Monday, August 21, 2006

Countering Subversion at the Local Level

The National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism has released their 2006 Terrorism Annual. There are some good analyses of terrorist trends, maritime terrorism, and female suicide bombers, but I thought that the most interesting thing was a section on "Subversion and Terrorism." For me, this stood out:
Subversion is far more than just an intelligence problem. Well-trained, professional police attuned to local conditions and capable of building and maintaining strong relationships with the public can play an invaluable role. But if police are to be effective, they will also have to be trained to identify patterns—-to "connect the dots," to use a post-9/11 cliché—-so that subversive activity can be spotted and neutralized. Effective countersubversive policing creates a detailed picture of a community in a way that allows anomalies-—the arrival of outsiders, the influx of large amounts of cash, or the change in leadership of a community group—to be detected. In this respect, countersubversive policing is a form of community policing that identifies emerging threats and works to neutralize them with the aid of local individuals and groups.

There is a local law enforcement dimension to the fight on terrorism.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

DC Studies Rerouting Hazardous Cargo

Washington DC is launching a study that will examine the feasibility of rerouting hazardous rail shipments around the city, the Washington Times reported.
The rail line proposals are largely a response to concerns of the D.C. Council and the Homeland Security Department about the risk from terrorists' sabotaging tank cars with hazardous materials, unleashing deadly chemicals on Washington's population. Rail lines run less than a half-mile from the U.S. Capitol.

"A terrorist attack on a freight car with hazardous cargo, such as liquid chlorine, could kill thousands within a very short time and imperil the functioning of critical federal facilities," said Rick Rybeck, D.C. Department of Transportation deputy administrator.
This is a threat that any community should recognize and be prepared to deal with. The hazard comes not only from intentional release of hazardous materials, but from accidental spills as well.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Port Shutdown in Seattle


A terminal at the Port of Seattle was evacuated on Wednesday and a bomb squad was investigating a ship container that alarmed bomb-sniffing dogs, a port spokesman said.

...there is no radiation from the cargo container.

The container first raised suspicion when a screening using gamma ray technology about the contents' density did not match the items listed on the ships' manifest.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Tara Molle said the ship's inventory list indicated the container held oily rags.

Bomb-sniffing dogs detected the possible presence of explosives.

The Coast Guard did not know where the ship originated.
Update 08-17: False alarm. No explosives or radioactive material were found.

Looking for a Few Vulnerable Youth

The New York Times has a story today that says some of the UK suspects in the airline bomb plot were recent converts to Islam or had recently become much more radical about their faith.

Like Mr. Khatib, 19, a number of the two dozen individuals arrested in last week’s antiterrorism raids had become much more devout in their faith or converted to Islam within the last two years or so.
This fits a pattern for terrorist recruiting. Often, recruits are young people who feel estranged from their communities and/or families. These young people are typically trying to find a purpose in their lives. (In 2005, Foreign Affairs provided an excellent, thorough analysis of how the recruitment system works in Europe.)

After the London tube bombings in 2005, The New York Times reported (<-- pay-for-link) that those bombers met this profile. I thought it was also interesting that at least one of the airplane-bomb suspects had two of the common characteristics of a terrorist recruit. He had previously lived a wild lifestyle and had lost a father. This fits the idea of a terrorist recruit being vulnerable and searching for a meaningful future. It's all part of how a terrorist is made.

Update 08-17: The NYT has a new story today that focuses specifically on how radical Islamist groups "pounce" on recent converts. The article quotes a recent convert from Great Britain who said:

“As a new convert, when you first become a Muslim, a lot of people try things out on you,” said Mr. Lock, 24, who also uses the Muslim given name Mahdi and runs a support network for Muslim converts in Nottingham. “They want you to come to this meeting, this talk. Certain radical groups want you because you’re impressionable, and it looks good to get white guys.”

Mr. Lock likened some of the organizations that approached him to cults, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, which says it is nonviolent but preaches the establishment of a caliphate, or pan-Islamic government, and has been banned from some Middle Eastern countries. “They think you don’t know anything, and they pounce.”

The article also quotes a researcher who reaffirms the link between a convert's prior aimlessness and the likelihood of radicalization:
Myfanwy Franks, a researcher who has studied converts to Islam and is the author of “Women and Revivalism in the West: Choosing Fundamentalism in a Liberal Democracy,” said, “Being troubled does not necessarily lead people to conversion — people who aren’t troubled convert — but it could lead to extreme radicalization.”
For anyone involved in local preventive efforts, it is certainly important to try to prevent new converts from accepting the ideas of violent radicals.

In the UK, Risk Management Goes On

The Independent is reporting that British authorities are still recognizing a possible threat in the airplane bomb plot. The police commissioner also explains the decision to intervene, as well as highlighting the ongoing risk management that's taking place in more than a dozen other investigations:
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair stressed the seriousness of the threat still facing the country. Referring to the alleged airliner bomb plot, he said: "We have been behind this group of people for some time. What we always have to do is balance waiting to gather more evidence and make sure you get all the people, against the risk to the public by not moving in earlier.
"That's the decision that was reached last Wednesday evening. There's a point where the information reaches a level of concern that means if you don't take action it is indefensible."
He added that many other alleged plots were being investigated. "What is so concerning is that those operations can turn from being what we think is preparatory to what is clearly active in a very short time."
An important question is whether British authorities are getting all the information they need. Reports indicate that there has been good collaboration with law enforcement in Pakistan and the U.S. The question is - Is it enough?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Terrorism In the Wild

The Guardian has an interesting story that says:

Suspected terrorists have mounted training exercises in some of the most popular areas of the national parks of England and Wales...

