Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bin Laden Security Alerts

Early yesterday morning when I first wrote about Bin Laden’s death I wrote that DHS would not be raising the alert level under the new National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS). In a press release later yesterday Secretary Napolitano reiterated what I said in my blog, noting that:

“We remain at a heightened state of vigilance, but the Department of Homeland Security does not intend to issue an NTAS alert at this time. I have been clear since announcing NTAS in January that we will only issue alerts when we have specific or credible information to convey to the American public. However, our security posture, which always includes a number of measures both seen and unseen, will continue to respond appropriately to protect the American people from an evolving threat picture both in the coming days and beyond.”
At the same time the National Journal was reporting that DHS and the FBI have privately communicated an alert to law enforcement personnel. They report that the communication states:

“Attacks might originate with al-Qa‘ida Core elements in the tribal areas of Pakistan, with one of their affiliates overseas, and/or with individuals in the homeland sympathetic to the cause but lacking a formal group association”.
There was even an unconfirmed TWITTER® report that the Marsec level in the Houston area chemical facilities had been increased to Marsec 2.

Does all of this mean that the new NTAS is inadequately responding to an increased threat level? That information is being withheld from the American public? I don’t think so.

Near Term Threat

First off, it is much too soon for the intelligence and law enforcement community to have developed any specific information about planned retaliatory attacks by al Qaeda or its loosely affiliated organizations. It is probably too early for any such plans to have actually been formulated, much less for them to have started their execution.

No what is of immediate concern now is the potential actions of individual wackos who are personally offended by the actions taken against Bin Laden. Since they are individuals, their planning process (such as it is) is certainly abbreviated and they are more able to quickly execute retaliatory attacks. But, then again, they are much less likely to execute effective attacks against secured facilities; not that they wouldn’t try, just that they wouldn’t be expected to be terribly effective.

Over the next couple of weeks the potential threat of retaliatory threats will begin to change. Small affiliated groups and homegrown wannabe groups will start to put into place small, limited attacks that were previously conceived but not yet initiated. While these attacks will be of limited scope they will be more likely to be successful, especially when they are directed against soft targets. The intelligence and law enforcement communities are certainly watching for indicators of such attacks. DHS can be expected to release appropriate alerts when warranted, but most often the public pre-attack notification about such events will be the same reports of arrests that we have been seeing over the last couple of years.

Longer Term Retaliation Threat

The threat of real retaliatory attacks, attacks conceived and planned in response to the assassination of Bin Laden, will not start to materialize for a couple of months at least. The attackers will want to make a definitive statement, so large, well planned attacks will be increasingly likely. It is the threats from these attacks that we will, hopefully, see reflected in NTAS alerts.

Before these NTAS alerts are issued, however, security managers at high-risk chemical facilities and other high-value targets should be on increased vigilance for reconnaissance type activity that would presage a potential attack on their facility. Any successful terrorist attack, either by the professionals of the core al Qaeda group and its major affiliates or by the homegrown wannabes, will be preceded by repeated reconnaissance. Detecting that planning operation will be the key to preventing the attack.

So, while there is no specific threat that DHS can report using the NTAS, vigilance should be increased at all high-risk chemical facilities. Immediate attacks are unlikely, but reconnaissance for potential future attacks should be closely watched for.

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