Entries Tagged "bombs"

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Shoot-to-Kill Revisited

I’ve already written about the police “shoot-to-kill” policy in the UK in response to the terrorist bombings last month, explaining why it’s a bad security trade-off. Now the International Association of Chiefs of Police have issued new guidelines that also recommend a shoot-to-kill policy.

What might cause a police officer to think you’re a suicide bomber, and then shoot you in the head?

The police organization’s behavioral profile says such a person might exhibit “multiple anomalies,” including wearing a heavy coat or jacket in warm weather or carrying a briefcase, duffel bag or backpack with protrusions or visible wires. The person might display nervousness, an unwillingness to make eye contact or excessive sweating. There might be chemical burns on the clothing or stains on the hands. The person might mumble prayers or be “pacing back and forth in front of a venue.”

Is that all that’s required?

The police group’s guidelines also say the threat to officers does not have to be “imminent,” as police training traditionally teaches. Officers do not have to wait until a suspected bomber makes a move, another traditional requirement for police to use deadly force. An officer just needs to have a “reasonable basis” to believe that the suspect can detonate a bomb, the guidelines say.

Does anyone actually think they’re safer if a policy like this is put into effect?

EDITED TO ADD: For reference:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

But what does a 215-year-old document know?

Posted on August 4, 2005 at 3:08 PMView Comments

Caches of Explosives Hidden in Moscow

Here’s a post-Cold War risk that I hadn’t considered before:

Construction workers involved in building a new hotel just across from the Kremlin were surprised to find 250 kg of TNT buried deep beneath the old Moskva Hotel that had just been demolished to make way for a new one. Police astonished Muscovites further when they said that the 12 boxes of explosives lodged in the basement could have been there for half a century.

And now, new evidence points to the possibility that Moscow could be dotted with such explosive caches—planted by the secret police in the early days of World War II.

Posted on August 4, 2005 at 7:58 AMView Comments

Domestic Terrorism (U.S.)

Nice MSNBC piece on domestic terrorism in the U.S.:

The sentencing of Eric Rudolph, who bombed abortion clinics, a gay bar and the Atlanta Olympics, ought to be a milestone in the Global War on Terror. In Birmingham, Ala., on Monday he got life without parole. Next month he’ll stack up a couple more life terms in Georgia, which is the least he deserves. (He escaped the death penalty only because he made a deal to help law-enforcement agents find the explosives he had hidden while on the run in North Carolina.) Rudolph killed two people, but not for want of trying to kill many more. In his 1997 attack on an Atlanta abortion clinic, he set off a second bomb meant to take out bystanders and rescue workers. Unrepentant, of course, Rudolph defended his actions as a moral imperative: “Abortion is murder, and because it is murder I believe deadly force is needed to stop it.” The Birmingham prosecutor declared that Rudolph had “appointed himself judge, jury and executioner.”

Indeed. That’s what all terrorists have in common: the four lunatics in London earlier this month; the 19 men who attacked America on September 11, 2001; Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, and many others. They were all convinced they had noble motives for wreaking their violence. Terrorists are very righteous folks. Which is why the real global war we’re fighting, let’s be absolutely clear, should be one of our shared humanity against the madness of people like these; the rule of man-made laws on the books against the divine law they imagine for themselves. It’s the cause of reason against unreason, of self-criticism against the firm convictions of fanaticism.

David Neiwert has some good commentary on the topic. He also points to this U.S. News and World Report article.

Posted on July 25, 2005 at 9:04 PMView Comments

Shoot-to-Kill

We’ve recently learned that London’s Metropolitan Police has a shoot-to-kill policy when dealing with suspected suicide terrorists. The theory is that only a direct headshot will kill the terrorist immediately, and thus destroy the ability to execute a bombing attack.

Roy Ramm, former Met Police specialist operations commander, said the rules for confronting potential suicide bombers had recently changed to “shoot to kill”….

Mr Ramm said the danger of shooting a suspected suicide bomber in the body was that it could detonate a bomb they were carrying on them.

“The fact is that when you’re dealing with suicide bombers they only way you can stop them effectively—and protect yourself—is to try for a head-shot,” he said.

