Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Nefarious Attacks Planned

There is an interesting news report over on ABCNews.go.com about the threat of a nasty new attack mode planned for New York City and Washington, DC; the placement of inert ‘suspicious’ packages in public areas. The whole point of these ‘attacks’ is to cause the turnout of emergency response personnel and the disruption of the areas around these packages while they are investigated. The Problem The whole idea is that a suspicious package left unattended in a public area needs to be investigated; after all it could be a terrorist weapon. Now police deal with this problem all of the time. People report a package; a police officer responds and makes a determination if it is just a forgotten bag, or if it needs additional investigation by bomb techs for instance. This is now a well known drill to police departments across the country. Now if these ‘attacks’ are carried out ‘properly’ the suspicious packages will actually be suspicious. They will have batteries and wires or pressure containers or some other apparent signature of an actual weapon. This will force the turnout of emergency response personnel and the shut down of the area while the ‘device’ is cleared. This will inevitably be costly for government agencies and for the public. The other side of this campaign is that if it happens often enough, sooner or later the emergency response will be lessened; they won’t be taken seriously. Regular police officers will feel the pressure to more aggressively investigate these packages to avoid the full turnout and area isolation. Then a ‘suspicious’ package will be an actual device and that investigation will cause a number of unnecessary deaths. An Effective Response Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. So what is the already overburdened NYPD to do? They need to aggressively investigate each suspicious package incident. They need to try to identify the person who left the package. This could lead them to potential terrorists before they conduct an actual attack. Of course, I’m not sure what you could charge such a person with. Proving that they were deliberately conducting a ‘simulated’ attack could be difficult. I guess ‘littering’ would be applicable, but hardly effective in keeping the terrorist off the street. I’m not sure that I would like to see a law making such attacks illegal; carefully defining the ‘simulated’ attack so as to not turn ordinary litterers into legal terrorists would be difficult. Just look at the people that have been over-charged with using a weapon of mass destruction. You also would have to be careful to differentiate between actual terrorists and civil disobedience. I can clearly imagine anti-chemical protestors using simulated terrorist attacks to publicize their stands against the use or transportation of various chemicals. Using potential anti-terrorist legislation to prosecute such legitimate (if misdirected) protest would not be unexpected, but it would have the potential to have a chilling effect on exercise of free speech and political expression. Alternative Use of Simulated Attacks In areas that are not as experienced in responding to potential terrorist attacks, simulated attacks like this have another use that cannot be ignored; evaluation of emergency response plans. A terrorist cell wanting to execute a large attack against a major facility like a high-risk chemical facility might employ a similar fake attack to get a good idea of how the facility security plan would respond to a real attack. Again, this is a two-edged sword for facilities. Failure to respond to faux-attacks is a good idea, but how do you know that it isn’t the real thing. But responding will make it easier for an actual attacker to plan an attack that will succeed by evading the response. There is a good way to deal with this problem. You conduct an effective after-action review every time that you exercise your security plan, and modify that plan to deal with the inevitable problems that were encountered in the response. This means that the response the terrorists observed is not the response that they will see during the actual attack; it will be more effective.

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