Discussion of Terrorist Threats in the United States and India and Relevant Science and Technology
B. Raman and Harry Barnes,
In the discussions of the Lewis Branscomb and Afsir Karim papers, three broad themes were explored: (1) the types and trends of terrorist threats, (2) the role of science and technology in countering terrorism, and (3) specific concerns (costs, threat to freedom, and organizational capacity) raised by the need to respond to terrorism.
TYPES AND TRENDS
As for types and trends of terrorism, several Indian commentators noted the differences between present-day terrorism and what preceded it. M.K. Narayanan, expressed the concern that terrorism had become a strategic weapon, and was far more widespread than it had been in the past. He also noted that there was still disagreement over the definition of terrorism; except for United Nations’ Security Council Resolution 1373, which provides a certain operational definition, there is neither an agreed theoretical nor doctrinal statement as to the definition of terrorism. The last major effort to define terrorism was at a conference in Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt, in 1995, and wisely, Narayanan added, people have not tried to hold another such conference.
Narayanan noted four differences between present-day terrorism and that of the past. First, we now have “postmodern” terrorists, able to operate as loosely organized, self-financed networks. Second, religiously oriented terrorist organizations have eclipsed the earlier ideologically motivated and ethnonational terrorists of the past. Third, there is a growing cross-pollination of ideas among terrorists as they become better networked—more so than among the various counterterrorism agencies. Finally, the new recruits to the ranks of terrorism are amazingly sophisticated, many of them with advanced training in science and engineering. Narayanan noted that this could mean that their appetite for acquiring crude nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction is growing; before long they could contrive to build a crude nuclear device.
The latter point was also emphasized by B. Raman, who stated that terrorists were becoming increasingly adept in the use of science and technology for their own purposes. They attract a large number of educated people from universities and other educational institutions. In the past there were ideologically oriented organizations such as the Bader-Meinhoff, the Action Directe of France, the Red Army faction, the Red Brigade, and so forth. The people attracted to those terrorist organizations were largely humanities students, rarely were there any science students. We now find that many members of terrorist organizations are science or engineering students and technical professionals, notably Osama bin Laden (himself an engineer) and other members of al Qaeda. One suspect in the Bali bombing held a doctorate in chemistry from a very prestigious British university, and Abu Zubaida, who was supposed to be the third-ranking person in the al Qaeda hierarchy, was an expert in computer technology, and according to some reports, studied computer technology in Pune, India, and then crossed over into Pakistan where he joined al Qaeda.
Raman noted that in Pakistan two scientists went to Kandahar and met Osama bin Laden and the leaders of al Qaeda—it is just as important to study the impact of religious fundamentalism on the scientists who deal with missiles and nuclear explosives as it is to study the impact of fundamentalism on political leaders or the armed forces.
Raman emphasized the ability of terrorists to improvise: they discovered 20 years ago that the Czechoslovakian explosive Semtex was difficult to detect, they used airplanes to deliver deadly attacks, and they used shoes to conceal explosives. The lesson is that we must constantly monitor their thinking; for example, in 1998, after the United States launched cruise missile attacks on the training camps in Afghanistan, groups close to al Qaeda said, “You came and attacked us with your cruise missiles on our territory. We will one day come and attack you on your territory with our cruise missiles.” A statement that at the time was not taken seriously, but in retrospect it seems to be significant. Terrorist statements have to be monitored seriously, not dismissed as bombastic. On the other hand, Raman noted the problem of dealing with terrorists who claim to possess a bomb or a grenade on an airplane, but have only dummy weapons. He asked whether the issue of sorting out credible and noncredible threats had been adequately examined, as had the prior problem of preventing scientists in such states as Pakistan from sharing their expertise with terrorists.
