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Are We Still Suffering From A Failure of Imagination?

September 09, 2016
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
Director
National Security and Strategic Foresight

The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, are a stark reminder of the danger that global terrorism poses. In the aftermath of the attacks, questions were raised about how such an incident could be perpetrated on American soil. The 9/11 Commission Report delved into the issue and produced a range of findings and recommendations. One particular statement in the Commission’s report has resonated with many and continues to provoke debate and discussion: “The most important failure was one of imagination.”

The Commission’s report outlines the failure of officials within the United States government to appreciate the significance of the threat posed by al Qaeda. The fact that the threat posed by al Qaeda at the time was new and evolving meant that it was difficult to imagine how it might develop and what approaches it might utilize. Fifteen years after the tragic events on September 11, we continue to see new and rapidly evolving terrorist threats across the globe, from Daesh and Al-Shabaab to anti-government groups. Are we any better today at effectively imagining how these threats could evolve and what we can do to deal with them?

One of the approaches used to help rectify the failure of imagination was the wider implementation of foresight approaches in the intelligence community. Foresight does not try to predict the future or the exact actions of an opponent. Instead, the goal of these types of techniques is to provide a broader perspective on how the future threat environment could evolve. In many cases, this involves developing multiple, plausible scenarios that allow a range of possibilities to be examined. The approach helps analysts and decision-makers alike work with uncertainty and try to understand how threats could evolve in the future. This approach has been used across the public and private sectors for a number of decades, with Shell’s global scenarios being a prime example. Imagining how threats might plausibly evolve and identifying options to address them is at the core of the foresight approach.

The United States was not the only nation to explore the use of foresight—a number of its allies, including the United Kingdom, began using foresight tools within their security and intelligence agencies. I worked for the United Kingdom’s Home Office for a number of years and ended up leading a range of foresight activities within law enforcement, security, and intelligence. As part of these responsibilities, I was involved in producing the United Kingdom’s 2011 Strategy for Countering Terrorism (CONTEST), which clearly outlined the need for horizon scanning, a foresight tool, to “stay ahead of new or changing threats and vulnerabilities.” The strategy also clearly outlined some of the risks posed by the use of social media by extremist groups—we had successfully imagined the evolution of some of the approaches that were going to be used by Daesh well in advance of Daesh’s rise to notoriety. Yet we did not manage to stop or stunt the emergence of Daesh and its well-oiled social media machine.

Despite the ability to get over the failure of imagination, we still seem to be struggling with finding pre-emptive success against emerging extremist groups. Rather than a failure of imagination, this seems to have been more a failure of implementation. While the 2011 CONTEST document outlined the emerging threat posed by extremist social media use, it still was not enough to get the government to act in a significant enough manner to deal with the threat. In my conversations and discussions with my counterparts in security and intelligence foresight across the globe, similar issues were cropping up where imagination was no longer the problem—it was implementation.

The challenge we face today is that, although we have tools to deal with the failure of imagination, the findings from these tools are still struggling to gain implementation. It is difficult for decision-makers who are used to solid evidence to deal with the uncertainty that comes with foresight tools that do not predict the future. While we may have, to some extent, addressed the failure of imagination fifteen years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, there is certainly a risk that we will still be caught out by an emerging extremist group due to our failure of implementation.

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