Last Updated: Wed Jul 27, 2011 15:15 pm (KSA) 12:15 pm (GMT)

Bibhu Prasad Routray: Do you want to be known as ‘stupid’ and ‘incompetent’? Then you should become a ‘terrorism analyst’

Bibhu Prasad Routray

The July 22 attacks on Norway, the July 13 explosions in Mumbai and any terrorist attack of that nature presents a unique challenge to the security analysts as they attempt to answer the most obvious question in every body’s mind. “Who did it?”

Answering this question within hours of the incident taking place (sometimes writing while the event is still unfolding) is tricky and on most occasions analysts are bound to go wrong, if the flow of facts regarding the attack is slow or is misleading.

Such analysis is definitely risky business, as it puts one’s credibility to question. At the same time, these are requirements one can hardly afford to evade. Such analyses are in demand and these must be produced to gratify the inquisitive minds of the readers who start flipping through the websites in search of the most obvious question.

Compare these analysts, with those who have all the time in the world to produce their commentaries only “after the dust settles down”.

For them there is no risk of speculation. Lots of known and verified information backs up their analysis. They have time and space to compare and contrast attacks of various types and also close their analysis with some “lessons learnt” type of wisdom. And not surprisingly, they also make use of the available opportunity to ridicule the speculations of the analysts of the earlier variety as “pre-meditated” or “without substance.” It is a different matter that even the analyses of the second variety too can go wrong. But that happens due to the plain stupidity and incompetence of the analysts and not due to the lack of information, which is to be blamed.

The July 22 incidents in Oslo were by all means unique. For the initial couple of hours, explosion in the Oslo city square appeared to be the only incident of consequence. Even after the initial reports of firing in the Utoya island came in, linking these two incidents were difficult. Analysts had to fall back on the Islamist or Al Qaeda angle to speculate.

After all, there were several past threats, incidents and other trends pointing towards that direction. A massive explosion of this nature, apart from the 1995 Oklahoma city episode, had never been orchestrated by a single person. And the individuals or groups representing the far right wing in Norway had not demonstrated any inclination to go on a killing spree of their fellow Norwegians to make their voices heard.

For this reason, even if the initial analyses were way off the mark in identifying the perpetrator, it is unfair to belittle their power of analysis. As long as they based their analyses on established facts, did not let their imagination run wild and did not force their readers to go along with their conclusions, the conjectures they presented were on track.

Advices are often given to produce “objective” analyses and not state what is not known. Well, these are valid advices, but only up to a point. Some value addition is a critical requirement for an analysis and without it, the entire exercise resembles an effort which interests nobody.

For example, consider the following “objective” analysis written within the first hours of the Oslo attacks, based on the available information of that time.

“Two people were killed as an explosive went off in downtown Oslo. We don’t know who did it. Some people have been injured after a gunman opened firing in a nearby island. We have no idea who is this gunman and what are his intentions. Norwegians are shocked.”

Will the readers waste their time to read this sort of an “objective” report? I bet not.

There are demands for analyses of both types and as often is the case, same bunch of analysts produces them. Just like the weatherman, whose predictions can and do go wrong, analyses, especially the instant variety, too can miss the mark. These are occupational hazards and nothing else.

In any event, a perfect analysis is an oxymoron.

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is an independent analyst based in Singapore and has previously been Deputy Director, India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and a Fellow (Counter-Insurgency Studies) at the Takshashila Institution. He can be reached at or on Twitter @BibhuRoutray

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