Continuing on the theme of the role of the scientifically trained terrorist, S. Gopal noted the difficulty in detecting such people. Hypothetically, this would mean that each state had to develop a database of people working on high-end technology and perhaps exchange this information with others. One possible way to track this threat would be to have proper intelligence on people in every country working on high-end technology. He agreed that this would, of course, impinge upon individual rights and freedoms, particularly if intelligence gathering included asking if such people had problems, if they had been affected by state activities, or if their family was affected in some way. But being forewarned is forearmed. So a good network of intelligence, both human and technology intelligence, is a must to minimize terrorism.
Another Indian participant, Raja Menon, was impressed by the diverse range and objectives of terrorists in the world today; from the eastern branch of the terror network, the Jamma Islamiya, with clearly proclaimed political objectives, to terrorist organizations that may be open to negotiation. On the other hand, Menon noted,
Branscomb was correct when he described a new kind of terrorist group whose actions are largely unpredictable, since their objectives are largely idiosyncratic and obscure. That describes al Qaeda, whose political objectives are obscure, and to the degree we understand them, not really negotiable. This type of terrorism most likely will not end soon. Science and technology might be focused on monitoring the transfer of money, as all of these groups, whether Indonesian, Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi, or others, have in common the need for money.
Suggesting a large-scale international approach, G.R. Srinivasan stated that one goal of terrorism is to create economic loss and disruption, which has happened in India, although not in the United States, except for the massive economic damage inflicted by the September 11, 2001, attack. Srinivasan suggested that the international community might ban the use of terrorism to attack another country’s economy. The key is in making states responsible for this, drawing on the analogy with warfare, where the United Nations and international agreements have limited the conduct of war by states. Globalization means that if states exercise their responsibility in preventing terrorism, then it can be stopped.
As for long-term trends, several participants expressed their concerns. Narayanan pointed out that while the appetite for violence was growing, there are no good answers as to why this surge has taken place. Like a hydra-headed monster, terrorist forces keep rising up again and again, both in the developed and in the developing states. How, he rhetorically asked, can we deal with a problem where one day a Tunisian-born al Qaeda terrorist plots a suicide attack on a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) air base in Belgium, a Humbali in Indonesia carries out attacks all across Southeast Asia, and in Guatemala Bay a U.S. soldier and an airman of Syrian origin are associated with them? The problem is growing more acute for India, with its fast-growing economy; Narayanan urged the scientists and scholars present to identify some concrete answers to a problem that seems to be more acute than at any time in his long experience in dealing with terrorism.
N. Balakrishnan pointed out one difficulty in applying science and technology to the terrorism problem. It was analogous to encryption and decryption, where the cost of encryption is miniscule compared to the cost of decryption. If a terrorist invests $10 on science and technology in a terrorist act, the persons who have to contain it may have to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars; therefore, science and technology may favor the terrorist.
At various points, the group discussed the growing phenomenon of suicide terrorism. Narayanan noted that India has already had at least 60 documented instances of suicide bombings. Unlike the suicide bombers in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict who target public places, many of the targets now are fortified camps, making locations with nuclear fissile material a highly likely target. Additionally, chemical and biological laboratories are increasingly visible targets, as more and more publicity is given to biological warfare and the use of dangerous pathogens. The suicide bomber who does not care whether he or she dies in the process of releasing smallpox or anthrax is going to be a significant threat. According to our estimates, there are almost 15 to 20 persons
volunteering for a suicide mission for every 1 person selected, and if this is true for India, it is equally true for the rest of the world. This is a problem that cannot be ignored. Narayanan noted that this is not just a police problem.
He added that India may yet face a growing problem from its own Muslim population; there have been local aberrations, such as Gujarat, but India has 140 million Muslims, the second-largest population of Muslims anywhere in the world; suicide bombers from one’s own state pose a tremendous threat, and even the United States cannot afford to overlook it. Suicide bombers are a concern that requires a great deal of interaction and cooperation between the science and technology community and the agencies responsible for human intelligence. Narayanan noted that India’s nuclear deterrent had been based on the belief that people are afraid to die, but this is not how suicide bombers feel.
