This morning Martin Masiuk posted a comment on the DomPrep discussion group on LinkedIn.com about Saturday’sblog post about the Algerian terrorist attack. He asks a very appropriate question; could this happen here? The short answer is yes, but…..
Most news reports have described this as a hostage taking attack that was only partially successful. The exfiltration of the hostages to a base in Mali did not happen, so the apparently al Qaeda related terrorists ended up with a hostage stand-off that ended badly. A hostage taking situation of this sort is less likely (but hardly impossible) to occur in the United States as there is a much lower possibility of the exfiltration of the hostages to an out-of-country secure area.
Having said that, a hostage taking situation at a high-risk chemical facility is far from being a totally unlikely scenario. As long as the attackers were not concerned about walking away from the situation, it might be the best way to carry out a high-profile attack on such a facility. Such an attack could serve two purposes; it would serve to keep the attackers in the public eye for the length of the attack (great publicity) and it would allow demolition teams the time necessary to properly emplace a large number of explosive devices in just the right spots for the most effective destruction of the facility.
The longer that the hostage takers could keep negotiating with the FBI (certainly the action agency for an attack like this) the longer the story would stay in the world-wide press. Until it became obvious that there were going to be large numbers of hostages killed (the definition of ‘large’ would depend on the size and type of facility being attacked) or that the attackers were prepared (both mentally and physically) to destroy the facility at any moment, negotiations would certainly continue.
Now the only thing that the attackers could expect to gain from such negotiations would be a guarantee of free passage to jail. No administration would long survive allowing any kind of deal that provided for any other sort of result. But the longer the discussion toward the FBI’s goal of total surrender of the attackers took, the better it would be for the terrorists from the view of free publicity.
It is unlikely that any committed terrorist would actually surrender at the end of the day. The most likely end to the situation would be a government led assault on the facility to free the remaining hostages and prevent the destruction of the facility, or the terrorists destroying the facility, the hostages and becoming martyrs to their cause. Either situation would ultimately serve the terrorists cause of striking terror into the populous and gaining publicity for their cause.
Prevention is the Only Good Solution
Since neither end-game is desirable, the best way to handle this situation is to prevent it. A hostage taking attack like this is not going to be conducted on the spur of the moment. It would require a great deal of preparation, reconnaissance and practice. All of these activities lend themselves to the detection and disruption of the attack well before it happened.
This is the type thing that the FBI and law enforcement agencies have shown themselves to be well versed in, but they do require a certain amount of cooperation from facility management and the local public. As much as one might think that the DHS “See something, say something” campaign is simplistic it is exactly the type of information that one receives from such programs that provides the needed intel to prevent attacks like this.
Insider Information and Assistance
Recent news reports indicate that at least some of the attackers were BP employees and were thus able to provide the attack planners with key information about facility security. This would be an important aspect of any planning for this type of operation. Inserting people into the facility either as employees or contractors provides for the best type of reconnaissance information.
In light of this, it is very disappointing that DHS ISCD has still not published their plan for vetting high-risk chemical facility employees against the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). While this wouldn’t necessarily catch all would be terrorists, it would catch some. Not having this in place with the 5th anniversary of the establishment of the CFATS program fast approaching is the height of bureaucratic silliness.
BTW: A hostage taking scenario is not one of the terrorist attack scenarios used by DHS to evaluate CFATS site security plans.