Counter-Terrorism in General
Getting the Bad Guys Before They Attack
How long before terrorists switch focus from airports
and planes to easier unprotected targets such as a town
water supply, or a church congregation, or any of many other
Part 5 of a series on
alternative and better approaches to US airport security.
Additional parts to be published in the following weeks.
Any terrorist can attack
us at any of a million different points of vulnerability in our
society, using any of a thousand different forms of attack
(including some we've not yet even thought about).
Isn't it more
efficient to focus on the individual terrorists rather than
trying to provide last ditch 'point defense' for only some of
locations at risk, and against only some of the specific types of attack?
The manpower and money being
misspent making normal people's travels more unpleasant should
better be focused on making normal people (ie you and me) safer
and on detecting and apprehending people who would wish us harm,
long before they reach our airports and planes, and long before
they choose to attack us somewhere totally different, in a
totally new way.
Protecting Airports Makes the
Rest of Our Society More Dangerous
Here's the cruel calculus of
the nasty post 9/11 world we must live in and respond to.
There are a small but significant group of people in the world
who have made it their life's task to cause us harm.
They don't care where or how
they harm us. In this respect they are unthinkingly
mindlessly evil, and there is no way we can appease them or
appeal to their 'better nature' or in any other way dissuade
them from carrying out their task - their jihad.
Indeed, they are so fixated
on this objective that they are willing to die in the process
themselves. Being a suicide bomber seems to promise them
sufficient glory (and apparently virgins) in some perceived after-life
as to hasten them on their way to certain death.
So what happens when we make
it more difficult for them to attack our airplanes and our
These people don't just give
up. And while their evil intent is unthinking and
irrational (in the sense of something we can't reason with -
from their perspective their implacable hatred is totally
reasonable and just), there is nothing stupid about their
thought processes when it comes to working out where and how to
inflict suffering and unpleasantness on the west.
If we prevent them from
attacking us in one part of our society, they will simply shift
focus to another part. And if/when we protect that, they
will shift to another and so on and so on.
So protecting our airports
and airplanes doesn't stop these terrorists. It merely
causes them to shift their focus to another part of our lives.
Now for the really hard part
- answer this next question if you can, because it is a question
our security forces must correctly anticipate and answer, every
If Not Airports, Then What Next
Will The Terrorists Attack?
Where will the terrorists
attack next? Indeed, not only where, but what and how?
The people charged with our protection and our nation's security
need to answer these questions so they know where to deploy
Here are just a very few
Will they attack people?
Maybe they will attack a
sports stadium? A mega-hotel? An office-building? A
school? A mall? A hospital? A church
Will they attack our
Or maybe they'll shift focus and
more obliquely attack other parts of our infrastructure in a way
so as to result in 'downstream death'.
For example, if they destroy
our electricity grid in the peak of a winter chill, how many
people will die from exposure? If they poison our water
supply, how many people will die from that? If they
release deadly toxins in our city centers, might that infect
everyone in our very mobile country with a fatal disease?
They don't even need to kill
people to destroy our society
If terrorists use computer viruses
to attack the internet, how many businesses will go bankrupt,
how much will our economy shrink, how many people will lose
their jobs, and how much will our 'misery index' increase?
Indeed, think that cycle
through. A bad economy may cause more youths to become
disaffected with 'the American dream' and turn to a life of
crime, killing people as part of their life of crime.
Or maybe such people will
become converts to Islamic extremism (notwithstanding the irony
of them not realizing they were suffering the effects of Islamic
extremism in the first place) and become terrorists themselves.
It is a truism that war is
an extension of economic competition by other means.
Perhaps the terrorists will reverse that and use economic harm
to damage us just as surely as physical harm would.
The Problems with the Preceding
Question and Its Answers
There's an obvious and a
subtle problem with asking the question about
what/where/when/how terrorists will next attack us, and a
similar problem with answers to this conundrum.
The obvious problem - if you
choose the wrong answer, and overlook the next vulnerability;
tens, hundreds, thousands, or even larger numbers of innocent
people might die, and/or the nation might be plunged even deeper
into a bottomless economic recession.
