At the dawn of the New Year, India suffered yet another surprise attack. Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorists had snuck across the border, travelled to the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot, and launched a Fedayeen-style attack until they were finally dislodged by Indian forces. Immediately — and inevitably — came claims the attack was an intelligence failure.

Critics raised pointed questions. How did the intruders cross the border undetected? Why were initial signals not integrated and actioned? Why did the terrorists elude authorities for so long? The clear inference was that more and better data, and superior processing and dissemination of that data, may have saved lives. This is not a uniquely Indian issue; following terrorist attacks worldwide, commentators scramble to offer lessons to be learned.

What, then, are the intelligence lessons from Pathankot? How can Indian authorities, and their brethren in the West, use intelligence to prevent or minimise future attack plots?

One obvious response is better surveillance and collection. Persistent surveillance of infiltration routes, critical infrastructure, and possible targets would allow authorities to defend against attacks once they are launched. More ambitiously, closing intelligence gaps with better collection would allow authorities to detect and ideally disrupt plots in their planning phase. Such intelligence gaps would include variations on standard questions: which networks are planning operations; how will they infiltrate; what will be their targets; what form will the attack take? Surveillance and intelligence gaps can be addressed with more and better-managed data, and most calls for reform will centre on them. But better surveillance and closing intelligence gaps are only tactical solutions; at best, they would allow Indian leaders to reactively fend off the volley of Pakistani provocations.

As Pathankot shows, there is a bigger intelligence lesson to be learned.

A more effective intelligence response would enable decision-makers to transcend the tactical responses to attacks. It would enable India and like-minded victims of terrorism to shape the environment; targeting the political-military system that generates threats, and reducing the destabilising political effects of attacks, rather than constantly reacting to events. Shaping the environment through policy requires a deeper understanding of the origins and effects of security threats. It needs insight into the motivations and vulnerabilities of the adversary, and how various actions against it could alter the environment for better or worse.

This requires not only closing intelligence gaps, but also addressing knowledge gaps. In a paper I co-authored with the former Director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Major General (retired) Paul Symon, we coined the term knowledge gaps to denote policy-relevant questions about a complex and contingent phenomenon.

There are many 'mysteries' in the world, but not all of them matter to policy; knowledge gaps are the tough questions that sound policy needs answered. Thus, while a traditional intelligence gap might seek to discover the capabilities of an adversary’s new fighter aircraft, a knowledge gap would seek to understand how air power would be used in a likely contingency. Unlike intelligence gaps, knowledge gaps have no empirically-observable answer. They cannot be answered simply through better surveillance or collection, because they relate to a contingent and complex future scenario. Rather, they require ongoing effort to synthesise varied information, think creatively about alternative possibilities, and apply expertise to make inferences and highlight opportunities for action.

This sounds a lot like what intelligence analysis should do routinely. But many intelligence services are collection-centric; they privilege the acquisition of data, and treat policy-relevant analysis as a form of derivative downstream processing. Witness most intelligence reviews and recommendations for reform: such recommendations usually focus on collecting more data, sharing the data, or more proficiently “joining the dots” as though that would conjure the answer to tough policy problems.

The explosion in Big Data has only sharpened this temptation. Some have even argued that amassing digital bits would make theory and inference redundant, because we can quantify and know everything about a given person or object, and predict its future with confidence. Focusing on intelligence gaps, which sees data as the source of definitive answers, is a symptom of this collection-centric view. Instead, knowledge gaps offer a way to more strategically organise and prioritise intelligence efforts — including collection against intelligence gaps — in a way that better serves policy. Thus knowledge gaps require reorganising and reprioritising intelligence systems, but they are also pointless in the absence of clear policy goals and requirements.

The Pathankot attack demonstrated the need to improve surveillance and collection. But at least as much, it shows the value of asking different intelligence questions. How will Pakistan-based militants adapt their strategy if India and Pakistan maintain working diplomatic relations? How does the Pakistan Army’s domestic security strategy shape its proxy conflict against India? What leverage does the Pakistani civilian leadership have in its relations with the Army? What factors shape the Pakistan Army’s approach — whether they are tolerant or hostile — to particular militant networks?

Knowledge gaps such as these have no bounded answers that better surveillance or more data will reveal; but pertinent questions can inform a policy which is more resilient in the face of inevitable future attacks, and which proactively shapes the source of the threat.

This is not a new problem or an Indian problem. Intelligence services in Australia and across the West are also under pressure to get tactical defences against terrorism right. But Pathankot has been instructive because it reveals how any intelligence issue — even issues as straightforward as protecting military facilities on a hostile border — can benefit from asking creative, policy-relevant questions.

Photo: Vidya Subramanian/Hindustan Times via Getty Images