Thursday, January 8, 2009

Another Attack on Canadian Gas Wells

Earlier this week the Associate Press reported another explosive attack on a natural gas metering shed in British Columbia. As in earlier attacks, the site was in a remote location with no personnel present so no one was hurt. Apparently the RCMP has no suspects, but the first attack in the series was accompanied by a written demand for oil and gas companies to halt operations in the area. News reports have labeled these eco-terrorist attacks though that is not proven by any legal standard. It may just be someone with a personal grudge against Encana, the owner of the facilities that have born the brunt of the attacks. In any case, some one is willing and able to use violence against these facilities to affect a political-economic objective. As such it certainly fits the general definition of terrorism. Potential for Escalation? As in many eco-terrorist attacks the attacker is apparently taking pains not to hurt anyone during these attacks. In the minds of most people this lessens the seriousness of the attacks, in the opinion of many people it even might make the attacker something of a hero figure. The problem is that there is no guarantee that the attacker will not make a mistake or miscalculation that would result in serious injuries or the death of innocent bystanders or company employees. There is little reason for the oil and gas companies to acquiesce to the demands and every financial reason not to. As long as the damage inflicted is limited in scope and remains in remote locations, the companies will repair the relatively minor damage and little more. There will be periodic pressure put on the police to capture the criminal, but there will be no significant increase in security measures at these remote locations. Sooner or later the bomber will realize that continuing the current attack profile is not working. Either the attacks will stop, with the bomber accepting defeat, or the bomber escalates to achieve the objective. Once escalation starts there are only three possible outcomes: Success, the oil and gas companies close down operations and leave, or Failure, the bomber realizes the futility of the attacks and quits, or Capture, the bomber is captured or killed by security personnel. The first two outcomes are unrealistic and extremely unlikely due to the nature of the adversaries. That leaves the third with the realization that the escalation will likely continue to advance until that outcome occurs. The question then becomes, how long can the current attack pattern continue until frustration overcomes the apparent reluctance to hurt people. Unfortunately that question can only be effectively answered in hind sight. Lessons for High-Risk Chemical Facilities While oil and gas facilities may be considered chemical facilities in the broadest sense of the term, the remote production facilities being attacked by this bomber are fundamentally different from most chemical high-risk chemical facilities covered by CFATS. These are remote, stand-alone facilities with no routine personnel attendance. With that in mind we have to be careful when we try to extrapolate lessons to more conventional chemical facilities. Counter-surveillance Probably the most important lesson is that the lone-wolf bomber does exist as a potential adversary. This type terrorist is the one of the most difficult for law enforcement to detect before the first attack. There is little possibility of this terrorist contacting a police informant for assistance; the most common way that terrorist plots are brought to the attention of police or security personnel. This makes it all the more important for facilities to have an effective counter-surveillance plan in place to detect the lone-wolf bomber during the surveillance process. The individual working alone has to conduct personal reconnaissance to be able to effect a successful attack. National vs Facility Threat Level The other important lesson that needs to be addressed is that there may be a threat of terrorist attack against a facility that has nothing to do with the terrorist threat against the nation. These attacks in Canada appear to have nothing to do with Al Qaeda or other jihadist organizations. High-risk chemical facilities need to pay attention to all public and private grievances against the facility, company or industry as potential sources for growing lone-wolf attackers. All overt threats communicated to the facility need to be reported to authorities. Any facility should report such threats to local police. High-risk chemical facilities need to include the FBI and DHS in their reporting structure. Most of the threats received will lead to nothing. Failure to share all threats with government investigators may lead to an unexpected attack that could have been prevented. This means that facilities must have a procedure for receiving reports of threats and forwarding them immediately to facility security and management. There should also be a procedure in place for reporting these incidents to authorities. This includes identifying, in advance, points of contact with local police and FBI intelligence organizations. Establishing a relationship ahead of time will ensure that reports receive the appropriate attention. Lone-wolf terrorists are the most difficult to detect in advance of their initial attack. They can also be the most difficult to stop from conducting follow-on attacks. Fortunately, they are rare, but not so rare that high-risk chemical facilities can afford to ignore their potential existence.

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