Are Americans More Secure
Than Four Years Ago?
At 0730 EST today, four members of a splinter terrorist organization activated a US-based cell to carry out an attack on the nation’s capitol using an RDD or a “dirty bomb”. They chose cesium-137 because of its availability, high radioactivity, high dispersability, and the difficult nature of clean up and remediation. Their goal was a highly visible attack creating death to the maximum extent possible, as well as inciting fear, social, and economic disruption.
Using a rented panel truck, the terrorists detonated a 3,000 pound bomb containing 2300 curies of cesium in the downtown government district near the Ronald Reagan Center. The explosion collapsed the front of the building and caused severe damage to three others. Windows were blown out of five other buildings. Amid the destruction, cesium contamination now covers the scene and the contaminated detonation aerosol was lifted over 100 feet into the air. Foot and vehicular traffic after detonation have re-suspended and transferred contamination for more than three hours – now contributing to contamination spread beyond the 36 square block primary zone. People who were initially in the primary zone escaped in the first few minutes using the metro and are now taking contamination home with them in their hair and clothing. Small fires from ruptured gas utility lines are burning in the vicinity of the blast. Unstable building facades, rubble, and broken glass now create physical hazards for rescue workers. Small amounts of lead and asbestos are present in the air and on surfaces. Human remains are presenting a significant radioactive biohazard.
National Guard CBRN and FEMA groups are attempting to contain the situation but are struggling with the coordination of federal and local first responder teams and assets. Cellular telephone service has completely collapsed and radio frequencies appear to be jammed due to electromagnetic pulse interference effects believed to be connected to the detonation. In what is undoubtedly a coordinated effort, Botnets have also unleashed a massive intrusion on the capitol regions virtual infrastructure crashing the servers of several federal agencies and will effectively close down the electrical power grid in a matter of hours.
Media vehicles have converged onto the scene and are attempting to initiate standoff broadcast coverage of the attack from a still undefined and growing perimeter around the contamination zone . . .
Note: In the confusion of the first few hours, the original news media report was only of a chemical attack. Although they got it wrong in the beginning, the attack required CBRN first responder teams from numerous agencies.
Can That Really Happen?
The current race to elect of our next supreme commander is abuzz about the basic question for all Americans, are you better off now than 4 years ago? The scope of this contemplation might also include an assessment of your views of what is loosely called “the war on terror”, however further observation and analysis reveals the irregular war(s) are engaged with radical Islamic groups who are often each others adversaries.
While Journeyman Jihadism is only an attack scenario, it is intended to illustrate the degree to which the U.S and other developed nation states remain vulnerable to “man-made disasters” a decade after 9/11. Of greater concern is the present threat environment specifically within the gaps of the maritime domain and corresponding mission areas and conops for infiltration methods, targets and plausible crisis scenarios that could become reality through the efforts of non-state actors and determined extremists who prefer insurgent and guerilla warfare over direct confrontation with the U.S. military.
Two If By Sea?
It was only November of 2008 when a militant organization based in Pakistan and suspected of ties with Indian militants arrived in Mumbai harbor using common small watercraft laden with assault weapons, grenades, and bombs. Without warning they struck at multiple landmark-like targets (including hotels, public buildings and transportation choke points) killing 179 and wounding more than 300. Indian authorities not only failed to detect the threat but were criticized for their apparent inability to mobilize against the attackers with enough force and speed to prevent the scale of damage and loss of life achieved by the infiltration. A post-attack assessment revealed that the assailants were able to easily enter the crowded port undetected through the use of small boats that blended in with local fishing activities. Hotels and other key infrastructure were totally unprotected with neither security features nor forces. The lack of integrated communications with central command and control interoperability amongst responding agencies also delayed response time, created confusion, and prevented the adequate coordination of resources.
Security analysts in the US have since deconstructed the attack and others like it and determined that the group or other militants using similar tactics could succeed with strikes that target public spaces adjacent to major waterways in this country as well.
