Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An Interview on Radicals & IEDs - Part I

On 30 April 2013 I appeared on Channel NewsAsia, a regional Television news network based in Singapore. In preparation for the show I was asked to prepare answers for several potential questions. Those questions and answers appear below.

Concerning Radicalization:

1. Has the presence of an increasing number of closed circuit TV cameras and security officers lured us into a false of security?
     Just as increased security at banks and shops can discourage criminals and reduce the incidence of crime, increased security against terrorist activities can reduce the chances of successful terrorist attack. But we cannot eliminate all crime, and we cannot eliminate all terrorism. If we think that more security can ever mean perfect safety, then we are fooling ourselves.

2. Can we ever keep up with the terrorists?
     As police officers know, criminals are very innovative. Keeping up with them is hard. Staying ahead of them is harder still.
     But the fact that we have had so few incidents around the world in the last decade shows that a lot of counterterrorist efforts are working. That includes not just local efforts in individual countries, but cooperation in tracking support for international terrorists, the movement of money, the movement of people for training, and so on.
     People often say, “Law Enforcement has to be successful every time; terrorists only have to be lucky once.” But it is also true that every element of a terrorist plan has to work for an attack to be successful. I think the community of responsible nations has done a pretty good job of interrupting terrorist success.

3. What are the dangers of improvised explosive devices, the ease of access to these dangerous devices and the kind of technology that terrorist are using increasingly?
     Military Grade or commercially produced explosive devices are very lethal because of their power and design. They are also very stable – they require a special initiator and do not go off until the user is ready. They are traceable – many contain chemical signatures that can tell experts where the explosives were produced or when. And frequently they are tightly controlled. This makes getting and using high grade explosives problematical.
     Improvised Explosive Devices are sometimes less powerful gram for gram than commercial or military explosives (like TNT) because they are made with materials readily available in stores and markets. But if used in the right place (as in a crowd) they can be very lethal. Also, IEDs might be used in great quantities. It might be very hard to get a truck full of commercial explosives, but relatively easy to mix a truck full of improvised explosives. And users – especially suicide bombers – might not worry much about stability once they are in a crowd.
     Taken together this means that IEDs are very useful in civilian settings – even if less reliable in traditional criminal or military settings.

4. What can we do to curb the growth of self- radicalized individuals? How do we spot one?
     That is a hard question, but the New York City Police Department has published an excellent study that traces the steps of radicalization.
     One of the most important steps is the presence of a key person or organization acting as a catalyst or radicalizer. No one sits alone in a room and becomes a radical. They must be recruited and energized as radicals. And this must be done in public, at least initially, to attract more recruits. The internet is a great resource for radicalizers. That means law enforcement and average citizens can see such attempts and report them or take action.
     The next step for people being radicalized is to seek out people with similar views. It is not profiling for law enforcement to watch known radical groups with known radical views as they attempt to attract and radicalize others.
     Another important step is that people becoming radicalized cut themselves off from friends and family, and frequently talk in increasingly radical terms. Friends and family members always notice this change – and can intervene by themselves or with authorities.
     Radicals frequently need additional training, which may require overseas travel. By itself, overseas travel means nothing. Together with other indicators, such travel to questionable destinations should be a red flag of warning.
     Lastly, radicals working to conduct a terrorist attack must collect the proper materials and train. This is another opportunity to see something wrong and say something.
     So there are lots of ways that we can see that something is wrong and ask good questions before a potential terrorist if fully radicalized.

5. There are signs that the American public now view increased domestic intelligence gathering efforts with deep suspicion because they fear the authorities will target certain individuals or groups. In Singapore, we have a multi- racial society, how can we strike a balance between security and sensitivity?
     American government and society is built on the concept that no one person or organization should have too much power because that power might be abused. So every government organization works within a system of checks and balances. One organization might enforce the law, but another agency provides funding for their activities, and a different agency provides guidance and oversight. This is why American domestic affairs frequently seem conflicted and contentious – the whole domestic system was designed as an “invitation to struggle” for public support. Domestic intelligence collection and action runs at cross purposes with that deep tradition against the consolidation of power.
     Balance may be achieved by robust oversight. Allow the Administrative branch authority to create intelligence assets, but watch them closely from the Legislative brance, and control their growth, funding and other resources to make sure they have only enough power to accomplish their mission. And that oversight must be as public and transparent as possible.
     I am in no position to tell Singaporeans how to run their government and society. They seem to be doing a very good job at this without outside help. But my one recommendation for Singaporean consideration would be to consider maximum transparency and openness in security procedures – consistent with the security mission, of course.

