Counter-Terrorism: June 10, 2005


Since 9/11, reports of the theft of police uniforms or explosives or even shipping containers are often linked to possible terrorist activity. But whether the link is pointed out by the police or other domestic security organizations, public officials, or the media, it is rarely mentioned is that there is at present no standard for determining what constitutes "normal" levels of such activities. Consider some examples of thefts and other incidents that have been linked to possible terrorist activity by local police, the FBI, or other official agencies. 

--The theft of about a dozen 40-foot shipping containers, with transporters, in Connecticut over the past three months. 

--The theft of a shipment of border patrol uniforms from a warehouse in California. 

--An "upsurge" in the use of bogus police credentials by people seeking to gain entry to certain potentially high value targets, such as police stations, hospitals, and so forth.

The problem is that we don't have a good statistical baseline to use to make comparisons with the current rate of incidents with. Take the case of the Connecticut shipping container thefts. Is there really a surge, or merely that we've gotten better at reporting incidents? What's been the "track record" of this sort of activity in the past? The police report that suggested a possible link to terrorists omitted some vital information. Container theft is not at all uncommon, and it's a lot easier to steal one with its transporter than without it. It would be useful to know what the "normal" level of theft in the state has been over the past few years. And it would also be useful if the police had mentioned whether the containers were loaded or not. The same problem holds true in the case of the theft of border patrol uniforms. Was the warehouse known to be used to store border patrol uniforms, or was it just a general purpose facility? Was anything else taken? And what was the rate of warehouse theft in the area? 

As for the bogus credentials "upsurge," there's long been a very lucrative traffic in bogus credentials in the US. All sorts of badges and identification that looks almost like the real thing can be had for a few bucks from catalogs and websites. In some large cities petty criminals have been known to use phony police badges to shake down hookers and small time drug dealers, and even to set up local "protection" rackets, all while giving the real police a bad reputation. 

And people trying to gain entry to places like hospitals, police stations, town halls, and even schools using bogus credentials is not exactly rare either, just ask emergency room personnel or teachers. Sometimes it's just some dolt pretending to be important (perhaps making like a doctor in an emergency room, with some risk to the patients, or pretending to be a school board official on an unscheduled inspection). But mostly it's someone looking for an opportunity to steal something that isn't nailed down.

This is not to say that there isn't a possible terrorist link to the thefts of the shipping containers or the uniforms, or the alleged increase in the use of bogus credentials, but rather that no one is responsible for determining what constitutes a "normal" rate of such incidents, and given that, it's impossible to tell if there's been a significant change in the rate of incidents.


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