Reflections on an Afternoon with the Dutch Security and Intelligence Agency

This week I attended a seminar organised by the general Dutch Security and Intelligence Agency (AIVD). The agency is the equivalent of Mi5 and Mi6 combined and, unsurprisingly, largely focusses on countering ISIS and other jihadist groups. As the issues discussed during the day were quite broad, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on three issues related to intelligence and security that were discussed during the day that deserve more attention.


The role of media in counter-terrorism

Perhaps the most interesting debate occurred between representatives of the Dutch public broadcaster (NOS) and the leadership of the AIVD. Representatives of NOS, in their presentation, explained how they struggled to understand what was going on at Schiphol Airport during the summer, when military police set up checkpoints around the airport for several weeks. The government explained a ‘signal’ was picked up leading to increased security measures, but enshrouded the severity and imminency of the threat.

aivdThe public broadcaster, however, found itself contacting the various government agencies which simply sent them somewhere else in turn. The NOS pleaded the agency for more info in times of a crisis or incident, either on- or off the record. The AIVD leadership openly recognised the issue but didn’t make it clear (at least for the participants) that they seek to change their modus operandi significantly next time similar measures will be taken.

For representatives of the national coordinator for counter-terrorism and security (NCTV) this debate certainly impacted on their role vis-a-vis society. It closely links to the limitations to their threat level model (currently severe: 4 out of 5) which has led to passionate debates internally (“maybe we have 4+?”). It remains a difficult challenge how to inform the public of a persistent complex threat, and deal with media in times of crisis.

Interestingly, a day after the event a similar event took place at Rotterdam Airport, with increased security measures outside the airport. Did the NCTV and AIVD inform the media better this time on the nature of the ‘signal’? Clearly this discussion is far from over and especially NCTV could do well to invest in building deeper ties with media.


Privacy vs Security dichotomy

The AIVD leadership emphasised that the balance between privacy and security is part of their daily work. A sceptic would say this was to win over the crowd that privacy is important to AIVD as well, but I wouldn’t go that far.

What I think is more important to note is that this value trade-off is a false dichotomy:

  1. more privacy does not necessarily equal less security;
  2. likewise, less privacy does not equal more security;
  3. technology has potential to facilitate for both better privacy and security.

“It makes more sense to employ the lens of ethics vs. innovation instead. What is needed then is value-sensitive design (VSD) for intelligence practices”

Privacy and security are values that citizens hold dear simultaneously. At the same time, dozens other human values impact on intelligence gathering and analysis. Key examples are: trust, openness, transparency, honesty, integrity, efficiency and effectiveness. All of these values matter for public safety and security in a liberal democracy such as the Netherlands. Therefore, it makes more sense to employ the lens of ethics vs. innovation instead.

What is needed then is value-sensitive design (VSD) for intelligence practices. VSD allows for stakeholder analysis, among others, to analyse the effect of new technologies on groups and individuals. More on the potential of this framework for intelligence will, in due time, be published in my doctoral dissertation.


Militarisation of CT

A final consideration relates the final presentation and how that analysis represents fallacies in (academic) thinking on the use of military for CT. What we are witnessing in academia is an overreaction to the Global War on Terror (GWoT) in academic circles. By criticising the GWoT paradigm scholars instead put themselves in an opposite paradigm with its own inherent weaknesses.

Sure, critics of the GWoT are right to point at the counter-productive measures taken by the US after 9/11. The invasion of Iraq – and especially disbanding the armed forces and deba’athification – created fertile ground for ISIS to emerge. This is well documented by many scholars and even most neo-cons accept this reality. Civil wars are often a breeding ground for terrorist groups and related forms of extremism. The second-order effect of the Iraq war was indeed the inception of ISIS.

I found it odd an academic made this argument in late 2016. Sure that was interesting years several ago, but fairly common wisdom today. How about having a look at the Syria war instead? By zooming in on Syria it has become apparent that the lack of military intervention has also facilitated the rise of ISIS, and perhaps more importantly emboldened al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS).

By allowing Assad’s war crimes – and not setting up a No-Fly Zone – the West has radicalised the opposition and pushed them into the hands of extremists. Especially JFS have taken advantage of this, by positioning themselves as the only effective force against Assad and its allies, and as the protector of the Sunnis – in turn deepening sectarian divisions in the region. The growth of JFS is the second-order effect of Obama’s Syria policy.

“It seems many academics are still stuck in their outdated paradigm, the Iraq War Syndrome”

It seems many academics are still stuck in their outdated paradigm, the Iraq War Syndrome as I previously called it in this piece. To attack the militarisation of counter-terrorism completely overlooks the realities of the last three years or so.

Of course, long term strategies tackling terrorism require inclusive societies, inclusive governments (in Baghdad f.e.) and an ideological response to extremism. But military intervention is, at times, a crucial component of this, with Kobane as the prime example.

The loss of Kobane (or Ayn al Islam as ISIS called it) in Northern Syria was both a strategic and ideological defeat to ISIS. It lost several thousand (foreign) fighters, including many Europeans, in the battle against the YPG with American air support. This severely damaged fighter moral and was a hit to their slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding).

Both the rise of JFS and the example of Kobane is further evidence that military intervention in relation to CT is much more complex than some academics argue.

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