Counter-Terrorism: March 22, 2005

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initially sought to identify all the vulnerabilities to terrorism in the United States. Month by month, the list grew longer. It quickly became apparent that there would never be sufficient resources to defend against all these potential threats. So, over the past few months, more effort has been devoted to figuring out how to use, most effectively, what is available, to deal with the most likely threats. To that end, it has been discovered that the biggest problem is not resources, but communication. In other words, the problem is not hardware, its software. For example, a close examination of why there have been no more al Qaeda attacks in the United States during the past three years revealed that the main reason was the effective use of existing resources, especially local resources. 

At airports, it wasnt seizing toenail clippers from passengers that was keeping terrorists off aircraft, but the sure knowledge that nearly everyone on the flight would immediately come after you if you tried to take over another aircraft. There have been several incidents where suspected terrorists were promptly smothered by other passengers, and one case where a real terrorist was stopped from setting off a bomb by spontaneous and energetic action by other passengers. On the ground, local police were quick to use existing informant networks to seek out terrorist suspects. New informant networks were developed in Arab-American communities. Within months after September 11, 2001, it became much more difficult for al Qaeda to operate in the United States. 

All of this took place before DHS even existed. So the question now is, what can DHS do to capitalize on counter-terrorism efforts that work, and might be made to work better.  The focus on technology as a solution has become an obvious blind alley. The real problems, the obstacles to providing effective homeland protection are essentially software issues. First responders are not well aligned with each other, federal agencies are not well aligned with state agencies, and the armed forces are not well aligned with anyone (and not all that enthusiastic about the mission). Many of these groups can do a good job by themselves, but if DHS wants to take protection to a new level, it needs to get everyone communicating with each other. This has proven very difficult to do. Many of these bureaucracies equate communication with subordination. No one wants to become part of someone elses empire. The FBI has long had those kind of problems with state and local law enforcement agencies. Communication is more than exchanging phone numbers. Details like who must do what for who when there is a terrorism problem, have to be carefully worked out in advance. This sort of thing has been very difficult to do in the past. Just ask the FBI. More futile and expensive efforts, to develop hardware tools that vanquish terrorists, no doubt appear an easier path to pursue than getting everyone to communicate and cooperate.

 


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