In a lengthy discussion of the suicide terrorist problem, Branscomb noted that the National Academies’ (NAS) Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism spent some time arguing about the definition of catastrophic terrorism, with some members wanting a kind of mathematical description in terms of deaths and damage. The group decided against this approach, because it concluded that from a terror point of view, probably the most devastating attack would be if once a week someone blew up a daycare center full of children. And if that persisted in different cities over a period of time, the American people would become extremely distraught. Nevertheless, because we were writing about science and technology, we did not quite see how it would be a powerful tool for dealing with a suicide bomber, at least of the type that is seen in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Therefore, Making the Nation Safer18 limited itself to the problem of catastrophic terrorism in which thousands of people were killed and billions of dollars of damage was done, even if a series of small attacks over time would have at least as big a political and social effect on a country as a single, more devastating attack.
Gopal intervened to note that 100 percent defense against suicide bombers does not exist, although fissile material can be kept out of their hands. For example, on the local level, we can create a restricted perimeter around a possible target to mitigate the damage from an attack such as a truck bomb.
Richard Garwin offered his views on the problem of suicide bombers. He noted that the intersection between those who are willing to die and those who are willing to be terrorists has been very small in the past, as is the number of those who are capable of fitting themselves with powerful weapons. Yet, he warned, this is rapidly changing, as more and more people become disaffected. Here, modern technology adds to the problem. There are not only terrorist networks, but the Internet makes it possible for people to learn techniques of destruction so that individuals no longer need to invent them. In addition, there are terrorist supply networks, which recruit and provide those willing to die with the required technology. Garwin noted that a terrorist does not have to assemble his or her own makeshift explosive belt anymore, as these are now being perfected and supplied. Fortunately, this is a point of vulnerability for terrorists, as the police arrest those who are in the business of making such weapons.
National Research Council. 2002. Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism, National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. The report is available in PDF format at http://books.nap.edu/hml/stct/index.html.
Ironically, Garwin noted, the greater the range of weapons in the hands of terrorists, the less they need to rely upon suicide bombers. If the weapon has a radius of destruction of a kilometer, that is, an actual nuclear explosive, it is all too easy to release it anywhere within that region and then for the person who has done it to leave. But, he pointed out, it is true that suicide bombers can have a great advantage in penetrating a nuclear plant, for example, or in attacking a chemical plant, with results comparable to or more serious than those at Bhopal, because a nonsuicide attack would require the placement of an explosive at a particular point and the safe departure of the perpetrator.
THE ROLE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Narayanan argued that science and technology will have to play a much greater role in the future than in the past because of the extraordinary reach and the tremendous potential for destruction caused by terrorism; far from being a tactical weapon, terrorism has become a strategic weapon of those seeking mass destruction. Raman suggested that “counter science and technology”—how the state uses technology to prevent terrorists from using science and technology assets maliciously—is as important as how the state uses science and technology to respond to terrorist acts.
From Raman’s perspective the most important contribution of science and technology to terrorism prevention is in respect to communications. Wherever interception of communications has been effective, states have been able to prevent acts of terrorism. This is evident in the tactical success of the United States against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan; however, it was unable to score similar successes in the cases of the Taliban or the resistance fighters and terrorists in Iraq. al Qaeda used highly skilled experts for its communications, but went through the Internet, providing an opportunity to intercept messages, while the Taliban lacked such expertise and did not use this technology, thus preventing the interception of messages. In Iraq the resistance does not use telephones, wireless communication, or the Internet; they do not even call themselves by name. Thus, the more that terrorists use science and technology the more vulnerable they are to detection and neutralization by the state, and the less they use technology, the more difficult it is for the state to detect and neutralize them. Raman noted that the dilemma for policy makers is that by denying terrorists modern means of communication, we may also hinder our own ability to detect and neutralize them.