6. Are surveillance and intelligence gathering still effective in spotting early signs (in the case of 26- year- old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he was alleged to be under the watch of the FBI)?
     It is much too early to know what exactly happened in this particular case.
      But as a general statement, I suspect that law enforcement was too intrusive with preventative investigations for the first few years after 9/11; and too sensitive to the complaints of some ethnic groups in the last few years.
     Striking the right balance is hard. I think US law enforcement is still working on finding and maintaining that balance.

7. What role can society then play?
     Citizens recognize normal behavior – and abnormal behavior. They should not be afraid to ask friends and family about strange behavior, or report unusual behavior to authorities.
     An attack in the US was once thwarted because the owner of an apartment – an American Muslim – said, “I am renting to some young men who keep carrying heavy, full suitcases upstairs to their room, and light empty suitcases down stairs This is very strange behavior.” The police discovered explosives and chemicals used to make Improvised Explosive Devices.
     So be involved in the lives of your friends, family and fellow citizens. When behavior seems to have changed dramatically and become potential dangerous, say something. You might save the person being radicalized as well as others who might later become victims.

An Interview on Radicals & IEDs - Part II

On 30 April 2013 I appeared on Channel NewsAsia, a regional Television news network based in Singapore. Before the show I was asked to prepare answers for several potential questions. Those questions and answers appear below

Concerning Bombs & IEDs

1. How dangerous are IEDs? Why are they commonly used (other than ease of making, is it their ability to hurt)?
      First, let’s understand what constitutes an Improvised Explosive Device (or IED) by understanding what is NOT an IED.
     A military or commercial explosive device used as designed, is NOT an IED. So a land mine is NOT an IED. A hand grenade or rocket propelled grenade is NOT an IED. An artillery shell, fired from an artillery piece, is NOT an IED.
     On the other hand, any explosive device used by a bomber in a creative way that disguises its intent is an IED, even if the actual chemicals that explode are military or commercial grade. An unstable chemical compound mixed from products bought at a store and placed in a glass jar where they will explode when dropped constitutes a simple IED. And a car filled with artillery shells detonated by a cell phone is also an IED.
     The Boston Marathon terrorists apparently used an IED made of some explosive chemicals and nails, placed in a pressure cooker so the top would lock in place and the blast would be forced out the sides. This is why so many people were wounded in the legs and below the waist.
     The terrorists who attacked Beslan School Number 1 in Chechnya back in 2004, and killed more than 300 people (almost 200 of them children), apparently used IEDs made of military or commercial explosives fashioned into suicide vests and bombs that exploded if the terrorists were killed.
     So IEDs may be used for many reasons to include adaptability to the site of the attack, ease of disguise, and non-availability of standard explosives.

2. Is the IED the only weapon that can hurt so many people at the same time without being discovered? Who do the bombers target with such devices?
     As explained above, an IED may be used for many reasons, ranging from ease of hiding it to difficulty of obtaining more traditional explosives. Terrorists may use IEDs to attack almost anyone. Tourists were attacked with an IED in Bali. Soldiers were attacked with IEDs in Iraq. Prime Minister Bhutto was attacked with an IED in India.

3. If an IED ever explodes, what can one do to minimize damage? Where can you run to?
     First, it is frequently impossible in an emergency to know if an explosion is a terrorist attack or simply a commercial accident. So you should immediately get down and beside or behind anything that would provide additional protection – like a table or a wall.
Expect the air to be full of dust or smoke, and if you are inside, fire may follow. It will easiest to breath near the floor.
     Of course you will want to get out if you are inside and away from the scene if you are outside. But if it is a terrorist attack there may be a second bomb near the exit or placed on the street where people will try to get away. So move quickly and stay away from parked cars, bags or boxes on the street, or anything that might contain another bomb. If there is some way out besides a crowded exit – through a broken window for example – it might be a good idea to take that improvised exit.
     And be prepared to help others – those who are injured or just disoriented by the blast and dust and smoke.