This policy is based on the extremely short-sighted assumption that a terrorist needs to push buttons to make a bomb explode. In fact, ever since World War I, the most common type of bomb carried by a person has been the hand grenade. It is entirely conceivable, especially when a shoot-to-kill policy is known to be in effect, that suicide bombers will use the same kind of dead-man’s trigger on their bombs: a detonate that is activated when a button is released, rather than when it is pushed.

This is a difficult one. Whatever policy you choose, the terrorists will adapt to make that policy the wrong one.

The police are now sorry they accidentally killed an innocent they suspected of being a suicide bomber, but I can certainly understand the mistake. In the end, the best solution is to train police officers and then leave the decision to them. But honestly, policies that are more likely to result in living incarcerated suspects—and recover well from false alarms—that can be interrogated are better than policies that are more likely to result in corpses.

EDITED TO ADD these comments by Nicholas Weaver:

“One other thing: The suspect was on the ground, and immobilized. Thus the decision was made to shoot the suspect, repeatedly (7 times) in the head, based on the perception that he could have been a suicide attacker (who dispite being a suicide attacker, wasn’t holding a dead-man’s switch. Or heck, wire up the bomb to a $50 heart-rate monitor).

“If this is policy, it is STUPID: There is an easy way for the attackers to counter it, and when you have a subway execution of an innocent man, the damage (in the hearts and minds of british muslims) is immense.

“One thing to remember:

“These were NON uniformed officers, and the suspect was brasilian (and probably didn’t speak very good english).

“Why did he run? What would YOU do if three individuals accosted you, speaking a language which you were unfamiliar with, drawing weapons? You would RUN LIKE HELL!

“I find the blaming the victim (‘but he was running!’) reprehensible.”

ANOTHER EDIT: The consensus seems to be that he spoke English well enough. I don’t think we can blame the officers without a whole lot more details about what happened, and possibly not even then. Clearly they were under a lot of stress, and made a split-second decision.

But I think we can reasonably criticize the shoot-to-kill policy that the officers were following. That policy is a threat to our security, and our society.

Posted on July 25, 2005 at 1:59 PMView Comments

Profiling

There is a great discussion about profiling going on in the comments to the previous post. To help, here is what I wrote on the subject in Beyond Fear (pp. 133-7):

Good security has people in charge. People are resilient. People can improvise. People can be creative. People can develop on-the-spot solutions. People can detect attackers who cheat, and can attempt to maintain security despite the cheating. People can detect passive failures and attempt to recover. People are the strongest point in a security process. When a security system succeeds in the face of a new or coordinated or devastating attack, it’s usually due to the efforts of people.

On 14 December 1999, Ahmed Ressam tried to enter the U.S. by ferryboat from Victoria Island, British Columbia. In the trunk of his car, he had a suitcase bomb. His plan was to drive to Los Angeles International Airport, put his suitcase on a luggage cart in the terminal, set the timer, and then leave. The plan would have worked had someone not been vigilant.

Ressam had to clear customs before boarding the ferry. He had fake ID, in the name of Benni Antoine Noris, and the computer cleared him based on this ID. He was allowed to go through after a routine check of his car’s trunk, even though he was wanted by the Canadian police. On the other side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, at Port Angeles, Washington, Ressam was approached by U.S. customs agent Diana Dean, who asked some routine questions and then decided that he looked suspicious. He was fidgeting, sweaty, and jittery. He avoided eye contact. In Dean’s own words, he was acting “hinky.” More questioning—there was no one else crossing the border, so two other agents got involved—and more hinky behavior. Ressam’s car was eventually searched, and he was finally discovered and captured. It wasn’t any one thing that tipped Dean off; it was everything encompassed in the slang term “hinky.” But the system worked. The reason there wasn’t a bombing at LAX around Christmas in 1999 was because a knowledgeable person was in charge of security and paying attention.

There’s a dirty word for what Dean did that chilly afternoon in December, and it’s profiling. Everyone does it all the time. When you see someone lurking in a dark alley and change your direction to avoid him, you’re profiling. When a storeowner sees someone furtively looking around as she fiddles inside her jacket, that storeowner is profiling. People profile based on someone’s dress, mannerisms, tone of voice … and yes, also on their race and ethnicity. When you see someone running toward you on the street with a bloody ax, you don’t know for sure that he’s a crazed ax murderer. Perhaps he’s a butcher who’s actually running after the person next to you to give her the change she forgot. But you’re going to make a guess one way or another. That guess is an example of profiling.