Kumar Patel raised the issue of the cost-effectiveness of using technology to defeat or detect terrorists. He noted that it is not very difficult to do a simple calculation of the additional costs and time that go into screening people at airports. Some 2 billion people take airline flights every year in the United States. If we calculate the effects of the accumulated lost productive work time, we can easily determine the cost of added airport security. It is not large, but this happens at every single step. There is a general belief that if only we spent enough money, we could make ourselves much safer, but in Patel’s view, this is like buying insurance. Someday, insurance payments may exceed current income, and at that point you will know that you cannot buy any more insurance. The point is, How can we convey through science and technology and cost-effectiveness calculations that at some point we may have to accept a certain level of disruption in society because we cannot afford to be 100 percent safe?
This was a point echoed by Gopal, who doubted whether science and technology would ever provide a 100 percent solution to the challenges of terrorism, and he noted that in one recent instance, an attempt on the life of an Indian chief minister was not defeated by high-tech jammers, but the strength of his vehicle, as the explosives were set off by a wired mechanism.
There was a brief exchange over electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices and radiological attacks. S. Rajagopal noted that it could be used to seriously damage power lines and connected system equipment and components. Branscomb noted that something the size of a suitcase can easily be made that would have the effect of shutting down and perhaps damaging computers within a city block; this could be used against an emergency operations center, for example. Branscomb believed some public knowledge about this topic would be beneficial to security rather than injurious to it.
Branscomb also responded to Rajagopal’s query about modeling of cleanup and decontamination from a radiological attack. He noted that some attention was being given to cleanup and decontamination, probably not as much as it deserves, because the principal effect of a radiological attack is likely to be denial of access to the contaminated space. If people leave fairly quickly they are not likely to be physically harmed, but if they cannot return, there would be economic consequences and social disruption. That, Branscomb concluded, deserved a lot more attention than it has been given, even though large amounts of money (much of it for lawyers) had already been spent studying and carrying out decontamination projects from industrial and government nuclear sites.
Raman urged the development of terrorism indicators, analogous to the way intelligence and counterintelligence agencies have developed lists of war indicators. The report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, indicates that there were disparate pieces of information indicating some suspicious activity, but in retrospect, if all those pieces of information had been put together there might have been a successful forecast of a terrorist attack. There should be a group of people, including scientists and terrorism experts, who could prepare a list of terrorism indicators and share these with government agencies.
Networking and Organizational Responses
The discussion of the Branscomb and Karim papers also led to an extended dialogue on the importance of networking counterterrorist operations and improving the response of organizations. In response to a question, Branscomb noted that the issue of effective networks for acquiring and creating information and for supporting decisions was a very high priority issue of the NAS committee which published, Making the Nation Safer. While there is a lot of experience with complex systems and networks in other environments, some are rather special, and involve the military in some cases, and commercial applications in others. The problem is that the networks needed for
counterterrorism must be very inexpensive. The United States could probably afford them, but networks must also operate in a disrupted environment, something for which most commercial systems are not designed. Branscomb noted that this is a promising area for collaboration between the United States and India.
Roddam Narasimha noted that terrorists in India depend very much on networks, sometimes very tightly knit and very closely organized, and sometimes a little more loosely so. These networks have involved state and nonstate actors and operators, as is clear with Pakistan’s involvement. In Jammu and Kashmir, networks have also involved religion, crime, social and ethnic conflict, and technology.
Narayanan urged that even more powerful counterterrorism networks be established both within states experiencing terrorism and between those with populations of different religious persuasions and diverse societies. Strong networks between different countries have been necessary to control drug traffic, the flow of funds, religious and social propaganda and misinformation, and to exchange and analyze data and information as well as to exchange databases and ensure the universality of extradition treaties and mechanisms. There may be some movement in this direction, he conceded, but he doubted whether these networks were sufficiently strong—especially since Narayanan felt that the terrorists had more powerful and effective networks than states.