These are high stakes
The subtle problem - the
question itself is invalid. Trying to identify the next
'point target' is the wrong strategy. Trying to harden the
last physical thing that was previously attacked is the wrong
thing to do.
We are not looking at the
correct part of the problem when we task the TSA to protect
airports, and other groups to protect other places and things,
because we are creating finite protection, but against a
potentially infinite range of creative threats, and against a
similarly nearly infinite range of creatively chosen vulnerable
The security guard who
is 'protecting' us passengers by feeling us up at the airport is unable to help
us or to prevent an attack against a hospital just down the road
and around the corner.
Lessons from the French and
There is a classic example
of the inadequacies of point protection in both World War
1 and 2. The French had fixed fortress point defense
systems along its border with Germany, but no protection on its
border with friendly Belgium. So instead of sweeping
across the border, straight into France, and being confronted by
these formidable defenses, the Germans took the long way around,
detouring through Belgium.
This strategy surprised the
French twice. We should learn from the mistakes of the
French, and focus not on a fixed point 'last ditch' defense
against yesterday's threat, but
instead look further back in the process of what the terrorist(s)
must do prior to actually staging their attack.
At Last - Some Good News and A
Direction for the Future
And that is where there is
some welcome good news. In order to blow up a school, or a
shopping mall, or whatever, the terrorists need some explosives.
So - why not monitor sources of explosives and the raw materials
needed to create explosives? If we make it impossible for
the terrorists to obtain or build bombs, and/or if their
attempts cause them to be identified and then neutralized, isn't that
a good thing?
By simply limiting access to
explosives, we've enhanced the safety of all locations,
everywhere in the country, that would be vulnerable to explosive
This is a good suggestion
(not without its flaws but still worthy of implementation), but
it is still a compromise between the current policies
(protecting specific things against specific risks) and a more
general approach to protecting every place and everyone against
So let's keep going. Terrorists
don't just appear from nowhere, being one minute an
'ordinary' person and the next minute a crazed suicide bomber.
The typical process is for the person to become Muslim, then an
extremist, to start reading extremist Muslim literature, to
visit extremist Muslim websites, to attend extremist Muslim
mosques, to associate with fellow extremists, and to join
groups of like minded people.
Best of all, these people
seem unable to keep their change in mindset a secret. As
they become increasingly extreme, they become increasingly vocal
about their views, which are increasingly different from those
of the majority of people around them.
Why don't we monitor who
visits extremist Muslim websites (the technology to do so is
completely in place already)? Why don't we monitor who
attends extremist Muslim mosques? Why don't we see who is
most aggressively defaming the United States and advocating its
violent overthrow (whatever happened to the crime of treason and
related offenses, anyway)?
It gets even easier.
These people usually end up either visiting known Muslim
terrorist training camps in other countries, or at the very
least communicating with some of the international terror
organizations that exist to coordinate such acts of terrorism.
Are we monitoring everyone who does either of these things?
There are more tell-tale
signs of pending terrorist activity, too. Probably the
terrorist has insufficient money of his own, and so needs to be funded by
an existing extremist group. Are we tracking currency
movements to see who is getting money from known terrorist
terrorists usually seek to join up with other individuals to
form collective groups or cells of terrorists. How do they
do that? If we can find out how terrorists identify each
other, can't we then do the same thing and identify them too?
Terrorism's Universal Tell-tale
Now for the really good
thing about all of this. All these preceding tell tale
signs of terrorist activity are universal to all forms of
terrorism. Whether the person is planning on detonating a
'dirty bomb' in the center of your city or planning on gassing
the subway system in a city two states away from you, or simply
running amok in your local church or school assembly hall; they will
invariably have things in common. Sure, there's
nothing in common with their targets, or their 'weapons of mass
But the chances are that
any and all groups of terrorists comprise at least some people who have in public
expressed a hatred towards the United States and a desire to see
it suffer from violent harm. The chances are very good
that these groups include people who have been in the terrorist
training camps in places such as Yemen or Pakistan.
The chances are
very good that they have been in touch with Al Qaeda or
some other international terrorist group - indeed, different
groups with different methods and targets might be getting their instructions, advice, and
money from the exact same people.
