Just connect the dots?

May 10, 2017

I just finished re-reading a mystery written just before the horrible events of 9/11. It made me reflect on the difficultly of satisfying the oft-repeated (but rarely fully appreciated) mantra to “connect the dots” and how difficult that can be, particularly in the context of any early warning process[1].

Let me give you a taste of a few things that leapt out at me from this story:

  • The tale revolves about  Islamic terrorism impacting the US.
  • The mission involves hijacking a passenger jet.
  • One individual notes these jets pose an explosive danger “within a hundred-yard radius” of the plane.
  • The author, commenting on the then lax security at airports, has a character note that “America wasn’t ready for any of this.”
  • The terrorist mission is religiously justified.
  • In one chilling scene, the terrorist is driven over the Verrazano Bridge, and sees the two World Trade center towers. His associate, not a terrorist, says, referring to the towers, “Maybe next time”, to which he replies, “God willing.”

Amazing, isn’t it? This is an author who was talking about, or at least predicting, the then-forthcoming attack on the World Trade Center towers, right?

No.

These elements connect with 9/11 only in the way I put it. These “dots” are a very few among the hundreds of others in the fine 1,000 page novel by Nelson DeMille, The Lion (2000).

In this case, these specific dots did not predict or foreshadow 9/11. Take them in turn:

  • The Islamic terrorist who comes to the US comes from Libya, not Saudi Arabia, and is associated with the Libyan government. His mission involves killing former US Air Force personnel while he is in the US. There is no team.
  • The passenger jet hijacking gets the single terrorist into the US, where it is landed via autopilot. It is not flown into a target.
  • The person noting the explosive power associated with jets is the hero, in law enforcement, not the terrorist.
  • The comment “America wasn’t ready for any of this” refers to the hijacking, which resulted in the deaths of all passengers and crew due to poison gas.
  • While the terrorist sees his mission as religiously justified, it is also very personal and political.
  • The reference to the two World Trade center towers and “next time” recalls the failed 1993 attempt to blow up the south tower, and not to the terrorist planning to assault the towers again. In fact, the terrorist thinks the 1993 attack was cowardly.

The lesson? it is very easy to connect the dots in retrospect. Way too easy. Conversely, it can be almost impossible to figure out which dots to connect in advance, much less how they do connect. And the selection of which dots to connect is can too often be an exercise in proving what the analyst already believes is likely.

[1] Just a brief commercial message. Early warning systems are dealt with in a forthcoming book which I co-authored with my significantly better half: Carolyn M. Vella and John J. McGonagle, Competitive Intelligence Rescue: Getting It Right, Praeger, August 2017.



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