Narayanan did agree with Branscomb that one powerful aspect of technology is handling information. However, the generation, fusion, mining, and secure transmission of information in real time to intended recipients actually present scientific and technological problems, which Naryanan thought was fruitful territory for future Indian and U.S. cooperation.
In response to a question from Harry Barnes about the impact of the struggle against terrorism on civil liberties, Branscomb noted that the U.S. President and many political leaders constantly refer to our present state as “a war on terrorism.” This is a war in a symbolic sense; the U.S. has talked about wars on poverty, wars on drugs, wars on HIV/AIDS, wars on cancer—none of these were wars in a traditional sense except the notion of a dedicated high priority for government action. But, Branscomb pointed out, President George W. Bush uses this word in combination with what is a real war in Iraq, implying that the terrorism problem is a national emergency on the scale of previous world wars. In Branscomb’s view, however, terrorism is an urgent security threat, but is not a war. The terrorist threat will not go away. Terrorists are not going to win; governments are not going to win; nobody is going to win. Vulnerabilities will continue, new threats will arise in the future, but the survival of the nation is not at stake, however greatly the threat of terrorist attacks upsets the public and its government. That being so, the steps that may be necessary to improve the capabilities of intelligence services and the police must be measures that can be sustained in a democracy indefinitely. Therefore, the analogy of the United States incarcerating its citizens who were ethnic Japanese during World War II is not a good analogy to contemporary actions. Japanese
imprisonment was justified at the time on the grounds that World War II would have a finite duration. We would win or lose. Losing was unacceptable, and therefore winning had to be accomplished. It could not take more than a few years, and therefore we could suspend constitutional rights for this emergency.
Branscomb warned that if we take similar actions today, we are in deep trouble, because the suspension will continue indefinitely. We will no longer have a democracy, and we might as well yield to the terrorists. He expressed his belief that the civil liberties issue had to be addressed with great subtlety and care, although he did not deny that the police and intelligence services need more ability to perform their duties.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Grid Threats
The group also discussed two events that might hold lessons for dealing with possible future terrorist attacks: the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic and the collapse of the power grid across about one-third of the United States in 2003.
Lawrence Papay discussed the grid crisis, echoing a comment by Branscomb that if this had been a terrorist attack, the system would not have been restored quickly. This issue was discussed also in the workshop session on infrastructure protection, but Papay did remark that it showed the actual fragility of the grid. While the National Academy of Engineering said the electric power system in the United States was the greatest engineering achievement of the twentieth century, the blackout showed the vulnerability of the electric power grid, and how susceptible it is to a terrorist attack.
Branscomb thought that the SARS episode was a test case of how we might respond to a biological attack. The appropriate response to SARS was a fourteenth-century approach, namely, take all the people who have been anywhere near the affected person and quarantine them in their homes, and then hope for vaccines once the disease has been identified. That approach proved successful in the SARS outbreak, and it demonstrates the absolute necessity of revitalizing the public health service at the local level in the United States. Years ago if a child in the family got measles, a public health officer appeared immediately at the home, nailed a yellow sign to the front door of the house forbidding anyone to go in or go out until those affected recovered so that the measles would not spread to others. That is exactly the strategy required for SARS. It is a necessary but not sufficient strategy.
The possible causes of a public health crisis are not limited to SARS. Four naturally occurring viruses struck humans in 2003, all of which fatally affected a percentage of patients and required quarantine. Garwin noted that, in a way, the SARS outbreak was very similar to the collapse of the electrical grid, and we were extremely lucky that SARS had the characteristics that it did and that the symptoms were apparent before it was contagious, leading to the possibility of effective quarantine.
As to the possibility of terrorism, Garwin pointed out that foot-and-mouth disease emerged in Taiwan a few years ago, and there was a question as to whether that was an act of terrorism or, for that matter, a China-sponsored introduction. There, too, it appeared in one place and spread in the usual fashion from the place of introduction. It could be that a terrorist might be generous, and not want to inflict maximum damage, but a terrorist might well introduce the disease in multiple places at the same time. The
forensic investigation might produce evidence of a terrorist attack, but perhaps it would not; identifying the nature of an outbreak (terrorist or not) is an important problem, but our larger task is to protect, whether or not we know it is terrorism.
