Above the Tearline: The Challenges of Investigating Terrorist Attacks

MIN READJan 26, 2011 | 16:40 GMT

Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton discusses the challenge of counterterrorism investigations in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack. Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. In light of the terrorist attack at a Moscow Airport yesterday we thought would be a good time to discuss the challenges that counterterrorism agents have in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. The reason why it's so difficult to get accurate information in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack is predominantly due to the overwhelming amount of information that is initially reported. The volume of information is usually very fragmented, disjointed, confusing and can be "circular reporting," meaning you have multiple news agencies reporting the same information and regurgitating that and pushing that back out into the media. One of the other challenges is your lack of sources at the scene. The attack takes place in Moscow and you have organizations like in MI-5 in London and the U.S. intelligence community in Washington looking at the event remotely trying to scramble to get assets to the scene or sources that can tell you exactly what occurred. It's been my experience from doing terrorism investigations that in many cases eyewitnesses provide very poor recollection of detail. It can be for a host of reasons. They are affected by the dramatic events. They literally are too close to the event. Their mind doesn't pick up what actually occurred. And then you have the host of biases that set in that are very natural in any kind of witness statement. Video is a very powerful investigative tool to help you piece together what occurred. We have two examples of that we like to show you. The first is an initial camera phone video of the attack site immediately after it occurred. But as you watch the video you will see that it really doesn't tell you exactly where the attack took place. You can't read any of the signs to pinpoint down exactly where it occurred. In essence, you know that some sort of a terrorist attack happened and that's all you're left to try to make sense of. Now, let's look at the second video we have from 24 hours later which is video surveillance captured by the airport authorities of the actual device detonating. You can see the blast effect. You can see the fireball. In essence, this is an extraordinarily valuable investigative tool to help you look at exactly what occurred. From an investigative perspective, 24 hours later you have a much clearer picture as to what occurred. In essence, you are trying to answer the questions of who, what, when, where, how and why. In a terrorist attack, you have the when and where nailed down once the event occurred. In essence, good counterterrorism investigations take time to sort through.

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