There are fewer focus points
for detecting nascent terrorism than there are potential targets
for the terrorists and ways to attack these targets. We
should direct our attention to the 'bottle necks' in the
Rather than try and always
be protecting yesterday's terrorist target and worrying about
where tomorrow's radically different terrorist attack might
appear, we need to switch our focus away from defending specific
places and things against specific types of attack, and instead,
we need to hunt down the terrorists before they get close to
Rather than wait passively
for the terrorists to stage attacks in a manner, at a time, and
in a place of their choosing, giving them the benefit of
surprise and initiative, we need to bring the battle to them,
and to instead attack them in places of our choosing, with us
having the benefit of surprise and initiative, and sharing the
same ruthlessness that they themselves seek to harm us with.
The Current Imbalance of Forces
As of the end of 2010, the
TSA had approximately 50,000 front line employees, and an
unknown number of administrative and other staff. Their
job is primarily to protect planes and the flights they operate.
So there are 50,000 people plus substantial support resources,
inputs from other organizations (eg the thousands of personnel
employed by airport police forces), equipment, and
other costs, just to protect our nation's flights.
The rest of the country has
approximately 14,000 FBI special agents, who are split amongst
eight different areas of operation. Yes, counter-terrorism
is one of these eight areas, but most agents are assigned to the
other seven departments - counter-intelligence, cyber-crime,
public corruption, civil rights, organized crime, white collar
crime and violent crime/major thefts.
Sure, there are also other
personnel resources in other fields who also provide some degree
of counter-terrorism support, such as 'liaison officers' in
local police departments, although these people probably do
double duty as FBI/Homeland Security liaison and also liaising
with the local dog catcher too. Counter-terrorism
represents a some small time-slice of the Secret Service and who
knows what other organizations.
Let's not forget a large
number of CIA and NSA staff, both within the US and
internationally, who are already actively working on taking the
battle back to the enemy.
But however you count the
numbers, the fact remains there are 50,000+ people who are
primarily tasked with single-mindedly (and simple-mindedly)
protecting airplanes; compared to some number more than 2,000
but massively less than 50,000, tasked with protecting all the
rest of the country from every other imaginable (and as yet
Is it any wonder then that
the last three terrorist attacks against the US have occurred at
a military base, Times Square New York, and central downtown
Portland, OR, rather than on airplanes (or even at airports in
The enemy already knows that
our aviation system has become harder to attack, while the rest
of our country is invitingly open and exposed. They are
shifting their focus to exploit our other vulnerabilities.
So shouldn't we shift our
focus too, and look for their signs/traces, long before they
carry out an attack?
One terrorist can choose
from (for example) one million different targets and ways of attacking
them. Which makes more sense (and which is more
achievable) - to protect these million different
vulnerabilities, or to hunt down the one terrorist?
Better for Us as Citizens Too
Here's another interesting
thought. Currently, every form of 'protection' against
terrorists involves treating all innocent citizens as if we
were disguised terrorists, and forcing us all to accept
encroachments on our freedoms and restrictions on our liberties,
while subjecting us to harassment, dangerous radiation, and
inconvenient delays and procedures.
Worst of all, as we discuss
in the section 'The Limitations of
the TSA', no matter how much they increasingly subject us to
inconvenient intrusive screening, they consistently fail to
detect at least half the weapons and explosives that are test
smuggled past them.
Terrorists don't need to do
anything except stand back, look, and laugh at the way we
destroy our own once valued freedoms and conveniences.
On the other hand, sending
unmanned Predators to obliterate terrorist camps in far away
countries inconveniences us not at all.
And then it can be us who
stand back, look and laugh at the outcomes.
A dead terrorist is dead
forever and poses no more threat. A deterred terrorist can
come back and more cleverly attack us a different way, tomorrow.
So which do you think is the
better strategy? More (but ineffective) airport style
security, everywhere in our lives? Or more bombs in the
This is part of a
series on alternatives to present airport security.
Please also see :
Israeli style airport security
2. Profiling passengers
3. The Limitations of the
5. General counter-terrorism measures
6. Sundry other ideas (coming soon)
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3 Dec 2010, last update
02 Jul 2017
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