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Seeing Soft Spots

To protect your community from terrorist attacks, you have to learn to look at it through the eyes of a terrorist.

September 01, 2004  |  by Tracy-Paul Warrington


In each community across the United States, law enforcement is the most critical element in protecting infrastructure and responding to a terrorist act. You are the linchpin that will hold your community together in a time of crisis, maintain order, protect other emergency responders like fire-fighting and emergency medical personnel, stop the terrorists from further action, and set the example for others to prevent panic. Make no mistake. The everyday cop in every little town or big city is essential to all of our anti-terror (preventive) and counter-terror (reactive) plans.

This is why it’s important for you to be able to analyze vulnerabilities in your community, prioritize potential targets, and plan for a response. In other words, to protect your jurisdiction from dedicated and motivated fanatics, you need to look at it through their eyes.

Protecting any organization, group, or community involves four basic steps: Identifying the threat and its methods of attack, determining what places and things in your jurisdiction are the most important “targets,” studying the weaknesses of the potential targets in light of the threat(s), and finding resources to improve protection of potential targets or limit the terrorist’s options.

Know Your Enemy

Terrorism, in its simplest form, is a criminal act designed to have an impact beyond the immediate target audience. We classify terrorism as a crime for two reasons. First, intimidation, kidnapping, vandalism, torture, and murder are crimes in our society, regardless of the reasons for committing these acts. Second, if we do not classify terrorist acts as crimes, we legitimize the efforts of terrorists; i.e. it’s OK for terrorists to kill people because they are either misunderstood, oppressed, or for some other ding-a-ling reason.

And if you think that all terrorists come from countries whose names end in the syllable “stan,” or they all wear turbans, or all bow to Mecca five times a day, then put that out of your head. Terrorists are a part of every nation and culture in the world, and they have been for thousands of years.

The thing that makes terrorist organizations difficult to catch is that they maintain great secrecy. This is accomplished by organizing into cells that often consist of as few as two to six personnel. The people in each individual cell may have no knowledge of other cells in the same city. Such an organizational structure makes it hard for law enforcement to arrest one cell member and roll up the whole network.

Worse, organizations like Al Qaeda have now refined their cellular structure so that each cell is an independent element. This means that a single cell can independently organize, gather resources, communicate with other cells, obtain financing, collect intelligence, plan an operation, train, and execute a terrorist act.

In all likelihood that act will be a bombing. Terrorists typically favor a single, horrific event that produces the largest body count possible. And when it comes to bang for the buck, explosives have a tendency to yield lots of carnage.

This is why during the last decade, bombings have been the most preferred technique used by terrorists, leading all other types of attacks in frequency by as much as 85 percent. Of course, that doesn’t mean that bombs are the only terrorist tool. Sniper attacks, kidnapping, extortion, sabotage, and propaganda-based threats round out the terrorist’s repertoire.

Know What to Protect

Now that we’ve discussed the characteristics of terrorists and their methods, let’s talk about law enforcement priorities and how to analyze potential targets in your community.

The top priority of local law enforcement is security. It forms the basis from which all other emergency responses originate. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots is a poignant example of how important security can be in a crisis. Officers were actually called into action to provide cover fire for other emergency responders who were trying to save lives and property. But in other locations, officers were not available to stop people from running amok and vandalizing entire city blocks because there was insufficient security presence to stop them. This is not intended as a slight against the Los Angeles Police Department, but it is an example of how personnel deployment decisions during a crisis have many consequences and are among some of the toughest decisions made by onsite leadership.

What’s this have to do with terrorism and potential targets? Plenty. Anti-terrorism efforts at the local level are all about the allocation of resources and personnel. Put simply, you can’t protect everything in your jurisdiction from a terrorist attack, so you have to learn to see your community in the way that a terrorist sees it and determine what is most important to your community.

After security, there are at least 16 types of critical infrastructure or key assets deemed important by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (See “The Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets,” www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?theme=31&content=463).

These Homeland Security guidelines are a good start. But prioritizing what targets are most important in your community depends largely on each community’s individual situation and environment. So not I nor anyone else can do this work for you.

What I can offer, however, is a subjective opinion based on my overseas experience in both destroying and restoring critical infrastructure while serving with the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Target Hierarchy

Power and water are the two most precious commodities any community needs to function properly. As we’ve seen in Iraq, every service a community relies on uses electricity in some form or another to provide that service. That includes the clean water supply. And a clean source of water is essential to preventing the spread of disease.

Mass communication, especially television and radio broadcast stations, is the next most important service to protect. Broadcast systems are the primary means through which the public receives updates on service restoration and other important information needed to rebuild the community.

Wastewater treatment is the next service to protect. We use water to clean ourselves and to flush or rinse away other material or contamination. Wastewater is rife with germs and disease that can debilitate entire regions in the mid- to long-term. However, you need water to treat water and electricity to pump it. That’s why wastewater treatment facilities are less critical than clean water and electricity. If wastewater treatment is disrupted for only a short time, say three to seven days, the threat to community health is negligible.

Medical facilities, particularly emergency services, are another resource to consider. Where this falls on your list of target priorities is determined by the nature of the medical infrastructure in your community. If you have numerous medical facilities, however, it is unlikely that all but the most catastrophic attacks can deprive your community of emergency medical resources. However, if you have only one major medical facility with a regional responsibility for disaster events, then it should be moved up your priority target list and given all due protection.

Other target categories to consider include transportation, road networks, food supply, and commercial industry. Their priority for protection or support will vary according to each situation, and, of course, politics and policy will also be a determining factor.

Gauging Vulnerability

Once services and facilities are prioritized, your next job is to evaluate which of these targets is the most vulnerable. Knowledge of the threat is critical in this equation.

You have to know what types of terrorist acts extremists prefer in your area. This is because there is no generic methodology for studying a system’s weakness. The steps that you can take to prevent a car-bomb attack differ from those that would be effective against a sniper attack.

In the absence of recent factual information, your analysis should focus on three types of attacks: large bomb attacks (cars, trucks, trailers, etc.); small bomb attacks (backpacks, purses, briefcases, shopping bags, etc.); and active shooters, either long-range or on-premises shooters. This means there will be three reports for each system evaluated; one for each type of likely attack.

CONTINUED: Seeing Soft Spots «   Page 1 of 2   »

Tags: Bombings, Domestic Terrorists, Islamic Terrorists


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

KAE_LOLL@hotmail.com @ 7/19/2007 9:09 PM

I am a criminal justice student and found this article useful in my Homeland Security course. However, when I click on "print this article" on your site I get the article in very printable format, but it covers up my printer icon and I'm unable to print it in this format and have to print from the previous format, which wastes both paper and ink. Any suggestions? Thanks so much for the great resource!

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