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18/08/2005 | GSN Perspectives: London bombings puzzle experts on both sides of the Atlantic

Martin Edwin Andersen

Martin Edwin Andersen, our Washington correspondent, draws upon his many sources, and his years of experience, to make some sense of the London terror attacks and their aftermath.

 

As the expansive waves of the London suicide bombings continue to resonate around the United States, what one friend scornfully describes as “September 12th” homeland security experts are again peddling all manner of policy prescriptions, some so pricey they might also help fulfill Osama bin Laden’s dream of bankrupting the country.

Meanwhile, security sources investigating the London attacks say they believe that the crude nail bombs used by the Islamicists were not unlike those employed by the terrorists of the Irish Republican Army. (Reportedly, the peroxide acetone base of the explosives is something that police dogs in both the U.S. and the U.K. generally are not trained to detect.)

Still, fearing a repeat of the low-tech bus and subway attacks across the Atlantic, many are calling for the federal government to spend $6 billion to improve public transportation security, this in a nation that has yet to be able scrape together $400 million a year to better protect its seaports.

Sow the land with tens of thousands more video cameras, others say, failing to note that the London bombers were successful in carrying out their initial attacks despite the fact that the city’s buses and subways were already honeycombed with the security tools. (Not only is the technology expensive; where it is most useful -- as London proves -- is in after-the-fact documentation of what occurred, rather than in prevention.)

More perimeter controls, others importune, unmindful of the delays and added expense these have caused at the nation’s airports, even as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and other critics regularly skewer the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for creating the illusion, rather than the reality, of safety.

Yet the experience of London, whose extensive networks of cameras, checkpoints and bollards -- “fortress urbanism,” it is called -- reflect not just the prevention of the threat posed by Islamicists, but also more than three decades of fighting the terrorists of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), shows that not everything can be protected all the time.

“You can’t child-proof America,” James Jay Carafano, one of Washington’s real experts in homeland security, warns. (Carafano, too, expresses weariness with what he calls “newly minted terrorism experts” that have joined the mass media chattering class with their rant and cant.)

Clearly, something needs to be done. But what?

Fact is, while America is at war, our elected political leadership collectively shies away from explaining that managing risk may mean living with a higher level of uncertainty and fear than we might like. (Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff is the most notable exception to the leaders showing more profile than courage on this, but then, Chertoff wasn’t elected.)

Public places are soft targets, and by definition high-value prizes for terrorists seeking to maximize fear, uncertainty and publicity for their cause. And their very nature -- easy access and exit, numbers of people, etc. -- make them hard for authorities to patrol and control.

At the same time, fortifying one public venue -- surface transportation, for example -- does not prevent the terrorists from easily shifting their focus to less protected spaces, such as shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, churches and synagogues, or as shown recently in Russia, schools.

The recently published revelation (denied by the DEA) that bin Laden tried, just a year after 9/11, to enlist Colombian cocaine barons in a scheme to spike massive amounts of the illegal drugs with poison and kill thousands of Americans is further evidence, if any more were needed, of the terrorists’ penchant for evil invention. 

The differences between the United States and London, and between the West and the rest of the world, also need to be taken into consideration as Washington rushes to confront this new threat du jour.

In the case of suicide bombs, the generally tight-fitting clothes used in the West make it somewhat less likely that larger explosive devices will be successfully concealed than in countries where billowing apparel is worn. And in most of Western Europe, a tighter rein is kept on legal explosives than in much of the world, arguably including the U.S.

On a positive note, for the U.S., it is generally believed that Islamicists have a much smaller infrastructure and support network here than in many countries of Western Europe, or Israel. In addition, important American Muslim leaders have gone to greater lengths to denounce terrorism and support law enforcement than their peers in many of those countries.

Carafano and others make a convincing case that the best strategy to prevent terrorist attacks is a pro-active one that seeks out would-be evil-doers before they strike, with other money spent well to mitigate the effects of any successful terrorist outrage.

Bringing the country’s more than 600,000 sworn police officers into greater partnership with anti-terrorism efforts is one way to help do this.

The obvious decentralization of Al Qaeda-inspired attacks worldwide since 9/11 may mean greater relevance for state and local law enforcement in detecting and preventing attacks by Islamicists who clearly have tightened their own operational security by operating in small cells and finding local sympathizers willing to do their bidding.

Already, many police departments around the country have created or beefed up existing intelligence units, anti-terrorism tools that can gain even greater public acceptance and support if they scrupulously respect civil liberties. DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit has also helped recently by bringing state and local police into greater partnership in enforcing immigration laws, a key anti-terrorist tool. The counter-terrorism fusion centers, partnerships between the FBI and state and local law enforcement, being established and expanded around the country are another very good idea. Even more support, including much improved communications equipment and training, is needed, however.

Paying greater attention to the interface between homeland security and public health would also help, particularly if national emergency medical service assets were wrested from a dysfunctional Department of Health and Human Services and placed in the Department of Homeland Security, where they clearly belong.

Finally, some of the best measures that might be taken to help prevent suicide bombings here involve much lower cost and lower tech alternatives to what are being proposed by some of those “September 12th” experts.

In a country in which 32 million people use trains, subways and buses to commute to work every day, how likely is it that expensive bomb-detecting equipment -- some of which costs between $500,000 and $1 million each -- will be purchased to cover every possibility?

One way of bringing some low-tech, low cost symmetry to the asymmetrical war being waged against us by Al Qaeda would be for our side to unleash the “dogs of war” -- dramatically increasing the number of canines used by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in bomb detection work, particularly in mass transit.

Those who know these things say that innocent people who might be afraid of a snarling Doberman or even a German Shepherd would not be inconvenienced by such a move -- winsome Labradors, alert English Spaniels and all sorts of terriers are best for that kind of work. “Any of your rat dogs are good,” said one well-traveled security specialist.

Good for us, and maybe very bad for Osama’s skulking minions. If, of course, lesser known substances like peroxide acetone are incorporated as part of the dogs' training drill.

Government Security News (Estados Unidos)

 



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