The fact that al Qaeda terrorists developed specific plans for the targeting of several financial institutions for acts of terrorism is significant for anti-terrorism planning — regardless of the age of the information. The question is not whether the intelligence should be disregarded because it was three or four years old , but rather what the appropriate response should be. Differences in opinion over the wisdom and motivation of the information release aside, attention must be focused on how to respond to threats of terrorism believed to be legitimate; whether there is any real value in a show of force; and what long term impact will such information have upon the designated target(s), and upon society.
Aging Info Is Still Valuable
Over the past two years, as a result of perceived terrorism threat levels, government officials and agencies have notified the general public of overall increases and decreases in the level of terrorist threat; have alerted particular regions of the country about increased threat levels; have informed certain industries of the likelihood that they are high priority targets; and have raised and lowered the security requirements for segments of the transportation industry. It is not uncommon nowadays for Americans to be informed that the possibility of a terrorist attack is greater during specific seasons, on certain holidays, or during certain high profile events such as the World Series or Super-bowl Sunday. But this is the first time that debate over the value of terrorism intelligence is focused on the age of the information.
For those who subscribe to the theory that acts of terrorism against the West by Middle Eastern terrorists usually occurs at intervals measured in years, the lack of follow-up incidents in the United States is to be expected — and is not evidence that they are through with us. Others in our society who look for the brighter side will argue that, because there have been no new acts of terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11, they have given up on trying due to the effectiveness of the defenses we have put in place.
Further complicating the problem is the schizophrenic response from a government which both warns that the threat of terrorism remains real and simultaneously resists the implementation of recommendations designed to reduce the threat. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, an argument can be made for your point of view. But whether intelligence is new or old, if it is accurate about targets and conditions that haven’t changed, the risk remains as strong as it was when the intelligence was created.
Was 9/11 Predictable?
It is becoming increasingly clear that we can neither predict with much accuracy what sector of American society will be the target of a terrorist attack, or when such an attack will occur. What we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that acts of terrorism against the United States are reasonably foreseeable for the foreseeable future. By employing traditional methods for determining the foreseeability of crime risks — history of crimes of a particular type or by a particular group, similar crimes against the same victim or target, on-going criminal activity in the area, patterns of conduct associated with criminal activity, law enforcement and intelligence warnings, etc. — analysts predict that a future serious act of terrorism against the United States is more likely than not to occur.
The precursor of the 9/11 attacks were set out for America by the events of December 21, 1988, when Middle Eastern, anti-American terrorists placed a bomb aboard Pan AM 103, destroying the aircraft and killing 259 passengers and crew, and 11 citizens of Lockerbee, Scotland. In 1990, the report of the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, like the 9/11 Commission Report, identified who the terrorists were or would likely be, how they accomplished their acts of terrorism, and the vulnerabilities in the nation’s defense system that allowed the act of terrorism to succeed. The recommendations and warnings (not heeded after Lockerbee) that have appeared once again in the 9/11 panel’s report present evidence for the argument that 9/11 was indeed a reasonably foreseeable risk.
The Private Sector Responds
On August 3, 2004 in New York City, limitations and conditions on the use of bridges, tunnels, and even certain city streets by commercial vehicles (including limousines and taxicabs) were imposed in response to dated information. Buildings and institutions were surrounded by heavily-armed law enforcement officers and corporate security personnel were briefed and advised by federal and local law enforcement on precautions to be taken in light of this “new” information. In the face of this increased security presence and heightened tension, the public was advised both to go on with everyday life and to exercise increased security awareness as they had not been called upon to do since 9/11.
While government attempts to find a way to cope with the risk of terrorism on the national and local levels, the commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors must develop a response to the terrorism risk in a way that does not cause upheaval every time newly-acquired intelligence about terrorism is discovered. The public at large must do the same. It is clear that admonishing the private sector to raise the level of their security awareness, and to prepare for the aftermath of a terrorist attack by keeping cash, water, and non-perishable food available, is not enough to keep our economy from collapsing and taking our way of life with it. An August 3, 2004, poll of New Yorkers reported that while 64 percent had confidence in the Secretary of Homeland Security, 76 percent would not trust the advice of government that it is safe to stay in your apartment after a terrorist attack.
Security awareness is an acquired skill for most people and for most organizations. It must be taught — and taught in a way that the message becomes clear because it is personal. Once made aware of a threat to security and how to confront it, organizations must empower individuals to act under threatening circumstances with the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what is expected of them. Once skilled and empowered to perform under even the most difficult of conditions, individuals can be expected to continue to perform their functions in the workplace, at home, or on the road despite the fact their usual pattern has changed. For there to be a security-aware public with the confidence to know how to respond to threats to security, the public must be trained in the workplace, at home, at school, or through some other vehicle designed to instruct them in how carry on in the face of a terrorist threat, and how to respond if a terrorist act occurs.
A response to the threat of terrorism that says “Go on with your life, the government is in control,” is calculated to deliver the wrong message. We must all participate.