Undercover detectives have watched groups of up to 20 men, some with known terrorist connections, taking part in outdoor training in the Lake District and elsewhere. The exercises have gone on sporadically for several years, but some training camps are understood to have been run in the past 12 months.

Colin Cramphorn, chief constable of West Yorkshire, said camps would be found in the Yorkshire Dales and the western Highlands, as well as the Lakes. "They're actually pure indoctrination camps," he said in a media interview.

The group picked up in Canada earlier this year also used remote areas for training purposes.

UK Police Monitoring 24 'Major Conspiracies'

Says the Telegraph:

John Reid, the Home Secretary, confirmed yesterday that police and security services were aware of about 24 "major conspiracies". They are believed to be "multi-handed" terrorist plots, such as the alleged plan to blow up transatlantic airliners that led to the arrest of 24 people last Thursday.
Sources say that, on top of the inquiries confirmed by Mr Reid, up to 50 more are being conducted by anti-terrorist police, most of them involving Scotland Yard and MI5. Some relate to fund-raising activity... and intelligence-gathering, such as details of potential targets.

One thing about major terrorist operations is that as the size of the operation increases, it takes an increasing number of people and amount of resources to pull it off. Which means the vulnerabilities increase, too. There are potentially more loose strings that can be pulled.

Early reports say that the first tip in the London airplane bomb plot came from a single concerned citizen in the UK Muslim community. Since this was a big operation, that one tip generated a lot of payoff.

US Mayors Survey on Homeland Security

The US Conference of Mayors recently released the results of their survey on homeland security. It mainly focuses on disaster response, rather than prevention.

But it's an interesting snapshot of where the mayors think we are in terms of readiness.

Bomb Plot: UK and US Disagreed on Decision to Intervene?

US and UK investigators differed on the decision to intervene in the British bomb plot, NBC says:

British officials knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner.

The sources did say, however, that police believe one U.K.-based suspect was ready to conduct a "dry run." British authorities had wanted to let him go forward with part of the plan, but the Americans balked.

Aside from the timing issue, there was excellent cooperation between the British and the Americans, officials told NBC News.
This seems like a reasonably healthy difference of opinion, based on a judgment as to the imminence of the attack. The decision to intervene is never easy, and a lot of factors have to be weighed.

Update: The New York Times also reported on the issue.

"All Terrorism Is Local"

In a New York Times opinion piece, Ronald K. Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, criticized British authorities for sharing news of the arrests in the airplane bomb plot with the news media before sharing it with Interpol. Noble said that the failure to share information is an ongoing problem:

...the failure to quickly share information about terrorists with global law enforcement is systemic and is likely to continue until legislators, governments and the United Nations are convinced to change things.
Noble's main point is that in a global world, it is vital to share information about terrorists with law enforcement personnel everywhere. Terrorists are linked in international networks, and local police have the best knowledge of their own areas. Sharing the identities of terrorist suspects with local police around the world is an effective way to disrupt terrorist networks and plots.

Friday, August 11, 2006

This Was an Easy Decision to Intervene

British authorities had been watching the airplane-bomb conspirators for month, biding their time until they got as much information about the group as possible. This was a reasonable risk-management decision, of course.

The Australian has reported that the decision to intervene came as a slam-dunk, essentially:

"GO now!" The message came from Pakistan and it rattled the British intelligence agents who intercepted it.

The urgent direction was sent early this week to a group of young British Muslims who had been plotting one of the world's biggest-ever terrorist attacks.

Intelligence officials who had been monitoring the group thought they had plenty of time to keep watching them and gathering evidence before safely rounding them up early enough to stop them carrying out their scheme.

But the message from radicals in Pakistan saying "do the attacks now" changed everything, and when it was passed to higher authorities in London on Wednesday night, it sent a jolt through the top levels of the British Government.

Normally, the decision to intervene would be a little more complex, as it would occur earlier in the process. It's risky to wait until an attack is imminent.

Markle Report: We Need Better Info Sharing

In light of the UK airline bomb plot, I think it's worthwhile reviewing one of the findings of the recent report from the Markle Foundation on Information Sharing in the prevention of terrorism. Their findings were generally disappointing:

...almost five years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, systematic, trusted information sharing remains more of an aspiration than a reality. The government has yet to articulate a credible implementation plan for a broad and trusted information sharing environment... Sharing with state and local authorities and with the private sector is even further behind. This lack of sharing represents an ongoing threat to national security.

The disruption of the UK plot serves as a wake-up call. It's vital to share information in a trusting network.

Terrorists' "Other" Illegal Activities

In June 2006 the Congressional Research Service issued a report titled "Trends in Terrorism: 2006." This quote stood out to me:

The report describes a growing overlap between terrorism and international crime. Such a trend, to the extent that terrorists do indeed use the same supply, transport, and money-moving networks used by criminal groups, creates a major vulnerability that can be exploited by law enforcement authorities: the more terrorists engage in non-terror forms of criminal activity, the more likely they are to show up on the law enforcement radar screen and the more likely they are to be subject to arrest and prosecution under a far reaching umbrella of general criminal statutes and more specific terror related laws as well.
The early reporting on the British plane plot indicates that at least some of the would-be bombers made trips to Pakistan and wired money from there. It will be interesting to see whether this group was involved in any other criminal activities. Those activities would present an opportunity for law enforcement

British Plane Plot - Tipoff

CNN is reporting that the tipoff in Britain came from someone inside Britain's Muslim community.

The official said the tip resulted from a person who had been concerned about the activities of an acquaintance after the July 7 terror attacks in London.
It's good to have an information-sharing network.