Impact on Policy
Both U.S. and Indian workshop participants briefly discussed the relationship of science and technology to policy formation. Branscomb noted that Making the Nation Safer had a strong impact because it was released one week after President George W. Bush changed his policy and decided to seek congressional approval for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The report’s recommendation that the new department include an undersecretary of the Department for Science and Technology was accepted; this office has responsibility for all science and technology policy at DHS. Additionally, the major recommendation that science and technology should be taken seriously as part of the national counterterrorism strategy was accepted—however it remains to be implemented. Finally, what Branscomb called the most important specific proposal of Making the Nation Safer was the creation of a Homeland Security Institute (HSI). This was to be a federally funded, nongovernmental but dedicated organization with very high level systems engineering and modeling expertise and decision-making skills to address these complex problems. The primary tasks of the organization would be vulnerability assessments, priority setting, and analysis of proposed actions. A well-qualified systems analysis contractor, the ANSER Corporation, was selected to create and operate the HSI, but it has not been able to operate at a broad level in DHS, nor get the authority it needs to do the job envisioned in the NAS study.
There was also a discussion (mostly among U.S. participants) as to the role of local and state governments in implementing a strategy to contain or prevent terrorism, and the relationship of local governments to the federal government bureaucracies. Branscomb noted that there remains much to be done regarding how to decentralize, down to the community level, the ability to detect the likelihood that persons in the community might pose a threat. If that is done at the national level, in a large country such as India or the United States, it would lack subtlety. Of course, there must be a national police effort, because it is at this point that the international intelligence community would be important. He added that some of the proposals from the Department of Justice would have been unacceptable at the local level and therefore not likely to be implemented (for example, encouraging commercial services that deliver mail or boxes or newspapers to peek inside the door of the house when they deliver and look for suspicious activity). This is very close to asking children to tell on their parents, and is intolerable in a society where liberalism is part of the definition of freedom.
Moving from issues surrounding the scope and threat of terrorism, and means to combat it, Rose Gottemoeller addressed the problem of developing a “customer base” for the new technologies being produced to counter terrorism, pointing out that there was no clarity as to the strategy by which local and state officials might be equipped with the relevant technology. Municipalities, she argued, did not have the resources to buy the technologies, the sensor systems and so forth, that the Department of Energy labs were developing. Branscomb responded that there was also no industrial base for the production of relevant technologies, and state governments were in red ink at the
moment. Ultimately, federal funding will be necessary, but he asked: Will the systems deployed be effective? His answer was that this will depend on whether or not the problem is looked at comprehensively, which was one of the tasks to be undertaken by the Homeland Security Institute. It was intended to be a decision support organization to convince the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and other senior officials to look at the deployment of these technical fixes in the context of a realistic and comprehensive analysis, including the likelihood that terrorists will become more sophisticated in their attacks. Branscomb estimated that the United States would go through a period of several years in which the money available will be used to purchase whatever is offered by the most politically persuasive vendor, and it will take a few years to find out that it does not work. This was a point also made by an Indian participant, Gopal, who noted that there was likely to be tension between antiterrorist cooperations and commercial interests. The classic example he cited was the 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC), which is still hampered because of the conflict between the need for inspections of facilities and the resistance of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.
The session ended with some additional remarks by Raman on the dilemma of dealing with contemporary terrorists. He noted that “classical” terrorists had political gains in mind and did not really want to kill people, but did so only to obtain favorable treatment for their cause. Contemporary terrorists do not care about that, Raman noted; they want to destroy the opponent. The dilemma is that these people will not simply assert that they have a weapon and that they will set it off unless their demands are met; there may well be a weapon that will be detonated without any warning, and this will be the first time we know of it.