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25th Anniversary series: 2001 – How could 9/11 have happened?

March 18, 2015

In 2001, two planes flew into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, one into the Pentagon and one crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. It was a total surprise.

• On February 26, 1993, a truck bomb was detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
• The Bojinka plot – a plot by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was foiled in 1995, to attack multiple airliners and crash a plane into the CIA headquarters
• In the two years before the September 11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command conducted exercises simulating hijacked airliners used as weapons to crash into targets and cause mass casualties. One of the imagined targets was the World Trade Center.
• Fox X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen – the pilot episode–which aired a year before the attacks–featured a plot to hijack a 747 and fly it into the World Trade Center.
• In April 2001, NORAD ran a war game in which the Pentagon was to become incapacitated; a NORAD planner proposed the simulated crash of a hijacked foreign commercial airliner into the Pentagon, but the Joints Chiefs of Staff rejected that scenario as “too unrealistic”
• Through July, August and September 2001, a series of warnings reached the US at presidential level from Jordan, Israel, the UK and Egypt of 19 Al-Qaeda members in the US receiving flight training, of planned multiple hijackings, of significant operations on US soil.
• Unusually large numbers of shares in insurance companies and airlines were sold off before the attack, in the UK, Italy, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, France and the US. News accounts in the weeks that followed reported a notable pattern of trading in the options of United and American Airlines just before the attack.
• On September 6, 2001, a freshman from a class of Pakistani immigrants at New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn was overheard by his English teacher, Antoinette DiLorenzo, to say that the two World Trade Center towers “won’t be standing there next week.”

So why did the system fail so badly when many people were aware of what was about to happen – even to the level of detail of which airlines were to be used?

The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that pre-attack warnings of varying detail of the planned attacks against the United States by al-Qaeda were ignored due to a lack of communication between various law enforcement and intelligence personnel. For the lack of interagency communication, the report cited bureaucratic inertia and laws passed in the 1970s to prevent abuses that caused scandals during that era. Formed from an independent bipartisan group of mostly former Senators, Representatives, and Governors, the commissioners explained, “We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management”

The failure of imagination is the failure which is of interest to futurists. Why did those professionally responsible for security lack this imagination?

One way of approaching this question uses Hedgehogs and Foxes to describe styles of thinking. Originally from Greek mythology, Isaiah Berlinintroduced the analogy for discussing management styles in 1953:

“The Fox knows many things but the Hedgehog knows one big thing”

As Berlin uses it, Hedgehogs relate everything to single concrete narrative, through which everything in life is reduced to a single set of certainties. Foxes, on the other hand, distrust grand designs and absolute truths, and instead pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. They use a flexible array of insights that guide them as they experiment, play with ideas and experience, explore and, on occasion, pounce.
Recent psychological testing has shown that this is a valid and powerful way of classifying people. As psychologists have defined the type, Hedgehogs are people who are happiest operating within a closed problem domain, in which standard tools and focused effort allow them to compete with their peers. They are happy with the existing system or implementing a formula to change it.
Foxes are at their best exploring new terrain and re-thinking certainties. Their goals are largely self-actualisation and they are seldom concerned to rank themselves against their peers. Foxes are suspicious of commitment to any one way of seeing an issue; they prefer a loose insight that is calibrated from many perspectives. They are tolerant of dissonance within a model – for example, accepting that an enemy regime might have redeeming qualities – and are relatively ready to recalibrate their view when unexpected events cast doubt on what they had previously believed to be true.

Many people in the military and security services are likely to be Hedgehogs. Hedgehog thinking is both powerful and seductive because it seems so straightforward and so clear. It is hard to be a Fox, and Foxes are often not good at working within tight constraints. How could more Fox-like thinking have been used in the run up to 9/11? How could Fox-like thinkers communicate more effectively? Tetlock’s work – which we have talked about in an earlier blog – has concluded that better forecasting is achieved with diverse teams – this should surely also be applied to risk scoping and analysis – this can be difficult to achieve organisationally, but perhaps 9/11 illustrates the reasons for trying to do it.

SAMI’s book “Beyond Crisis” discusses organisational characteristics that allow foxes to be effective in enabling the corporate sensing of external changes or threats. These include
• Ongoing and embedded processes to scan for signs of emerging behaviour
• Information as a shared tool
• Projects spanning the organisation, creating informal networks
• Senior staff who are looking out for signs that the world may be changing.

While these cannot guarantee that organisations will not be taken by surprise, they will reduce the probability.

Written by Gill Ringland.

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