To profile is to generalize. It’s taking characteristics of a population and applying them to an individual. People naturally have an intuition about other people based on different characteristics. Sometimes that intuition is right and sometimes it’s wrong, but it’s still a person’s first reaction. How good this intuition is as a countermeasure depends on two things: how accurate the intuition is and how effective it is when it becomes institutionalized or when the profile characteristics become commonplace.

One of the ways profiling becomes institutionalized is through computerization. Instead of Diana Dean looking someone over, a computer looks the profile over and gives it some sort of rating. Generally profiles with high ratings are further evaluated by people, although sometimes countermeasures kick in based on the computerized profile alone. This is, of course, more brittle. The computer can profile based only on simple, easy-to-assign characteristics: age, race, credit history, job history, et cetera. Computers don’t get hinky feelings. Computers also can’t adapt the way people can.

Profiling works better if the characteristics profiled are accurate. If erratic driving is a good indication that the driver is intoxicated, then that’s a good characteristic for a police officer to use to determine who he’s going to pull over. If furtively looking around a store or wearing a coat on a hot day is a good indication that the person is a shoplifter, then those are good characteristics for a store owner to pay attention to. But if wearing baggy trousers isn’t a good indication that the person is a shoplifter, then the store owner is going to spend a lot of time paying undue attention to honest people with lousy fashion sense.

In common parlance, the term “profiling” doesn’t refer to these characteristics. It refers to profiling based on characteristics like race and ethnicity, and institutionalized profiling based on those characteristics alone. During World War II, the U.S. rounded up over 100,000 people of Japanese origin who lived on the West Coast and locked them in camps (prisons, really). That was an example of profiling. Israeli border guards spend a lot more time scrutinizing Arab men than Israeli women; that’s another example of profiling. In many U.S. communities, police have been known to stop and question people of color driving around in wealthy white neighborhoods (commonly referred to as “DWB”—Driving While Black). In all of these cases you might possibly be able to argue some security benefit, but the trade-offs are enormous: Honest people who fit the profile can get annoyed, or harassed, or arrested, when they’re assumed to be attackers.

For democratic governments, this is a major problem. It’s just wrong to segregate people into “more likely to be attackers” and “less likely to be attackers” based on race or ethnicity. It’s wrong for the police to pull a car over just because its black occupants are driving in a rich white neighborhood. It’s discrimination.

But people make bad security trade-offs when they’re scared, which is why we saw Japanese internment camps during World War II, and why there is so much discrimination against Arabs in the U.S. going on today. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it effective security. Writing about the Japanese internment, for example, a 1983 commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” But just because something is wrong doesn’t mean that people won’t continue to do it.

Ethics aside, institutionalized profiling fails because real attackers are so rare: Active failures will be much more common than passive failures. The great majority of people who fit the profile will be innocent. At the same time, some real attackers are going to deliberately try to sneak past the profile. During World War II, a Japanese American saboteur could try to evade imprisonment by pretending to be Chinese. Similarly, an Arab terrorist could dye his hair blond, practice an American accent, and so on.

Profiling can also blind you to threats outside the profile. If U.S. border guards stop and search everyone who’s young, Arab, and male, they’re not going to have the time to stop and search all sorts of other people, no matter how hinky they might be acting. On the other hand, if the attackers are of a single race or ethnicity, profiling is more likely to work (although the ethics are still questionable). It makes real security sense for El Al to spend more time investigating young Arab males than it does for them to investigate Israeli families. In Vietnam, American soldiers never knew which local civilians were really combatants; sometimes killing all of them was the security solution they chose.

If a lot of this discussion is abhorrent, as it probably should be, it’s the trade-offs in your head talking. It’s perfectly reasonable to decide not to implement a countermeasure not because it doesn’t work, but because the trade-offs are too great. Locking up every Arab-looking person will reduce the potential for Muslim terrorism, but no reasonable person would suggest it. (It’s an example of “winning the battle but losing the war.”) In the U.S., there are laws that prohibit police profiling by characteristics like ethnicity, because we believe that such security measures are wrong (and not simply because we believe them to be ineffective).