4. How can we spot an IED? What should members of the public do if they spot on, other than alerting security?
     It may be impossible to see a well concealed IED. The Irish Republican Army once attacked the Prime Minister of England with a bomb build into the floor and bath tub of a hotel.
     Suicide bombers can sometimes be identified because of their bulky clothes, but not always.
     However, many IEDs can be identified because they are concealed in a way that would look out of the ordinary to any citizen. An IED was detected in Times Square in New York City because a street vendor thought a car was parked in an unusual place. He was right – it was full of explosives.
     Yes of course notify security anytime you see something that looks suspicious – like a package or bag left unattended. And you should NOT incite panic when you cannot be sure that what you are seeing is a bomb.
     But when a suspicious object is matched by suspicious behavior – like a driver abandoning a truck in front of a government building, or a person setting down a brief case and walking away – it is time to get away, tell others, and notify security.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Ever Happened on that Thing in Korea?

When we last left the boy wonder of North Korea, he was threatening to launch nuclear missiles against Tokyo, Guam, and Austin, Texas (?!), and turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” And unlike the tirades of the past (the family seems to produce an unusual number of drama queens), this time (perhaps partly thanks to Iran), North Korea may have the means to make good on some of those threats. We have been worried, and rightly so.
Then real people were killed and maimed by real bombs in Boston, and the media (always the one trick pony) turned its full attention from international nukes to domestic pressure cookers.
So whatever happened to that thing in North Korea, anyway?
Answer: It is still there. It is still dangerous. And assuming they let us out of the crisis this time, it will be worse the next time, and the next.
North Korea retains a huge land army, a few aircraft and submarines, and thousands of artillery pieces burrowed into rock hillsides, close enough to release a devastating fire on Seoul. It is a bad situation, but one we have lived with for decades. By itself, this is no reason for new alarm, even if the North Korean rhetoric is more bellicose than usual.
What is new is a Defense Intelligence Agency opinion that North Korea may have succeeded in mating a small nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, putting our allies, our military, and citizens on our own soil at risk. This is in the wake of another North Korean underground detonation of some sort, and the orbiting of a “package” that could presage the placement of nuclear attack capabilities in space.
Added to all this is the growing concern over a possible Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon. Nuclear detonations are known to release a “pulse” of high intensity electromagnetic radiation strong enough to overload and destroy sensitive electronic circuits. In theory, if a nuclear weapon were properly designed and exploded at high altitude, it might destroy all electronic circuits in a footprint hundreds of miles across. The American cities featured on the famous “targeting map” from a recent North Korean photo might find all electronic assets, from watches to power plants, destroyed in the blink of an eye – and without a single human casualty on the ground.
Put all this together with an opaque North Korean leadership that seems to thrive on brinksmanship, and the result is a dangerous situation bound to get more dangerous over time.
Fortunately, in addition to negotiations and the “best efforts” of our “friend” China, we do have one more ace in the hole – a limited ballistic missile defense. But the story here reminds one of the old joke about the man who fell out of an airplane. Fortunately, he had a parachute. Unfortunately, it didn’t work . . . etc., etc., etc., right down to the moment that he missed the pitchfork in the haystack on the ground . . . but also missed the haystack.
Yes we have some shipboard radars and shipboard interceptors to engage one phase of hostile missile flight. And we have a few ground based radars and interceptors if attackers get past that thin line. But the number of interceptors is limited, and the 2009 buy of additional interceptors (which take four years to produce) was cancelled by President Obama when he first took office. So additional rockets are not available to reinforce our limited defenses. And the North Korean plan may be to launce multiple types of rockets and missiles to confuse our systems and possibly cause us to waste interceptors on bogus launches.
If we get through the next several years without a North Korean missile attack, we will see  additional ground-based interceptors added to our Pacific “shield”, thanks to a recent resource decision by the new Secretary of Defense. But in a reprise of the fortunate-unfortunate man falling from the airplane, they will be taken from a similar thin shield against Iranian missiles that might one day be fired at our allies, troops and citizens with a cross-European flight trajectory. Good news: moving money means we will have more defenses in Asia. Bad news: this sets up the Iranians to play the same Rope-a-Dope game with us on the other side of the globe.
Also, the ships we recently dispatched to reinforce the Pacific shield can’t stay forever, and there are not enough similar ships in the fleet to keep them circling in Japanese waters indefinitely.
What’s the solution?
For sixty years we have been playing for time, hoping a responsible regime will come to power in North Korea. So much for a strategy of hope.
But the alternative is to take a big risk – perhaps shooting down any missiles launched, with the cooperation of Japan who has defenses of its own. This is dangerous because North Korea might use this as a pretext to attack Seoul and kill thousands before bartering a peace. And it sets a dangerous precedent for the next time we want to test a weapon over the open ocean and somebody else claims to feel threatened.
Of course, we might argue in the court of world opinion that this is a special case, since the North Korean leadership has been proclaiming a state of war for weeks. We might argue that under these conditions their “test” constitutes an act of war and our response is legal under international law.
Beyond that, what if our interceptors miss? What does that tell opponents worldwide? Or what if our rockets hit but opponents produce replacement missiles before we can produce replacement interceptors? What if?  What if? . . ..
This is a high risk game. Nuclear war and many thousands of lives are on the line. The story playing out in Boston is important. But we better be able to handle two crises at one time. Because “that thing in Korea” is not going away any time soon.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Early Thoughts on Boston Bombing 15 April 2013: #1 Remember Tonight

