Preface to the Special Edition
The analytical process known as counterterrorism (CT) net assessment anticipates our ability to counter threats and thus provides a perspective on the factors that could define success or failure for US CT policy that is fundamentally different from other methods. CT net assessments help decision makers understand what is truly important about an issue by balancing desired outcomes and anticipated policy effects in the face of struggle. It is called a "net" assessment because it considers how we fare in removing obstacles, overcoming resistance, and exploiting opportunities to achieve our desired outcomes. Some threats might appear great but can largely be mitigated with current policies and capabilities, while others that seem more minor might turn out to be inexorable and actually pose a greater net concern.
Anticipating what is coming over the next ridgeline—be it cyber attacks, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, or something not yet considered—is not a trivial endeavor. The simultaneous interactions of networks, technology, information, and politics combine to produce a potentially sinister, dauntingly complex strategic brew. Getting a handle on this strategic complexity requires a broader knowledge base than ever before to understand how varied and seemingly unrelated parts interact with one another—at dizzying speeds—to create new possibilities.
CT net assessment offers unique information that helps its users to achieve and sustain a competitive advantage. Such assessments require a strong and accurate diagnosis of the causes that underlie strengths as well as weaknesses, and how these causal factors interact and coevolve. A good diagnosis will provide the necessary "sense-making" to guide appropriate action in full cognizance of the long-term consequences of both action and inaction, in terms of potential threats and opportunities across a range of policy choices. A bad diagnosis can lead to policy choices that are inefficient, ineffective, and potentially tragic.
A CT net assessment process that considers and anticipates the emergence of new threats and the transformation of current ones challenges the traditional, static "war on terror" paradigm. Because new threats arise and old ones mutate, a theory of victory needs to focus on managing threats, similar to the strategic model used by police agencies as opposed to a World War II–style model of submission and defeat. The need for new thinking about the contours of success is especially obvious when one considers that CT activities in themselves greatly influence the emergence and evolution of violent non-state actors.
Rather than examining our own capabilities and limitations, or assessing the implications of the multifaceted strategic environment, most intelligence focuses on evaluating the capabilities of our adversaries. We need to expand beyond that approach and consider the net effect of the coevolutionary interaction of three complex dynamics: ourselves, the environment, and the adversary. The information produced through CT net assessment can help decision makers to focus and prioritize policies and resources to achieve advantage and hedge against uncertain future developments. Understanding our sources of advantage and those of our adversaries helps us to determine our leverage in a given situation and the conditions in the strategic environment that favor loss and opportunity.
We anticipate that this special issue of the Combating Terrorism Exchange will help the National Counterterrorism Center's net assessment practitioners and our colleagues in other agencies and other countries refine our craft as we continue to evolve in our thinking about and approach to net assessment.