Wednesday, June 25, 2008

DHS Targets Chemical Facilities

DHS has set its sights on U.S. businesses that manufacture, process, and store large amounts of chemicals, pointing out that such operations could be targets for terrorists (not to mention accidents):

The federal government will tell 7,000 businesses next week that they are considered high risk-terrorist targets because they house large amounts of chemicals.

The sites — which range from major chemical plants to universities, food processing centers and hospitals — will need to complete a vulnerability assessment so the government can decide how to regulate their security measures in the future.

U.S. intelligence officials say terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, favor chemical attack methods because of the severe consequences they can inflict.

"This is never going to be an impregnable target set, but I want to introduce enough complexity into the mix that al-Qaida's going to go somewhere else," said Bob Stephan, assistant secretary of infrastructure protection at the Homeland Security Department.

As the department considers these 7,000 sites, it also will look at physical security; cyber security; insider threat potential; how hazardous a chemical release could be to the nearby communities; how dangerous the chemicals are if they are mixed with water; and whether the chemicals could be easily stolen from the sites and used to kill.
Sounds like purely protective intervention - harden the most potentially dangerous sites, thereby force the potential adversary to seek a softer target.

I like the move, because I've never been convinced that chemical facilities have been secured in proportion to the potential threat. The same goes for chemicals in transport via train and truck.

At the same time, it's important to contextualize this sort of action. No one should heave a sigh of relief, thinking that the possibility of a terrorist attack involving chemicals has just become vanishingly small. It remains necessary to fight terrorism at the source by complicating the efforts of potential terrorists to recruit, train, raise funds, organize into operational cells, and plan attacks. That sort of activity will do more to prevent a terrorist attack - via any attack mode - than any protection regime.

One point of fact in correction of the above: Historically, terrorist organizations have not favored chemical attacks. The overwhelming choice of attack is with conventional explosives. For a while in early 2007, al Qaeda in Iraq experimented with combining conventional explosives and chemicals (usually chlorine but also nitric acid in at least one instance), but that attack mode didn't seem to be much more deadly than the conventional explosives alone.

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