            Remember tonight -- because right now we do not know who did this.

            The FBI has several unexploded devices in hand, and my bet is they will have a pretty good line on the origin of the attack very soon. Bomb makers have unique styles, almost like fingerprints. In fact, the FBI may find finger prints inside. But we don’t have that evidence right now.

The materials from the bombs will eventually give us lots of clues as well. For example, many amateurs favor improvised explosives like PETN, as opposed to military or even commercial grades of high explosives. The pictures of the event (lack of blown out windows, etc.) seem to indicate a low order explosive. But right now, we do not know for certain. One early medical report indicated a lack of nails, ball bearings, marbles, etc. which is surprising. A different report claimed that such materials, intended to create shrapnel and casualties, were in the bombs.  More contradictory information will come out before the truth emerges.

And so far, no one has claimed credit.  If past experience holds true, before long, several fakers will claim they did it.

So there is a lot of evidence to go on, and authorities will soon have some hard leads. But not right now. All we know right now is that the attacker (attackers?) falls into one of several categories:

1.      INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST – which means an attack mounted from overseas by a foreigner and concerning an overseas political issue. (Example: Al Qaeda, Hamas, etc.)

2.      DOMESTIC TERRORIST – an American who mounted the attack from inside the US over an internal / domestic political issue. (Example: radical right, radical left, radical environmentalist, etc.)

3.      HOME GROWN TERRORIST  – US citizen inspired by overseas political issues, perhaps supported by overseas resources. (Example: Times Square bomber)

4.      DOMESTIC CRIMINAL – US citizen with a financial motive for the attack (unlikely in this case, but it could happen).

5.      TRANSNATIONAL CRIMINAL – International origin with a financial motive for the attack (drug cartel, Russian mafia -- probably not in this case, but a growing concern).

6.      DOMESTIC NUT (pardon the technical term) – US citizen with a personal agenda (Example: Uni-bomber)

Not only do we not know the origin of the Boston attacks at this moment, but the situation is so uncertain that no experienced analyst is willing to stake his (or her) reputation on a guess. That is the part we need to remember.

Because some political ideologues are right now fairly panting at the prospect that the attacker might ultimately be linked to their political opponents. Once the attacker is identified, these opportunists will claim the link is the inevitable result of their opponent’s political views, and use this to justify restrictions on political speech. And thus the actual crime may be used as grounds for an even greater crime – the murder of the right to free speech.

Of course, groups that espouse violence really are dangerous and should be recognized as such. In particular, some groups have declared war on America and the American people. We can’t just ignore their threat.

But political disagreement alone does not constitute a threat. This is a good rule to remember when the identity of the Boston bomber(s) becomes known, and ideologues begin to argue that the linkage to their opponents’ political ideas made violence inevitable.

            Don’t over react. Don’t spend money unnecessarily for the unnecessary consolidation of bureaucratic power. Don’t surrender rights and liberties in the pursuit of perfect security. We don’t know much tonight. But we do know these truths. In the coming days, it would serve us well to remember them.