Still, no matter how much a government makes it illegal, profiling does occur. It occurs at an individual level, at the level of Diana Dean deciding which cars to wave through and which ones to investigate further. She profiled Ressam based on his mannerisms and his answers to her questions. He was Algerian, and she certainly noticed that. However, this was before 9/11, and the reports of the incident clearly indicate that she thought he was a drug smuggler; ethnicity probably wasn’t a key profiling factor in this case. In fact, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. That intuitive sense that something was amiss worked beautifully, even though everybody made a wrong assumption about what was wrong. Human intuition detected a completely unexpected kind of attack. Humans will beat computers at hinkiness-detection for many decades to come.

And done correctly, this intuition-based sort of profiling can be an excellent security countermeasure. Dean needed to have the training and the experience to profile accurately and properly, without stepping over the line and profiling illegally. The trick here is to make sure perceptions of risk match the actual risks. If those responsible for security profile based on superstition and wrong-headed intuition, or by blindly following a computerized profiling system, profiling won’t work at all. And even worse, it actually can reduce security by blinding people to the real threats. Institutionalized profiling can ossify a mind, and a person’s mind is the most important security countermeasure we have.

A couple of other points (not from the book):

  • Whenever you design a security system with two ways through—an easy way and a hard way—you invite the attacker to take the easy way. Profile for young Arab males, and you’ll get terrorists that are old non-Arab females. This paper looks at the security effectiveness of profiling versus random searching.
  • If we are going to increase security against terrorism, the young Arab males living in our country are precisely the people we want on our side. Discriminating against them in the name of security is not going to make them more likely to help.
  • Despite what many people think, terrorism is not confined to young Arab males. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid was British. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Here are some more examples:

    In 1986, a 32-year-old Irish woman, pregnant at the time, was about to board an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv when El Al security agents discovered an explosive device hidden in the false bottom of her bag. The woman’s boyfriend—the father of her unborn child—had hidden the bomb.

    In 1987, a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman—neither of whom were Middle Eastern—posed as father and daughter and brought a bomb aboard a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Thailand. En route to Bangkok, the bomb exploded, killing all on board.

    In 1999, men dressed as businessmen (and one dressed as a Catholic priest) turned out to be terrorist hijackers, who forced an Avianca flight to divert to an airstrip in Colombia, where some passengers were held as hostages for more than a year-and-half.

    The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. The Chechnyan terrorists who downed the Russian planes were women. Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were Americans. The Basque terrorists are Basque, and Irish terrorists are Irish. Tha Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan.

    And many Muslims are not Arabs. Even worse, almost everyone who is Arab is not a terrorist—many people who look Arab are not even Muslims. So not only are there an large number of false negatives—terrorists who don’t meet the profile—but there an enormous number of false positives: innocents that do meet the profile.

Posted on July 22, 2005 at 3:12 PMView Comments

Anti-Missile Defenses for Commercial Aircraft

In yet another “movie-plot threat” defense, the U.S. government is starting to test anti-missile lasers on commercial aircraft.

It could take years before passenger planes carry protection against missiles, a weapon terrorists might use to shoot down jets and cause economic havoc in the airline industry. The tests will help the nation’s leaders decide if they should install laser systems on all 6,800 aircraft in the U.S. airline fleet at a cost of at least $6 billion.

“Yes, it will cost money, but it’s the same cost as an aircraft entertainment system,” Kubricky says.

I think the airline industry is missing something here. If they linked the anti-missile lasers with the in-seat entertainment systems, cross-country flights would be much more exciting.

Posted on July 21, 2005 at 8:58 AMView Comments

Turning Cell Phones off in Tunnels

In response to the London bombings, officials turned off cell phones in tunnels around New York City, in an attempt to thwart bombers who might use cell phones as remote triggering devices. (Phone service has been restored in two of the four tunnels. As far as I know, it is still not available in th other two.)

This is as idiotic as it gets. It’s a perfect example of what I call “movie plot security”: imagining a particular scenario rather than focusing on the broad threats. It’s completely useless if a terrorist uses something other than a cell phone: a kitchen timer, for example. Even worse, it harms security in the general case. Have people forgotten how cell phones saved lives on 9/11? Communications benefits the defenders far more than it benefits the attackers.

Posted on July 19, 2005 at 7:52 AMView Comments

Thinking About Suicide Bombers

Remember the 1996 movie Independence Day? One of the characters was a grizzled old fighter pilot who had been kidnapped and degraded by the alien invaders years before. He flew his plane into the alien spaceship when his air-to-air missile jammed, causing the spaceship to explode. Everybody in the movie, as well as the audience, considered this suicide bomber a hero.