Success Breeds Confidence
The 9/11 attacks illustrated with terrifying clarity how determined terrorists will use any type of conveyance to prosecute their strike mission in the name of Jihad.
With an astounding success record, low cost, ease of operation and ability to hide amid the clutter of commercial and recreational vessel traffic – small boats are expected to rapidly emerge as the vehicle of option for militant infiltration and attack schemas.
For example, today most watercraft operate with surprising impunity near high-priority commercial vessels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), oil tankers and containerized cargo vessels – and could be employed in a suicide attack as was the case in Yemen in 2000. The USS Cole, a US military DDG class vessel was rammed by an explosive carrying small dinghy killing 17 sailors – al Qaida operatives took responsibility for the brazen attack.
The Breeze is Terrific
The geography of the United States includes slightly more than 95,000 miles of waterline – either coastal or river banks. Over the course of three centuries, many of the countries major cities and economic centers have been built adjacent to major water ways for a very basic reason: 90 percent of our imports and exports move by sea – ports are our economic lifeline. Ports also support some of our most critical and hazardous infrastructure facilities. The fact is, port facilities are among the most attractive targets for creating large-scale economic and social disruption.
90 percent of our imports and exports move by sea . . . ports are our economic lifeline . . .
To better understand this threat, we reconnoitered the port operations and the inner harbor facilities of Boston Massachusetts, my home city. There we made detailed observations of major public spaces and key infrastructure immediately adjacent to the waterfront. This includes the 18 story federal reserve bank, the south station rail and bus transportation hub, government center and the Beacon Hill State House facilities, as well as significant residential, hotel and tourism operations (including large whale-watch vessels and ferries). The regions major international airport (Logan International) is not only situated within the inner harbor, it is connected to the primary land mass through an elaborate sea-floor and under-sea bed tunnel system (the so-called Big-Dig).
However few of these observations compared to the potential threat posed by the presence of the French owned Distigas liquefied natural gas (LNG) operations located on the mystic river in Everett. Roughly every week more than three billion cubic feet of flammable LNG is offloaded by enormous vessels that navigate through the inner harbor traveling under a major road bridge and over three tunnels. The route sits within one mile of the international airport, the seat and offices of state government, the majority of the cities tourist attractions and hotels, and the homes and workplaces of hundreds of thousands.
While I was able to observe a U.S. Coast Guard dingy patrolling the buffer zone near the vessel, it appeared that a determined small boat or swarming boats could still reach the tanker and blow it up in a suicide attack. Such an outcome would incinerate the better part of East Boston including Charlestown and Chelsea.
Sadly, Boston’s harbor is not unlike many similar ports located near major population centers such as Seattle, Long Beach, New Orleans, Miami, Newark, and Chicago. These examples all share several common traits including the routine transiting of very large vessels containing flammable cargos (Long Beach and Newark), large containerized cargo import and export operations (Miami and Newark) and significant public space and population buildup adjacent to the waterline (Seattle and Chicago). In fact the sheer size and density of the Seattle waterfront buildup creates an area so vast it is likely impossible for the Seattle Port Police to monitor and defend. In addition, potential adversaries have a broad range of approach routes due to the myriad of coastal waterways and inland-sea passages.
Is this threat to our security larger now than four years ago?
Americans continue to take reckless risks while eschewing potential consequences. Oil refineries and chemical processing plants still operate in dangerous proximity to dense population centers. Our electrical grid continues to deteriorate while demand for power to supply computers and ventilation systems grows. And our investments in monitoring technology and providing surge capacity for first responders is frighteningly small compared to the sum spent on military programs and operations.
Protecting ports and coastal population centers from hostile boats remains a considerable challenge for U.S. agencies. An estimated 13 million recreational water vehicles operate within three million square miles of littoral and river waters providing ideal cover for adversaries to hide amid the maritime congestion. As the Coast Guard, DHS and local agencies plan for contingencies, it appears that water vehicle infiltration countermeasures will see further advancements as long as this lethal threat can compromise national security in the US and abroad.