Counter-Terrorism: January 10, 2005


How do you defend against a terrorist foe who wont attack? Thats the situation facing the United States when it comes to al Qaeda. The United States has a tremendous number of vulnerable targets. There are nearly two million farms, which are vulnerable to the introduction of plant and animal diseases that already exist in other parts of the world. Recently, an accidental introduction of hoof and mouth disease to Britains livestock herds cost billions of dollars to clean up. There are plant diseases and destructive insects that can easily be smuggled in. Then there are the 87,000 food processing plants. Get a job there and do a little contamination and you cause some real panic. 

There are also two million miles of pipelines carrying, for the most part, highly flammable gases and liquids. A few sticks of dynamite here and there can cause some real problems. There are 66,000 chemical plants, which are not completely secure from attack, no matter how much you spend on them (you can always fire an RPG or mortar across a fence.) But the major vulnerability here are the hundreds of truck and train loads of dangerous chemicals shipped each day. For example, around 8,500 rail cars carrying chlorine, ammonia, and hydrochloric and sulfuric acid roll through Washington, DC each year. Six million tons of chemical freight a year passes within four blocks of the Capitol, on a rail line south of the Mall. If one of those 90 ton rail cars carrying chlorine was rigged with explosives, the rapid spread of chlorine could kill thousands within thirty minutes. On average, a dozen people a year are killed each year from accidental spills of stuff like gasoline, propane and lethal industrial chemicals (ammonia, chlorine, sulfur dioxide, fuming sulfuric acid, fuming nitric acid, and hydrogen fluoride). 

The conventional wisdom, as propagated in the mass media, is that the situation is even worse, with millions of Islamic fanatics willing to carry out suicide attacks. So why arent there more of attacks. Why havent such people wandered to crowded downtown areas of New York City, Washington, DC or European cities, and detonated explosive vests? Or car bombs?

The conventional wisdom is wrong, or has not bothered to take a close look at how such terrorist operations are actually organized and carried out. Yes, there are millions of Moslem men, and women, who say they are willing to carry out suicide attacks. In Iraq, several dozen suicide car bomb attacks are made each month. Why hasnt there been even one in the United States in the last three years? Its a matter of organization. Terrorist attacks require a certain amount of preparation and skill. Each suicide bomber requires the services of several skilled experts before they can carry out an attack. Someone has to evaluate the volunteer and determine if he (they are mostly male) is capable to carrying out the attack. Many suicide bombings in Iraq, Israel and else dont come off because the suicide attacker losses his nerve, or just screws up. You usually dont hear about these. Once you have a reliable suicide attacker, you have to build the bomb. Someone with knowledge of building reliable bombs has to do this. Then you need someone to plan the route, taking care to avoid security or traffic problems. One of these planners will often escort the suicide bomber most of the way. With all that, you need someone with the organizational and leadership skills to put this team together, and make sure it isnt discovered by the police or intelligence organizations. This requires teaching the team members how to avoid detection, and making sure they follow the rules. The truth of the matter is that there are not that many competent people among the millions of people willing to die for the cause of Islamic radicalism. Lots of talk, but little effective action. Thus danger is not from what is actually out there, but from the potential. 

The potential is huge, but it is not being realized. In places like Israel, Iraq, Nepal and Sri Lanka, there are organizations that provide the skilled personnel needed to carry out the suicide attacks. But because of security problems, you cant just take a support team out of one area and drop it anywhere, and expect it to function. The March 11, 2004 bombings in Spain were an example of what happens when the local security services drop the ball. Since that bombing, which didnt involve suicide, Spanish security has arrested over a hundred Islamic radicals, and less than half of them were involved with the March 11 attack. The others were trying to get themselves organized. These organizational efforts are going on world wide. Most fail because the people involved just cant get it together. But the potential is there, and anywhere that the local police and security are too lax in detecting these activities, or otherwise unable to do so, the bombs will go off. 


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