Devils, Dervishes and Assassins in Afghanistan

By Nick Catrantzos, Adjunct Professor, Homeland Security and Emergency Management, University of Alaska Fairbanks

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Soldiers in AfghanistanThe devils are the killers who use the terrorist’s weapons of choice:  explosives and suicide attacks. The dervishes are those of us who engage in whirling, tail-chasing, and hand-wringing, often wasting time in debating whether those attacks in Afghanistan constitute insider threats for which we need exotic new defenses.

The only “insider” aspect of Afghan soldiers who ambush Americans attempting to help them is the assassins’ ability to gain entry and enough maneuvering room to get next to Americans and kill them by surprise. Such killers are not traditional insider threats because they have not earned a position of trust, only to then betray that trust.  However, to the extent that they penetrate American defenses by guile instead of force, they do share one all-important trademark of any serious insider threat, and the proper focus on shoring up this vulnerability should go a long way to neutralizing it.

The Real Achilles' Heel

The real issue is access, and the way to address the problem of unescorted access when there’s no time or capabilities to carry out the full vetting necessary before giving anyone a position of trust is to “insist that all outsiders be given access to critical areas, assets or operations only when [the outsiders are] under knowledgeable escort.  This means that the outsiders never receive unhampered freedom of movement …” (Managing the Insider Threat: No Dark Corners, Boca Raton, CRC Press, 2012)

One of the idiosyncratically persistent American proclivities that play into increasing our vulnerability in such situations is that we consider escorting and watching people inconvenient. Consequently, our tendency is to find ways to clear them and let them roam unfettered or to assign the most junior, least qualified employee to escort duty. This is a mistake which adversaries discern and exploit to our peril.  What the situation in Afghanistan calls for is serious attention to access and escort.

In the case of fledgling Afghan trainees entering a U.S. compound in Afghanistan, for example, this means that trainees must never be out of the capable escort of American combatants better trained, equipped and empowered to take them out of action at the first hint of hostile action. Escorts must be able to recognize inappropriate activity and intervene in time to prevent damage. In the case under discussion, the damage is to American life and limb, and the intervention ranges from wrestling would-be assassins to the ground to shooting them on sight. The situation dictates tactics, and life-or-death situations are no place for second-guessing American combatants and diplomats risking their lives for their country.

An analogous situation applies for any place of business, even when the stakes are not quite so high. One does not assign the janitor or receptionist as a knowledgeable escort for a contract network technician. At least one does not do that with any expectation that the escort, however diligent and ethical, will have any serious chance of detecting foul play or catastrophic error on the part of the technician. So, why do we do it anyway? Convenience and inertia – the two most deadly co-conspirators in enabling adversaries to exploit our own vulnerabilities.

CTU Guest Blogger - Nick CatrantzosNick Catrantzos, former instructor at Colorado Technical University, is Adjunct Professor of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the University of Alaska and serves as security director. He is a published author on insider threats and security best practices. Connect with Professor Catrantzos through his website

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Image credit: Flickr/The U.S. Army