What’s the difference?

Partly it’s which side you’re rooting for, but mostly it’s that the pilot defended his planet by attacking the invaders. Terrorism targets innocents, and no one is a hero for killing innocents. Killing people who are invading and occupying your planet—or country—can be heroic, as can sacrificing yourself in the process.

This is an interesting observation in light of the previous post, where a professor makes the observation that the motivation of suicide terrorism is to repel what is perceived to be an occupation force.

What are the lessons here for Iraq? I think there are three. One, the insurgents (or whatever we’re calling them these days) would do best by attacking military targets and not civilian ones. Two, the coalition forces (or whatever we’re calling them these days) need to do everything they can not to be perceived as invaders or occupiers. And three, the terrorists should try to advance a worldview where there are no innocents, only invaders and occupiers. To the extent that the bombing victims are perceived to be invaders and occupiers, those who kill them defending their country will be viewed as heroic by the people.

There are no lessons for London. There was no invasion. Every victim was an innocent. No one should consider the terrorists heroes.

Posted on July 18, 2005 at 2:47 PMView Comments

Terrorism Defense: A Failure of Imagination

The 9/11 Commission report talked about a “failure of imagination” before the 9/11 attacks:

The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat. The terrorist danger from Bin Ladin and al Qaeda was not a major topic for policy debate among the public, the media, or in the Congress. Indeed, it barely came up during the 2000 presidential campaign.

More generally, this term has been used to describe the U.S. government’s response to the terrorist threat. We spend a lot of money defending against what they did last time, or against particular threats we imagine, but ignore the general threat or the root causes of terrorism.

With the London bombings, we’re doing it again. I was going to write a long post about this, but Richard Forno already wrote a nice essay.

The London bombs went off over 12 hours ago.

So why is CNN-TV still splashing “breaking news” on the screen?

There’s been zero new developments in the past several hours. Perhaps the “breaking news” is that CNN’s now playing spooky “terror attack” music over commercial bumpers now filled with dramatic camera-phone images from London commuters that appeared on the Web earlier this morning.

Aside from that, the only new development since about noon seems to be the incessant press conferences held by public officials in cities around the country showcasing what they’ve done since 9/11 and what they’re doing here at home to respond to the blasts in London…which pretty much comes down to lots of guys with guns running around America’s mass transit system in an effort to present the appearance of “increased security” to reassure the public. While such activities are a political necessity to show that our leaders are ‘doing something’ during a time of crisis we must remember that talk or activity is no substitute for progress or effectiveness.

Forget the fact that regular uniformed police officers and rail employees can sweep or monitor a train station just as well as a fully-decked-out SWAT team—not to mention, they know it better, too. Forget that even with an added law enforcement presence, it’s quite possible to launch a suicide attack on mass transit. Forget that a smart terrorist now knows that the DHS response to attacks is to “increase” the security of related infrastructures (e.g., train stations) and just might attack another, lesser-protected part of American society potentially with far greater success. In these and other ways today following the London bombings, the majority of security attention has been directed at mass transit. However, while we can’t protect everything against every form of attack, our American responses remain conventional and predictable—just as we did after the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and today’s events in London, we continue to respond in ways designed to “prevent the last attack.”

In other words, we are demonstrating a lack of protective imagination.

Contrary to America’s infatuation with instant gratification, protective imagination is not quickly built, funded, or enacted. It takes years to inculcate such a mindset brought about by outside the box, unconventional, and daring thinking from folks with expertise and years of firsthand knowledge in areas far beyond security or law enforcement and who are encouraged to think freely and have their analyses seriously considered in the halls of Washington. Such a radical way of thinking and planning is necessary to deal with an equally radical adversary, yet we remain entrenched in conventional wisdom and responses.

Here at home, for all the money spent in the name of homeland security, we’re not acting against the terrorists, we’re reacting against them, and doing so in a very conventional, very ineffective manner. Yet nobody seems to be asking why.

While this morning’s events in London is a tragedy and Londoners deserve our full support in the coming days, it’s sad to see that regarding the need for effective domestic preparedness here in the United States, nearly 4 years after 9/11, it’s clear that despite the catchy sound-bytes and flurry of activity in the name of protecting the homeland, the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.

Posted on July 12, 2005 at 12:08 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.