Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reader Comment 09-03-10 Discovery Terrorist

An anonymous reader took minor exception to my comment about the practical difference between the apparent lone wacko that attacked the Discovery Building last week in Maryland and a member of a terrorist group. Anonymous wrote:
“The difference may be in the terror they would cause. Terrorism isn't defined by killing people, but by causing terror in the general population (often by killing people). A lone killer who is arrested or even killed in an incident usually fails to do so, since the chances of him repeating the act are low. However, an organized group may strike anywhere, anytime again. Which leaves people in terror.”
There is certainly a basic element of truth in this statement. The one point that this overlooks is that incidents like this frequently breed copy cat type attacks. This may actually be a hallmark of many homegrown terrorist attacks in the United States; the lone wacko reaching out to what they believe to be fellow travelers to inspire others to continue the attack cycle. The presence of a political manifesto is often a clue that these wacko attacks should be considered to be a terror attack.

The Problem of the Lone Terrorist

Thanks to BrentDirks, whose Tweet pointed me at a recent report by the University of Maryland's START Center about the Discovery Communications attack. The federally funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) labels James Lee an ‘eco-terrorist’. It then goes on to point out how unique this particular eco-terror attack was; the first to involve hostage taking and the first to involve the use of a hand-gun.

Unique attacks are hard to defend against. New targets mean that facilities that did not consider themselves targets based upon past history do not have adequate defenses. New attack methodologies mean that it is hard to determine what defenses are required. Finally, it is hard to get advance warning about any attack conducted by a lone terrorist as there are no communications to intercept.

Defending Against the Lone Terrorist

This is, of course, one of the reasons that the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) does not attempt to determine which chemical facilities are being targeted by terrorists. Instead, it targets facilities, which if successfully attacked, would have the potential to affect a large number of people. Regulating security standards at these facilities helps to ensure that it is more difficult for a terrorist attack to be successful at these high-consequence targets.

All chemical facilities, not just CFATS facilities, are potential targets for eco-terrorists. There are many legitimate eco-friendly groups that have well documented concerns about specific chemicals, processes, or facilities. But, as with any activist culture, there are fringe elements that are dissatisfied with the progress that legitimate protests and legal actions have made in removing these perceived hazards. These elements have a history of advocating and executing ‘direct action’ with a small minority resorting to violent acts against facilities.

Eco-terrorists do not typically strike without warning. There is usually a period of non-violent public complaints and non-violent direct action. Facilities that receive communiqu├ęs from known fringe groups or previously unidentified groups threatening direct action need to take such threats seriously. Security measures need to be reviewed and all facility personnel need to be advised of the potential threat.

Finally, all facilities need to have an active shooter response plan in place, trained and periodically exercised. There is no way to absolutely prevent a gunman with a grudge from getting on the premises. The only way to minimize injuries and deaths in the event of an active shooter is to have everyone understand in advance what to do. Until last week no one had heard of an eco-terrorist being a shooter, but things always change. Besides, there are all sorts of other wackos that are well known to become active shooters.

Reducing Eco-Terrorist Threat

One potentially effective method for reducing the individual facility threat from eco-terrorists is to maintain open lines of communication with mainstream green groups. There may never be complete agreement on the facility’s affect on the environment, but facilities that openly deal with and take into account legitimate environmental concerns are less likely to be identified as a problem in the environmental community.

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