding of a commercial or technology entrepreneur’s mind, how crucial it would be to understanding the mind of a terror entrepreneur. And make no mistake, the really successful terrorists are nothing short of successful entrepreneurs. Their chosen area of expertise is horrific, but their ability to imagine a future and craft the present and the various competing actors and realities around them to reach their goal is nothing short of an entrepreneurial genius.
One of Israel’s most successful heads of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, understood this. Over a four-decade career in military intelligence, General Farkash had developed a deep appreciation for the value of empathy as an intelligence tool. Despite (or maybe because of) his extensive technological background, General Farkash invested significant resources in a new approach to “deep” intelligence – the kind that tries to get into the head of the adversary, see the world through their eyes, and tries to think alongside the terrorist as he or she goes about the tasks of trying to imagine, research, plan and execute terror missions.
Gaining a deep understanding of what makes terrorists “tick” by studying them through an empathic prism may improve our understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, ad their perspective on the West and its vulnerabilities and strengths. Such perspectives no doubt shape the terrorists’ decision making process, and such knowledge on our part can help shape operational decisions regarding actions, reactions, deterrence, potential target selection, and distribution of counter-terrorism resources. For example: if we knew that a certain past event, associated with a certain location and/or certain people, traumatized a certain terrorist and created in him/her an abiding commitment to avenge, we may choose to increase our readiness against this terrorist along what we may deem to be a most likely target (either people or infrastructure).
TDMTM includes a wide spectrum of tools, processes and practices designed to transform the traditional passive, reactive approach to aviation security into an approach as nimble, adaptive and flexible as the terrorists themselves who may create the threat and exploit its vulnerabilities.
TDMTM is not a panacea, nor is it a sole solution to the risks and threats of terrorist attacks. It is an intelligent attempt to define and become familiar with what could and should be considered in order to optimally cope with the risks and the consequences of aviation and event-related terrorist attacks. Essentially, we should better understand our adversaries and move away from security strategies that place all of our attackers into the single, one-size-fits-all, undifferentiated category of “terrorists.” Critical infrastructure and facility security managers are starting to recognize the need for enhanced, proactive and intelligence-driven security strategies.
It’s time empathy got the break it deserves, and gives us the break we deserve. All of us, particularly those entrusted with our safety and security, ought to be able to empathize with the world around us—good, bad and of every possible slant—without fear of censure. It’s a freedom that will serve us well, particularly in aviation security.
Want to know more about TDMTM and about “Empathy Intelligence”? Call Us at +1 (408) 993 1300, or Write to Us.
 Joshua Cooper Ramo, “The Age of the Unthinkable”, (Little, Brown and Company: New York), 2009. pp.151-152.