Prepare for double threat

Terror In America

August 11, 2005|By J. Michael Barrett

BRITISH PRIME Minister Tony Blair was correct recently in recognizing that extremism is what makes Islamic fundamentalism a threat rather than a political challenge or mere nuisance. It is the radicalism that empowers the attackers, with the hate-filled lectures of radical imams falling somewhere between free speech and incitement to violence, between civil liberty and shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.

This leaves Americans, and many of our allies, in the uncomfortable position of either reversing long-held beliefs in the freedom to dissent or accepting the deeds and recruitment efforts of those who call for attacks on innocent civilians. As posed by a recent headline in London's Daily Mirror, "Is this how we must now live?" Sadly, the answer in many ways is yes.

The world has changed, and at least we should have a public discussion about the balance between national security and free expression. While rolling back civil liberties is an unpalatable approach, one must understand the nature and severity of the threats we face.

Our terrorist enemy is evolving, and twin threat streams have developed.

The first is the meticulous planning and careful targeting required for mass, spectacular events. The second, newer breed is smaller improvised weapon assaults directly against civilians. Members of both types of groups are cutting their teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are inspired by the same ideology of hatred. But while the motivations are similar, the manifestations are radically different.

The steps we take to prepare must mirror this duality: We must defend our commuters, but we cannot neglect our even more vital strategic targets.

From New York to London, Madrid to Istanbul and Bali to Baghdad, the al-Qaida network has shown remarkable global reach and a willingness to adapt its methods to local vulnerabilities. Since 9/11, we have witnessed attacks on four continents.

Consider: The 9/11 attacks required at least 19 hijackers, all of whom were relatively well educated, spoke some English and lived among us for many months. The ringleaders took flight lessons here, and they were able to carry out their plans even though their behavior occasionally aroused suspicion.

The London and Madrid attacks were less sophisticated, requiring only a few bomb makers and some foot soldiers who delivered backpacks filled with explosives against completely unguarded targets.

But the descending severity of the three attacks was a result of timing and opportunity, not a pattern.

The old-guard al-Qaida and its best-trained operatives have been preoccupied with events in Iraq and Afghanistan, but eventually their focus will return to America. It most likely already has. And when their more-sophisticated attacks occur, they will dwarf the recent attacks in terms of loss, in lives and in economic devastation.

Our enemies understand the security vulnerabilities inherent in our open society, and they study our dependency on oil and imported goods. They also know we have failed to harden even our most critical ports, oil refineries and the shipping routes that serve them. They know that sinking a large ship in a major waterway could shut down a port for months and that if they can create a significant enough environmental disaster, some ports might never reopen.

We must be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions by preparing only for the last attack. Future attacks in the United States will involve strategic economic targets and these less-sophisticated commuter attacks. It is only responsible to prepare for the inevitable improvised weapons attacks on civilian infrastructures such as rail, ferries, malls and schools.

But while the less-trained and less-skilled terrorist offshoots lash out using the tactics of the street fighter, the more professional terrorists continue to plot evil deeds that would leave thousands dead, if not hundreds of thousands. These attacks are the primary concern because they can devastate the country, not just a single part of a single city.

To his credit, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is resisting Congress by focusing his agency on preventing and preparing for the next major attack, the impact of which could have severe consequences.

No one should be surprised that there will be more attacks. Given the enemy's zeal and global reach, it is surprising such attacks don't happen more often.

The terrorists are emboldened by each successful attack, and they are saving their best operatives and worst plans for their primary target, the United States. So by all means, let's increase security for commuter networks, but let's also get serious about hardening our critical economic lifelines, the ports and waterways that are the lifeblood of the global economic system.

The lesson of London is just an echo of Madrid, itself an echo of 9/11. The enemy is still plotting, and more attacks are coming. We must identify our most important targets and ensure they are truly protected.

J. Michael Barrett, vice president of a terrorism and disaster preparedness consulting firm in Annapolis, has served as a senior analyst for the war on terrorism for the Defense Department.

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